Ruth Bass: Everybody should get their green thumb a little bit dirty

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RICHMOND — Back before skunks discovered our corn patch, a friend from Manhattan visited with her teenage son Eddie, and she persuaded him to look at the vegetable garden with her. Once there, he shed his teendom when she, on her knees, showed him a plant taller than he was and explained that the green bundle with fuzzy brown hair held the corn he loved to eat.

She continued through the garden, narrating an agricultural education. To those of us who grew up with backyard gardens, it sounded like kindergarten stuff. But Eddie had only seen corn steaming on his dinner plate, covered with melting butter. Today, farmers markets, fears about pesticides, periodic E. coli warnings and growing numbers of vegetarians have somewhat closed the gap between city and country when it comes to food. Locavore is in the dictionary.

The harvesting talent of skunks did us in on corn, but the rest of the garden has survived 59 years, changing size and content over time. We never grew cilantro, for instance, until we discovered guacamole; we didn't bother with hot peppers until Milt's Texas brother drawled that we should make chili with our tomatoes; we abandoned strawberries because we hated weeding them. Despite gullies created by today's torrents of falling water and despite the appetites of deer, the garden persists. It is hard to imagine summer without walking up the hill for the salad, the basil for pesto, a warm tomato, or a colander of perfect green beans. Plus the onions and potatoes that last much of the winter in the cellar.

The garden shrinks a little every year, and some days the legs and back announce clearly that it's still too big. But it has what the internet says are the 10 most popular vegetables in American backyards, a list topped by tomatoes, cucumbers and sweet peppers. And a third of Americans now grow vegetables either at home or with a space in a community garden.

A third may seem like a good number, and it's encouraging to know that it's reportedly grown 200 percent since 2008. But it's not enough. Perhaps more digging will take place in the wake of the physical rampage of the virus, as it apparently did after the financial collapse of 2008. It would be good for America's soul to get back to being gatherer, instead of just shopper.

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It doesn't take a field. A large clay pot on the deck or steps will hold a cherry tomato plant and provide more little tomatoes than most families can consume. The year we did that was highly successful, but only because we added a netting to keep out the resident chipmunk. In California, our vegetarian niece has abandoned her back lawn and turned it into a fertile garden of kale, lettuce, broccoli, pomegranate trees and other fruits and vegetables. With little paths between plantings, it's a cook's park. At Miami Shores Village in Florida, however, some residents had to appeal a new zoning law that forbids front yard vegetable gardens. One has to wonder who in power there thinks veggies are ugly.

Front yard or back, stuff grows in containers, in the flower garden or on a trellis. Leaf lettuce will grow in any pot, and it's easy to believe that the imperturbable zucchini would probably produce many squashes no matter what it was planted in. And the satisfaction of picking your own tomato, your own basil, your own lettuce is only exceeded by the enjoyment of eating something that tastes really good.

Various kinds of community gardening takes place in the Berkshires. Mass Audubon has sponsored garden plots for residents at Canoe Meadows for decades — with a slight delay this year because of the virus restrictions. People sign Community Supported Agriculture contracts, sometimes doing some of the gardening and getting a weekly bag of produce. Totally different is the large Giving Garden established on Valentine Road in 2011 where volunteers produce thousands of pounds of food and give it to people in need.

Gardening is good for the mind, for the body and for the environment. And it's OK to cheat by buying a six-pack of Bibb lettuce instead of seed or a two-foot tomato plant that already has blossoms. But more people need to dig. When it stops snowing.

Ruth Bass is an award-winning journalist. Her website is www.ruthbass.com.


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