Columns » Ernest Dumas

The glories of gardening

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When the tractor-trailer rig pulled into my driveway with 85,000 pounds of mulch this weekend, I knew that this gardening thing was maybe getting out of hand.

It had started reasonably enough 24 years ago with a little six-by-six-foot garden plot with pretty green lettuces coming out of the ground. I remember our first salad. A little extra-virgin olive oil, a little balsamic vinegar and well, it was kind of like chewing sandburs. Only later when I yanked out all the “lettuces” and discovered red and white radishes hanging from their bottoms, did we realize we had been eating radish greens. Not as bad a chewing on blackberry canes but equally as flavorful.

The mulch was to cover about two acres of raspberries, blackberries, lettuce, asparagus, tomatoes, potatoes, strawberries, peppers, beans, watermelons, cantaloupes, corn, herbs and flowers. The ground-up contents of thousands of North Little Rock garbage bags filled with leaves and yard waste will be spread by hand over 9,000 square feet of raised beds. As the tractor-trailer from American Composting dropped its load in two huge, 16-foot tall piles, I knew I was looking at my weekends until frost.

“Marry in haste, repent at leisure” always comes to mind as I order seeds and lay out new raised beds on a gorgeous Arkansas spring morning. I once read, here in fact, that the four seasons in Arkansas are autumn, ice, spring and hell. All my decisions are made in the hopeful, new green of spring yet I know I will have the slow hell of July and August to repent my folly. Gardens, like college tuition, just get larger. Every October I’m praying for an early frost.

It used to be worse. Fifteen years ago I started playing at truck farming with 700 tomato vines and 250 bell pepper plants. I would get up at 5:30 a.m. to pick tomatoes and peppers so that I could deliver them to restaurants before I went to my day job. In the evening I’d get home and weed until dark:30. I kept track of my hours, expenses and income and at the end of the year I figured I had made about $2.20 an hour. I told a real farmer and he congratulated me. Seriously.

I love the idea of farming, but what my experiences have taught me so far is to really appreciate my day job. Now, like a smoker who could never quite put down that last cigarette, I’m back at it and it feels so good. Right now I have 430 Redfire and Buttercrunch lettuce plants a foot apart in a 100-foot-long raised bed. The Redfire leaves have turned bronze red in the cool weather and soon they will be touching the bright, almost psychedelic green leaves of the Buttercrunch lettuce. In another two weeks they will form a solid mat of red and green plants growing from rich black soil packed with decayed leaves and composted poultry litter. To make such a lovely tapestry is one of the most creative and satisfying tasks that I perform. And then I feed my family and sell the rest to Jody Hardin down at the River Market. In April I think, “what a life” and then come August I think I should get one.

It’s a cliché that hope springs eternal and like many clichés, it applies to gardening. Before the hornworms, stink bugs, blister bugs, drought, deer, disease and armadillos, the season before me is a cornucopia of new possibilities. I’m trying out a new variety of tomato called UGLY, so ugly that the Florida agriculture bureaucrats forbade its export from Florida because it did not meet the state’s cosmetic standards for tomatoes. But it tasted so good, the grower could get $3 a pound in New Jersey so he sued the state and won. Come mid-April, I’ll be planting 60 UGLY vines and as I’m babying them into maturity, I’ll feel like a kid counting down the days ’til Christmas. Every year there’s a new variety or often an old variety that someone’s neighbor’s grandfather from South Arkansas saved the seed. And I get to see what comes of it.

Years ago I was traveling four days a week and at night. Lying in a hotel bed, when I found it hard to turn the day off, I would visualize the garden, the annual hollyhocks, elephant garlic flowers and towers of Kentucky Wonder pole beans. I could feel my breathing change and my spirit slowly grow as peaceful as that garden.

Gardening could not be more different than what I do every day. Gardening is solitary and non-competitive. I love listening to the blues while I’m in the garden. But there is nothing passive about gardening. You spend most of your time killing stuff or wishing you could — weeds, caterpillars, bugs, whole species of things. I employ biological pesticides that freeze up the innards of hornworms. I spread powder from the roots of a South American tree that wipes out whole populations of beetles. I squash, stomp, or dismember anything that doesn’t belong there and then I smother it with 85,000 pounds of mulch. Come Monday morning, you don’t want to mess with me. I’m ready for work.

Alan Leveritt is publisher of the Arkansas Times. Ernest Dumas is on vacation this week.

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