Odd Jobs: The French Garden

There is nothing more exciting, I think, than poring over a seed catalog.  The names.  The pictures.  The hot pink flowers and bulging green squash, the Borlotti speckled beans and Corno di Toro red bells.  I buy plants for the way they sound.  I see “Early Moon Beam Pastèque” and I hardly need to know it’s juicy, sweet, and particularly suited to northern climes before those 15 black seeds hops straight into my online basket.

Confession: I have never grown a vegetable garden. In my rampant enthusiasm, I am trying to keep an eye on the practicalities. But I am being unconditionally carried away.

Keeping a home vegetable garden can hardly be called a real job. Spending hours flicking through pictures of rainbow-colored carrots and then spending another few hours drawing teepees with things like ‘lattice edging or string?’ written next to them is an activity that falls firmly under the heading of hobby.

But I know firsthand how easy it is to convince yourself that your future garden will not fall victim to the same parasites and noxious pests as everybody else’s. Like children, your garden will be special. I have somehow managed to convince myself I will be so well-informed and devoted that failure is as inconceivable as the idea of starting my own vegetable garden used to be. In my mind, this summer I will spend most of my time drowning in crispy zucchini blossoms stuffed with goat cheese and fresh herbs, roasted peppers stuffed with mushroom duxelles and caramelized onions, butternut squash stuffed with lardons and chestnuts and basil (basically, anything that can be stuffed, will be stuffed.) But, thanks to my big mouth, I have already found myself in the ultimate newbie muddle. I have measured my horticultural dreams against reality. The imaginary tastiness has dissipated and the self-doubt has begun.

My outsourcing for advice from persons more experienced than myself came before I’d so much as sown a single seed. I suppose this could be considered lucky but mostly it just felt depressing. One morning at work, while talking about the particularly nasty hotel clients who were currently in residence, I told my friendly Latvian coworker about my kitchen garden plans.

“You’re doing what?” she asked, as though I’d decided to economize on the old grocery bills by slowly eating my extremities.

“I’m going to start a vegetable garden.”

Again with the eye-bulging. “Have you ever had one?”

I debated whether it was best to lie reassuringly or look like an honest fool. “No,” I said, trying to do both by implying that this was not the first time I’d thrown caution to the wind and survived to tell the tale. “I’m not going to do anything extreme,” I told her, mentally scanning the list of courgettes, squashes, pumpkins, melons, carrots, beets, rocket, radichetta, lettuce, cherry tomatoes, kilo-sized tomatoes, bell peppers, chard, radishes, cucumbers, and beans I’d just ordered and fully intended to shepherd into productivity in just a few short months’ time. I tried to forget the huge list of aromatic and medicinal herbs whose charms had seduced me only the week before. I cleared my throat and smiled.

“I had no childhood,” the Latvian told me, looking grim.

“Oh,” I said, wondering where she planned to go with this revelation.

“I had no childhood,” she repeated, “because I was too busy weeding fecking potatoes.”

She swears like an Irish person because she waited tables in Dublin for five years, with her now-husband, who is French. She also reads horror novels to keep herself awake on the graveyard shift, and spends half the evening frantically re-checking all the blinds and hoping that the client who arrives at four a.m. is not the serial killer he appears to be but is merely high on hallucinogenic drugs.

In light of these questionable character traits, I absorbed her story with an eye for hyperbole. “Hmm,” I said.

“We had no running water,” she added. “That might have taken up a lot of time, too. And we did not have the gas to cook. We made fires. With wood.”

I decided that she might not be exaggerating. The fecking potatoes probably did steal her childhood. We spent the next half hour chatting about our families, and I realized that even when raised on a diet of sun-soaked organic vegetables and pure spring water, your relatives can still turn out completely unhinged.

In one short and colorful conversation, my Latvian friend helped me understand that a home garden could, in fact, be called a job. With room to spare. It could also be called a childhood death wish whose effects might linger well into a person’s thirties. I meditated on the months that stretched before me, full of hard work and crushed hopes. I felt a little uneasy. And I was really glad I hadn’t ordered any potatoes.

But, in spite of copious evidence to the contrary and stories to rival those inside a horror novel, I am still excited about my ominous jardin potager. Even if I know as much about growing vegetables as I do Latvia. Sveiki, dārzeņu!

Why? It’s very simple. It’s all because of peppermint, pale purple coneflower, giant hyssop, lemon gem, mayweed chamomile, blue borage, yellow marigold, lemon thyme, purple bee balm, tulsi kapoor sacred basil, jewel mix nasturtium, salvia officinalis…


*side note: much like the article referenced above that quotes subsistence farming as a cheery example of ‘living outside the money economy,’ it is super easy to romanticize the farming life.  As much as I want to pick my Latvian friend’s brain for all her mad skills (growing enough food for five people without electricity, running water, gas, or an outside income is definitely worth learning about) it is true that small-scale farming is sometimes glorified for the wrong reasons, just like ‘living outside the money economy,’ while noble, usually translates to ‘abject poverty.’ And the people who make subsistence farming look easy tend to be affluent career-changers whose insistence that anybody can live in paradise is not only dishonest but dangerous (and if your farm is not as beautiful and successful as theirs, then you probably should have participated in one of their 10-day, 1,300€ internships from the get-go.) As the Dread Pirate Roberts says, life is pain. Anyone who says differently is selling something.

**featured photo: War Gardeners, 1918. Again with the admirable resourcefulness and hard-scrabble reality.  And check out those pants!

2 thoughts on “Odd Jobs: The French Garden

  1. Regarding the woman on the right in this photo: I can’t tell where the pants end and the shoes begin. But I do recall seeing this same outfit in scarring outings in Williamsburg–both in Brooklyn, and Virginia. Love it. Fear it. Want it.


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