Spring awakens me to garden dreams

There is nothing inherently vegetablelike about my wrist watch, a simple digital affair with a flat, square screen that iridesces a faint yellow-green in certain light. Yet, as I awoke this morning and glanced at the night table, my first thought was, "What is that cucumber doing next to my alarm clock?" I am not prone to hallucinate, nor do I make a habit of keeping cucumbers at my bedside. And unlike others in this house, I do not spend my first waking moments in a groggy, disoriented state. I am, however, nearsighted. Without my glasses the world is often a very surprising place.

Which brings me back to that cucumber. Just yesterday afternoon my wife and I shared one while walking the neighborhood, taking crisp, resonant bites as we considered the crocuses beginning to break through the soil. I felt a sudden joyfulness, a delight I attributed at first to the cucumber until I realized how hungry I had become in recent weeks for something other than shades of brown and gray. Suddenly the world was turning green: hedges, trees, and the long-dormant grass were providing a sudden euphoric jolt of sensory stimulation after so many months of acute color deprivation.

All those restorative hues and the sudden, unexpected warmth of early April told a happy tale, but the simple fact of that cucumber told the time. That we could eat it outside without fear of it turning to ice before we reached the end of the driveway was of singular significance. Spring had finally arrived, and soon we would not just be eating but planting cucumbers, standing in rapt astonishment before the vegetative luxuriance of the earth, perhaps even complaining about the heat, forgetting what it meant to be chilled to the bone.

So it wasn't merely cucumber time, it was time to consider the cucumbers. I leaped from bed, slipped on my watch, and hurried to the garden to take stock of my vegetable plot.

We are not blessed with an abundance of sunshine out back; towering white pines and broad maples keep all but a narrow corner of the yard in shade most of the day. But that sunny quarter has been ineptly and intermittently cultivated by me since we moved to this house 15 years ago. During that time it has been known to produce lackluster tomatoes, dwarf string beans, and hopelessly misshapen cucumbers. For all their oddity and spininess, the cucumbers, at least the first of the season, do not disappoint. Crisp and sweet, they alone reward my hours of toil with something akin to vegetable satisfaction. Politically and physically averse to pesticides and artificial fertilizers, I pursue roughly the same course in the garden I follow with our lawn, where it's every blade for itself. If nature fails to provide, nature must accept the consequences. I rarely water the grass, believing that to do so only promotes faster growth, which means more frequent mowing. A "distressed" lawn is just fine with me. I have nothing against weeds so long as they're green.

Vegetables, on the other hand, considering the time required to raise them, are not left entirely to their own devices, at least not at the outset.

I begin the season with an acolyte's zeal, mapping seed placement as I pat down the soil, inscribing each row with the precision of a draftsman, crowning every rank with its twig-perched seed packet. That first week I water by hand with an expectant father's watchfulness, anxiously waiting for the first green shoots to pierce the dark brown earth, then carefully staking each gangly tomato vine and bean stalk while mourning the ravages of rabbits.

But all too soon my attention wanders and my dedication flags. Vines, stalks, and stems double over with thirst. Rather than respond remedially, I grow accepting of the wilted condition of my wards, amazed by the robustness of similar plants up the street.

In addition to this neglect, I have adopted the criminally shortsighted custom of traveling abroad most summers, usually just as the first fruits of my labors are beginning to ripen. In my absence, tomatoes fall to earth, string beans yellow, and my precious cucumbers turn woody. Home again, I survey the abandoned tangle, shrug my guilt-laden shoulders, and hurry to the local farm stand to purchase everything I've failed to produce. With so pronounced a horticultural failure for a father, it's no wonder that my children have never shared my enthusiasm for trowel or hoe. Frankly, I can't explain what keeps me at it year after year.

And yet, come spring, as the neighborhood begins to green, I find myself back in the garden, shovel in hand, seed packets in my shirt pocket, grandiose visions of abundant rows of neatly tied, shoulder-high tomatoes, string beans, and corn filling my thoughts as I silently resolve to do right by my vegetables this time. Perhaps this morning's hallucination was trying to tell me that my approach to gardening was short-sighted, and that if vegetables were to be in my future it was time to change my ways.

I will endeavor to do so. After all, it's not every day you get a wake-up call from a cucumber.

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