My laissez faire attitude toward gardening was legend. My husband and I took a perverse pride in not being wedded to a weeder come summer. I'd been out in the suburbs eight years and still thought a lawn was what I walked on to get from house to car. No matter that it was brown when others around me were green. I managed to feel a little superior to my beleaguered neighbors who measured joy in rainfall and satisfaction in the death of dandelions. Oh, they were slaves, but we -- now, we were free!
However, last year I had difficulty in finding good tomatoes at a decent price, so my husband and I decided that this summer we would take the plunge. Everyone on my block was growing superb eggplants and herbs. Their gardens overflowed with produce. Why not we, too?
''You're kidding!'' my friends exclaimed when we broke the news this Easter. ''Where will you find a spot for them?''
''I'll clear weeds from a little space in the backyard,'' I said with great confidence. ''It won't take much effort.''
The next weekend I marked off a small piece of land behind the house for my tomato patch.
''I'm putting in fifteen plants,'' I told Debbie, my gardening friend.
''Are you planning to feed the whole block? For two people, four plants are enough.''
''But that leaves me with so much extra room.''
''Why don't you fill in with cukes and eggplant? They're easy enough.''
Now I know as much about gardening as I do about nuclear physics, but, guided by her list, that weekend I weeded and dug and fertilized. I saw things crawling in the earth that belonged in a science fiction movie. I learned dandelions aren't just the yellow flower that spotted my lawn -- their network of roots defied my yanks and tugs. My language grew bluer as the afternoon wore on, but I triumphed. I planted marigolds in with the vegetables to repel harmful insects and the flowers gave color to the yard. By Sunday evening when my husband and I stood arm in arm surveying our ''north 40,'' I was exhausted, but very pleased with myself.
''Lettuce, tomatoes, herbs, broccoli, eggplant, cucumbers,'' my husband ticked off. ''We're going to save a fortune this summer.'' He was mentally harvesting our homegrown bounty.
I wasn't so sure about saving money. Already I had spent over $50 on plants and fertilizer and gardening gloves.
No one told me we'd need a new hose for heavy-duty watering.
No one told me we needed cages to protect the new tomato plants.
No one told me we needed chickenwire for the vining plants to climb on and a fence to keep our dog from decimating the entire project.
Fortunately, saving money soon stopped being my primary concern. I found that there was one other thing that no one had told me: you don't grow vegetables to save money -- that's a smoke screen, a clever cover to hide the real story: working in the garden is a powerfully effective form of therapy that, if widely practiced, could put shrinks on the unemployment line.
It's addictive: that little fenced-in plot looks so well tended and lovely that I've actually begun to weed and seed the lawn. My husband painted the front fence and pruned the trees. We put in a flower bed and window boxes. No longer do we pull into our driveway after dark so we can pretend not to notice the weeds that once obscured the front door. In fact, I don't find my suburban neighbors quite so funny anymore, for they were onto this secret long before I was.
My homegrown salads, when you add up the costs, might be running me $6.42 per bowl, but my appreciation of the seductive pleasures found when knee deep in fertilizer have cost me nothing at all.
More than my plants have been growing this season. It seems that I have been, too.