Center City


Socratic Men


At the Pond


Al Cicada


Robbing Bees

We Got Married


Man of Earth

Preface & Reader Response

In many places in the world, a garden is a place of both annual achievement and mighty disappointment.




by Jerry Murley

Gardening is the essence of existence. The process lends pattern and meaning to the year. Its repetitive practice teaches a sense of balance, pacing, adaptation, and resilience. It imbues the gardener with the rudiments of religion and parenting. It casts a glow of understanding on most every basic act of human life.

Weeks ago, we were not intent on the daily cycle of ice and damp cold gray days amid February flurries. We were, despite the heavy gloved hand of winter, spurred by a memory embedded in our bones to focus on the spring garden to come. It is a triumph of the human mind that we could concern ourselves planning improvements to the garden, and ordering and planting seeds, as winter's bite lingered. In a few short weeks the seeds for tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and herbs would be two inches high in egg cartons in our living room window, where past the condensation of cold the new sun tips above the ridge line.

Joyce is the goddess of the garden. There is the mother earth aspect to her graceful handling of God's most delicate things. But there is more to being a goddess than tenderness and intuition: There is accrued know-how from trial and error and study. And there is a determined ruthlessness – really a honed judgment of needed sacrifice – that guides her to thin out too many seedlings in an area or to wage battle with weeds, drought, insufficient soil conditions, and marauding animals. And, too, the goddess must see the project through from start to end and to start again, in an unending cycle – a labor of love and constant battle. I cannot say that I truly began to understand gardening until I experienced what Joyce did in the kitchen with the produce of our labor.

My experience with gardening started with a Sicilian caretaker of an Italian villa. I spent much time outdoors all of my life and spent too much time, in my young estimation, in yard labor, but I had no contact with gardening prior to my visit to Italy one summer in my early twenties. I wanted to save money and tried to practice what I learned each day from the Sicilian in a rocky patch of ground behind my apartment that was shaded by an old, unproductive grapevine. My first attempt at gardening was not successful. The plants barely grew and they did not produce. But my knowledge of Italy, and its history and culture, was deepened and connected by that experience with gardening. Life through Italy and gardening was beginning to make sense.

The next summer, I tried to garden in a partly shaded plot behind the rental where my father's parents lived. My uncle loaned me a tiller and was bemused by my notions of gardening. My grandmother was delighted by my efforts and gave pointers about watering so as not to damage the squash plants. But this effort too did not produce much. And what it did produce, the squirrels ate.

A year later, some thirty-six years ago, I started my first garden with Joyce behind a rental duplex in an area where towering hardwoods allowed a few hours of sunlight each day. The plot took much time to dig and was relatively successful but small. I sometimes muse that Shelby Foote, whose big house on Parkway in Memphis backed up on our little plot, sat in his writing room and drew inspiration about the hard-scrabble effort of small Southern farmers for his great Civil War trilogy from our pitiful struggles in that garden.

Our first really successful garden came the next year, after we bought our own home in Midtown. I loved that little place, in which we invested much toil and devoted much attention. The first day that I drove home for lunch from work and had a hot meal and fresh tomatoes from our garden is one of the most fond and lasting memories of my life – as has been the memory of the first day an October cold blew against our snug little rental two years before. We had a large area about 18 x 24 feet. I dug much of the garden up with a shovel and borrowed my uncle's tiller the first year.

To my surprise, my parents had started a garden at their home, using almost all of their side yard. They covered the entire plot with black plastic. We have used some combination of black plastic strips and sheets ever since. The plastic helps retain moisture of course, but it greatly aids the gardening task that I dislike the most – weeding. Though an additional expense, the plastic ground cover paid for itself in terms of water and weeds, and we usually get three years of use from each piece.

The cozy garden at our Midtown home was shaded part of the day, as it was close to a silver maple tree to the west, a tall wooden fence on the south side, and more cane than we would have liked in the back southeast corner. The cane offered much privacy but had to be fought back yearly with a machete. Still the site was the place of my first prolific garden. And I felt like a millionaire. With a painting porch and gravel patio on the west side, and my wood shop at the end of a long driveway on the north side of the garden, I had everything a young man could want in life.

The cycle of life had firmly taken hold of my existence just three years after my trip to Italy. When Joyce and I left Memphis for Middle Tennessee in 1980, it felt as if we were leaving a little piece of paradise. And we did not realize just how good we had it until we broke ground on our new garden in the hollow. There we encountered rock and clay in place of rich pliable topsoil. It was not the flat, deep, dark soil of my father-in-law's garden across the road. His plot had been cultivated and built up for decades. Ours was on a six degree slope and for a West Tennessee boy it was a long 50-foot trek up the incline from the creek to the garden and another 50 feet from the garden to the house and garage.

Over the first years I tried everything to condition the soil: We hauled lime from the quarry to spread on the soil. We added ash from our wood-burning stove each winter. We picked up bucket after bucket of rock and found a couple of arrowheads in the process. We borrowed my father-in-law's manure spreader and dug manure from the barn lot. I reckon that it all helped but the change was not dramatic. Also, we ended up with cow grass from the manure that persisted in hardy, ineradicable clumps for years. Every few years, we plant green ground cover in the garden area to protect and enrich the soil; we have planted crimson clover, buckwheat, and annual rye at various times over the past decades. For the past three or four years, we have added our fall leaves from dogwood, sycamore, poplar, oak, and sugar maple trees to the garden.

Then by the mid-1980s we hit the drought. At first I tried watering from a cattle trough in the back of my small pickup truck. I filled the trough from my father-in-law's irrigation rig by the creek across the road and let gravity slowly pull the water down a garden hose to the base of the plants. We even tried filling the trough from rain runoff from our house. After a hot summer of that, I bought a Briggs & Stratton water pump and one-and-half-inch flexible hose to bring lots of water from our own creek for distribution from a point just above the garden through about four to eight lawn hoses. We later added another large watering trough for storage. In the last couple of years we added a 350-gallon water tank to put up hill for storage between watering. During a drought, we probably pull 600 to 800 gallons of water from the creek per watering and we water about four to eight times during a season. Over the last four years the creek has dried up twice toward the end of summer, but we got a merciful rain just in time to save the garden by late August. The last time we remember seeing the creek nearly that low was 1980.

To add to these travails we have had to fight off animals. By the mid-1990s we had to resort to electric fencing to keep the deer out of the garden. My father-in-law was surprised to hear that the deer eat young growth on tomatoes plants, but I assure you that they do. And they know precisely how to harvest a thick, double row of purple hull peas. Just when we thought we would get a batch, the deer would come along at night and eat every ripe pod. It was too disheartening to think about. Since our dog died in 2005, we have been overrun by possums and raccoons. So now we go through a stretch after the cantaloupe ripen of making daily trips to release our captured, hissing catch into the wilds of the Natchez Trace Parkway. As was the case with squirrels in Memphis, raccoons and possums are absolute suckers for peanut butter – even more so, when it is added to the remaining portion of a ripe cantaloupe that the animals ruined the night before.

There have been several large schemes undertaken during our first two decades in Middle Tennessee that were painfully and belatedly abandoned. The first was grapes. We planted six to eight plants on the slopes at the foot of the hill behind our house. The weeds, drought, and consistency of the soil did them in. Only years later did I get around to pulling up the posts and wire meant to support healthy grapevines from which I had intended to make wine. In the mid-1980s we had a good year's run at strawberries, but after the first good year the weeds and weeding began to wear us down. Weeding hard rocky soil is a daunting task that even my willpower could not overcome.

In 2007 we experimented in a communal family garden in my father-in-law's rich garden spot. We did well until the deer hit the pole beans and purple hull peas and they were joined by raccoons raiding the corn. Then, too, when in late summer it turned very dry, well water was too precious to use to maintain the garden.

But with all of these adversities and setbacks, we continue year after year, starting in February, to look forward to the new garden, which we are determined to make better. Our harvest is bountiful. Joyce usually does the picking, often in the cool of morning and sometimes right before meal time. We have plenty of tomatoes (Better Boy, Rutgers, Bradley, cherry, Roma, yellow pear, and VF Hybrid), yellow squash, zucchini, butternut and acorn squash, cucumbers (burpless and picklers), bell peppers, red cayenne peppers, and eggplant. I would say that Joyce grows about the most beautiful eggplants you could find anywhere. Up until we stopped planting them, we did well with okra and purple hull peas. In the last few years we have added the best cantaloupe and watermelon around as well.

Besides dreaming up ventures that came at the wrong time and place and were too big to handle, I have other roles in the gardening adventure. As I have said, I appreciate the produce as much or more than anyone else. But I also have the jobs of brute force, mechanical ingenuity, morale boosting, and the handling of trapped animals. There are times when the labor feels grueling, especially on the hottest days or on days when health is not optimal. The brute-force duties, though brutish, often make one feel rather small: The slight inclines and slopes, to say nothing of the hills, of Middle Tennessee can wear one down in no time. Pushing a wheelbarrow up hill from the creek loaded with a water pump is enough to make one praise the shade and a lawn chair at the end of the trip. Putting down and taking up the watering system is tiring. Hand digging a garden space with a zappa is a one-small-step-at-time, multi-day process.

One recent innovation that has worked well is the installation of two 4-by-5-foot raised beds behind our house. They are convenient for extra watering and for harvesting just in time for a meal. We did have some luck with lettuce and spinach in the lower garden for a few years, but we have much better success with the raised beds. We have amply augmented the soil by removing about four inches of sod and adding humus from the base of the tree-covered hill and adding rich soil found at the base of an uprooted tree. As well, we supplement the mixture with black compost from our two composting bins. Joyce raises lettuce, spinach, and herbs in these beds. The herbs include cilantro, dill, basil (Genovese, Opal, cinnamon), sage, thyme, rosemary, and parsley.

Like perennial dieters – and hardened deniers – we have a new improvement scheme this year. We have enlarged the area within the electric fence by one third to accommodate the cantaloupe and watermelon runners and keep them out of the weeds. We are adding a strand of electric wire to within six inches of the ground to hit small animals, and we are lining the outside of the fence with a five-foot-wide strip of clear plastic to kill the invasive grasses and keep them from shorting the electric current. The most fanciful change we are undertaking is the purchase of 40 or 50 25-pound bags of potting soil. We will place one bag wherever we want to plant a new plant or seed, cutting straight through the middle of the bag and through the black plastic underneath. This will add nutrients, help with weeds, mulch, and prevent our new soil from washing downhill. Watering will be a little tricky but perhaps better too. We will water under the black plastic as usual and let gravity do much of the work. The weight of the bags of soil – in a straight line horizontally, parallel with the contours, but staggered on the vertical slope – will help arrest the flow of water, much like bumpers on a pinball machine. With our garden sitting on top of our field line, we already have a built-in supply of moisture throughout the summer. So much for raised hopes and the folly of human endeavor.

Gardening has become a familial and scientific – even religious – exercise of sorts. We ask for advice from parents and uncles and county extension agents. We read and we try new things based on our circumstances and the resources at hand. I hand dug garden spaces with my Italian zappa, given to me by a friend, and tools passed to me by my father. My uncle helped with a tiller on my first Memphis gardens. We learned from my parents. My father-in-law loaned us advice, a tiller, a pickup, a tractor, a plow, and a disc now and again. We, in our early attempts, even tried adding a little fertilizer and applying low-grade insect deterrents. I could say that we are now organic gardeners, if by that one concludes that we have constant problems with soil nutrition and insect infestation. Nonetheless, the exercise is of immense interest and emotional grounding for us, as if it related to all other things and bound our family in some fundamental way.

In many places in the world, a garden is a place of both annual achievement and mighty disappointment. Our garden is such a place. Yet we return to duty season after season. Not because we are hopeless romantics and have no memory of past defeats, but because the cycle is so practically powerful and connective of all else in our lives. In physical health the advantages and harm of gardening might be a wash with no clear victor. But it is our life. It is a life that binds us to the ages. In such a life, perhaps there is no victory or defeat – just living with a longing for the next taste of fresh vegetables that we have nursed from tiny seeds below the soil all the way to the miraculous dish before us. It is a longing and fulfillment that happens over and over again.


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