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A Child's Verse of Gardens

by Ron Sullivan

Domi habet hortum et condimenta ad omnis mores maleficos. — Plautus

I wasn't exactly born with a green thumb in my mouth, but I did have the rapacious and meddling tendencies of a gardener when I was a kid in Pennsylvania. We lived in a brick duplex that had an oddly fertile back yard This was most likely because my parents were greeted, on their first visit as proud new homeowners, by a broken sewer main in the basement. As the alleged French drain — just a hole through the concrete floor with no pipe or even gravel underneath — was giving the French a bad name, the resulting two feet of yuck had to be carted up the stairs in buckets and dumped on the lawn out back. This was followed by enough water to dilute the stink, a short quarantine, and that was that. Maybe the Fifties really were a more innocent time. Fortunately, no one got typhoid.

That was when I was three. I was probably about eight when Dad got the idea to spade out a rectangle of grass near the Nelsons' boundary hedge, and plant stuff. This was probably supposed to be educational; I remember it as a cooperative venture with those of us kids who could walk, involving instant-gratification annuals like radishes and scallions.

I 'd first tasted scallions, dipped in salt and eaten out of hand, at the party occasioned by my First Communion, and I loved them. It's a much stronger memory than the Mass, the sacrament, even the obligatory white dress, scratchy veil, and white patent-leather shoes with ruffled ankle socks. Maybe I am a congenital foodie, or maybe I've developed, if not a fashion sense, at least the taste to be embarrassed in hindsight.

I guess no one had thought to inform me that kids weren't supposed to like veggies. Scallions seemed an engagingly grown-up taste, like my dad's bottle of Stegmaier beer. Growing them, and radishes, the hotter the better, was a kick. I'm sure we had flowers, but I have no memory of what they were. This garden was all about base instincts, not artistry.

We continued to have the most robust lawn in the neighborhood, in spite of heavy foot traffic and a summerly wading pool, even when in a dry year watering was verboten. The Nelsons moved out, and the Poes moved in. They had one kid (four or five of the six of us had been born by then) and he was not only outnumbered; he was overprotected. We didn't gang up on him, much. We were never exactly sedate, singly or in concert, but we didn't trample his mom's modest border of flowers either. I had a lively interest in them; I remember her showing me a plant she called "Joseph's Coat," maybe an alternathera, with variegated leaves. So I never knew exactly why they strung a six-foot hurricane fence between the two yards; it was rather a violation of neighborhood cultural norms and we were accordingly indignant.

Dad responded by planting a honeysuckle to climb it, next to our patio, and helped my sister Ellen plant a cucumber against it in the veggie patch. The cuke didn't climb too well, but it did produce. We ate some, and left one on the vine to see how big it would get.

Somewhere in the family archives is a snapshot of Ellen in sunburn and Sunday dress, with a good two feet of shiny green cucumber in her lap and the grin of a ribbon-winning 4-H kid. I'm not sure why this felt like a Showed-'Em, but it did, maybe because Mrs. Poe's determined gardening efforts (including sneaking out at night to water the lawn in that drought) never resulted in anything like it. I don't think we ever told her our fertility secret — I mean the yard's; it was assumed that there were six kids because we were a good Catholic family.

I learned about the joys of volunteer plants after one Hallowe'en. Along with soaping the windows we could reach (and if we were really wicked, using paraffin instead of soap) we had the odd custom of throwing kernels of hard dry corn to rattle against the ones we couldn't. I told you it was a more innocent time.

One spring, Dad laid down a tanbark mulch around the shrubs under our front window. In a month or so, my lost tossed corn from last Hallowe'en started sprouting. This was puzzling until I remembered and confessed. (Why it seemed a big deal mystifies me. I suppose Catholic school had infected me with a bad case of scrupulosity.) We were mundane enough to transplant the corn to a less prominent spot, and I do recall at least one ear of grain resulting. Being "horse corn" it wasn't particularly tasty -- a poor thing, but mine own.

I remember the first garden I installed by myself: a monument to eight-year-old greed. I took a trowel (or was it one of Mom's good serving spoons?) down the field and under the fence to a bit of maple woods we kids named, because it was so posted, "Private Propitty."

We never did see anyone there, and there were (until years later) no houses. I dug up a few hapless violets and other things; in retrospect I think some were the common weed English plantain. They withered and died, every one. Since they were in sun against a reflective wall instead of their accustomed shady woods, it's no surprise. What did I know? I was dumb enough to plant weeds!

But to this day, when some hapless nursery plant gives up the ghost in a pot or my backyard, the drooping souls of those poor waifs join the chorus of accusing little green Marleys, rattling chains and accusing me of wanton slaughter.

Too bad. I'll tell you a secret: A willingness to murder plants is the first knuckle of a green thumb.

Ron Sullivan is an Associate Editor of Terrain Magazine and Garden Editor of Faultline, California's Environmental Magazine. She writes a monthly column for the San Francisco Chronicle and is the author of The (remaindered but not forgotten) Garden Lovers' Guide: San Francisco Bay Area."

Ron (fyi, short for Veronica) gardens in Berkeley, CA on badly drained montmorillonite clay soil. You can reach her for comments and questions by email at


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