Gardening 101: Confessions of a Produce Princess

In the first installment of our weekly Gardening 101 series, our writer explains why tending her plot makes her feel like Paris Hilton—and why she can’t wait for the season to start.

When, nine years ago, Ruth Reichl took me on as a senior editor at Gourmet, my mission, she said, should I choose to accept it, was to work with my colleague Jane Lear to bring in good stories about the politics of food. We started with pieces on genetic modification and an annual produce issue that told the stories of American farmers; by the time I left the magazine in 2007, we were running investigative pieces about the humane treatment of animals (see “A View to a Kill” and “Raising the Steaks”) and features about the movement to eat locally. Jane was the Produce Queen around the office, and I became Produce Princess, or maybe Duchess. Only our managing editor, Larry Karol, knows for sure, and he’s not talking.

But as many trips as we’d made to the farmers market and as many walks as we’d taken through fields of tomatoes and orchards of cherimoya, as many farm journals and USDA bulletins as we’d read, I was as far removed from actually growing food as I could be. Which is not so surprising for a magazine editor living in Brooklyn.

So when, last year, I moved to a pint-size country cottage in Putnam County, New York, and a friend told me he’d already claimed and paid for a plot for us in the local community organic garden, I experienced a combination of joy and sheer panic. An inner voice screamed, “Okay, Produce Princess, time to walk the walk. Are you worthy? Will you feel like Paris Hilton in The Simple Life? Will your tomatoes wither on the vine?”

Of course, the answers, over our first season in the garden, were Yes, yes, and yes. And I write this because I want all of you gardening wannabes to know that if I, the original gardening idiot, can do this (and enjoy it), so can you.

Now, I had a huge advantage in year one. My gardening mate and old friend, Stephen Nocera, is a Cornell Master Gardener, who, when I dug in carrot seeds too deeply or snipped herbs too enthusiastically, was always there to set me straight, and he taught me about everything from the proper staking of tomatoes (we had 12 varieties) to the delayed planting of butternut and acorn squash (which helps avoid the early-season life cycle of the squash borer). And when a lot of our tomatoes had rot during the super-wet summer, he taught me to experience it as the force of nature, not a gardener’s failure. He also had me shoveling aged cow dung, spreading compost, and tilling our heavy clay soil at the end of the season, making it richer for this year. And he patiently let me rail on when, on deathly humid 90-degree days, I whined, Paris-like, that I could buy all of these vegetables at the farmers market, and besides, if we added up what we spent on seeds and plants and our time, when faced with our actual harvest, we were looking at about $10 a tomato. Not to mention that I was going to pass out from heat exhaustion, and, hey, wasn’t that a beetle on my eggplant?

So why garden, with all the frustration? There are as many answers to that question as there are gardeners. I could tell you that it’s the smell of the soil in the early morning sun and the crunch of radishes that never made it out of the garden because we ate them as quickly as we unearthed them. I could tell you it’s the childlike joy of seeing something you stuck in the ground as a scrawny plant bloom into flowers and then into small, curvy, lavender eggplants. And I could tell you—okay, we’ve all heard it a thousand times—that food never tastes better and is never eaten with more happiness than when you’ve grown the ingredients yourself. All romantic notions, and all true, at least for me.

But, while many people also love the garden for its solitude and reflective space, I garden because Carlos, the Peruvian man who had the most perfect plots adjacent to our scattershot rows, was always stopping by with a bunch of his asparagus or corn for us, and we’d end up talking about Peruvian potatoes and Machu Picchu. Because I could hear Vicky Zeph, the chef-owner of the fabulous Peekskill restaurant Zephs’, laughing down the way as she harvested greens for that night’s service; and because the woman in the plot next to ours often brought her toddler along, and the kid crawled around the tomato plants, giggling. I garden for the line at the old-fashioned pain-in-the-neck water pump (a new system of spigots is in place this season), where people jawboned and compared their harvests and gave somebody a hand with his too-heavy bucket of water. Because a funky-looking fellow gardener stopped by to talk about eggplant, and somehow we learned we’re both bass players, and the talk shifted to music. And because when Stephen and I were done digging, we cracked cold drinks, and kicked back wherever we could find a shady spot. I garden for the community.

It’s barely spring now, and season two of the Tilly Foster Community Garden is about to kick in. Our fava beans and peas are going in next weekend; we snagged a second plot this year, and we’re expanding into blueberries, strawberries, and raspberries, with the promise of pies. We’re adding lemon balm to the herb plot, and trying cruciferous stuff like broccoli and Brussels sprouts, which we shied from before because they’re prone to pests. Will I complain that my back is breaking after turning the soil in our new plot? Absolutely. Will I finally bring the radishes home instead of scarfing them down in the garden? Maybe. Will the rabbits eat our lettuces? Probably. And will our broccoli survive? We hope so. But either way, there’ll be plenty of people to talk about it with. Including you: I’ll be sharing stories from the garden here every week, lessons learned from our own Plot 61, and advice from experts like Stephen. I can’t wait.

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