Competitive Gardening

Published in Gourmet Live 04.25.12
Lauren Grodstein, a transplanted city kid, is in it for the win

We left Brooklyn at the dawn of the New Domesticity. The timing was coincidental—we did not leave because of the New Domesticity, though we certainly noticed it with alarm. Where once friends felt content to shop Ikea, they were now building tables from reclaimed barn doors; where once we could comfortably suggest ordering pizza, we were now being served, at casual neighborhood dinners, shares of a pasture-raised Berkshire pig, or home-canned heirloom beets, or hand-cut pasta with truffles shipped from a quaint village in Istria.

My husband and I had never thought of ourselves as competitive types; if we competed over anything, it was who could get to sleep earliest. But living in Brooklyn among our newly domesticated friends, we found ourselves, rather self-consciously, trying to keep up. I spent hours in the kitchen, rolling out my own lumpy ravioli dough. My husband would eye a beat-up keyboard left in a neighbor’s garbage and wonder if he should refurbish it for the benefit of his as-yet-unformed noise band.

Then it dawned on us: Perhaps we just weren’t good at being Brooklyn people anymore. But if not in Brooklyn, where did we belong? We looked at each other and let out a sigh.

And then we moved to New Jersey.

I should start by saying the house was perfect, a green clapboard dating from 1848; the previous owners left us the original onion-skin deed (original price: $500). In the backyard, we found the remains of old headstones and a foundation of some sort—for an outhouse, perhaps? The trees were leafy, Main Street was walkable, and as spring progressed into summer, our unnervingly friendly neighbors began leaving us gifts of tomatoes and zucchini and cucumbers they had raised, by their own hands, in their own well-plotted backyard gardens.

Oh, God, I said to my husband. Here we go again.

The onslaught began slowly, often in casual disguise. A neighbor would leave a zucchini bread at our back door, with a note saying she’d made too many loaves, and to forgive her, as it was possibly a little burnt. Burnt zucchini bread? How nonthreatening. Except the zucchini bread was always delicious, and often followed by a sack of shiny eggplants, or another neighbor’s zebra-striped tomatoes, or the hot peppers someone down the street thought we might like, since we were from the city and probably enjoyed spicy foods.

Meanwhile, I spent that first summer avoiding my new backyard like the bogeyman in the closet—always looming and almost certainly bug-infested. Garden? Please—I barely knew how to mow a lawn, much less dig one up as an extracurricular activity.

It was not until we were heading into our second summer in New Jersey that it occurred to me to muster my defenses against all this crazy-making homegrown goodwill. We could start small, said my husband. Maybe try some herbs. I mean, it can’t be that hard—all our neighbors are doing it.

The neighbors again. So I went to the garden store—as Brooklyn has pizza joints, so New Jersey has garden stores—and asked, gingerly, if they could help me grow some herbs. They wanted specifics: “Which ones?” I did not understand the question. Nimbly assessing my capabilities, they handed over a few small tubs of parsley, basil, and mint. They assured me I would find these herbs exceedingly hard to kill.

Thus armed, I headed for my dandelion-speckled backyard. I poured soil into some pots, stuck in the baby herbs, and doused the pots with water. “Gardening?” asked one of my neighbors, who was just that very minute walking by. “What is that, a little basil?”

I narrowed my eyes and pressed onward.

It is not easy to present to one’s neighbors gifts of unadorned parsley, basil, or mint, so last summer, as my baby herbs began to flourish, I whipped up pots of homemade pesto and began assigning them to random acquaintances in town. “You made pesto! How lovely!”

“Well,” I said. “The basil crop was just so out of hand, I didn’t know what to do with it all.” My neighbors regarded me with raised eyebrows, but I played it so guilelessly, I don’t think they suspected I was already plotting my next move.

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