On a steamy May afternoon, I climb the sharp-edged ladder to an uneven deck tacked between four sweet gums. “Thank you for coming,” she says and passes a small bottle of DEET. She pulls up a second plastic chair and fills a glass from a pitcher on a tiny lawn table. “I like these little tables, she says, biting into a grape. “So versatile.”
A friend of hers, she tells me, a woman in her seventies who remembers the past clearly, calls them “occasional tables,” because as her mother used to say, “Occasionally, you need a table.”
I explain my motives for the interview—a peri-pandemic interest in self-sufficiency and isolation survival techniques—and toss out my first question.
What are you growing in your garden?
She puts down her glass and covers it with a sour cream container lid. “Let’s go look!” she calls from the bottom of the ladder. “You can bring your lemonade if you want. Here, hand it to me.”
We leave the shade and walk the perimeter of an old swimming pool. “My husband named this ‘The Sunken Gardens of Moncure,’” she says
I chuckle. “Your husband has a good sense of humor.”
“Indeed he does. And a formidable education.”
She points out the potatoes, already three feet tall. “The ones with the white blooms are German Butterballs, the pinks are Red Thumbs, and the purples are Huckleberry Golds.”
She shows me the lettuce, the peppers, the tomatoes, the asparagus, the beets, and tiny, fat-leafed seedlings: okra, peanuts, and edamame.
“We’ve got fifteen totes outside the pool,” she says and shows me more Huckleberries and some Yukon Golds. We also look at her garlic, onions, carrots, leeks, tomatillos, and a fava beans. A frog chirps, and we hear a rooster howl through the woods. She takes my glass and climbs back up to the treehouse using one hand.
I’m a sweaty mess, but she seems oddly refreshed. She hesitates before taking a seat. “Sitting isn’t my thing,” she says, apologetically. A mosquito buzzes my left ear but does not land. I’ll have to shower as soon as I get home.
I noticed leaves on your empty plots.
“Yes. I rake them in the fall and dump them on the pool beds. They don’t affect the plants, but they keep the weeds away.”
Indeed, I did not see any weeds.
How much of what you eat comes from your garden?
“Oh gosh. Five to ten percent? We also subscribe to a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and shop the Farmers’ Markets, so local produce accounts for nearly all our vegetable intake. And soon, we’ll be pulling up potatoes, so there’ll be some carbs.
“But protein, no. We don’t grow wheat or beans —except for favas and edamame—and Bob has started eating fish. Our neighbors often give us eggs, and I bake bread. And, we buy far-away grapes, apples, citrus, cheese, tortillas, chocolate, and coffee.”
Hmmm. Hardly seems worth the trouble. How many hours a week would you say you work in the Sunken Gardens?
She laughs. “I think this all the time. So yeah, I probably average seven hours a week in the garden per se, and roughly equal time at the kitchen counter, turning produce into food. But hey, I’m retired, it gets me outside, and I don’t have to go to a therapist or supplement with Vitamin D.”
Do you also manage the flower beds? I say without thinking, and when she stands up, I say, “But let’s look at those on my way out.”
Tell me more about the emotional benefits of growing some of your food.
”Oh gosh. Well, as I mentioned—no therapy bills. I believe that outside time with a purpose satisfies an innate need. As civilized people, we spend far too much time indoors surrounded by the hum of our appliances—entertaining our brains with our screens—and way too close to the refrigerator.
“Out here, I am forced to sync with natural rhythms. I tune in to the neighborhood sounds: the bird song, the weather patterns. I think random thoughts that build like clouds until they burst into a storm of ideas. It’s cathartic.”
She is gushing now.
“I like how hard my body gets in the summer. I feel lean and bronzed. I can shovel compost and fork mulch for hours. And the food! Every mouthful bursting with just-picked enzymes. Not to mention the bragging rights, the immense sense of self-sufficiency, that I-can-do-anything feeling.”
Her face reddens beneath her tan.
Can I see your kitchen? I say, angling for some air conditioning.
“Of course!” She moves our empty glasses to the edge of the deck, climbs down, and reaches up for them. Inside the house, I see she has pulled a bag of last year’s edamame from the freezer. She had meant to bring me in here all along, just wanted me to get warm enough to fully appreciate the cool air.