Tuesday, August 14, 2012

THE HAPPY GARDENER

Every Spring when we return to The Mountain, I hanker for gardens and to dig in the dirt, and I manage to plant a small flower bed at the entrance to the cottage.  This year, the garden struggled through the worst of July heat and has been revived by late summer rains.  I haven’t had to replant; however, perhaps I should!  My good friend, Janet Faulk-Gonzales, is a consummate gardener and used to create a flower bed for us exactly on Good Friday every year when she lived in an apartment adjoining our Louisiana home and dug her own garden.  This morning, she sent me an e-mail with gardening information excerpted from Plant Delights Nursery that had been forwarded to her from a friend in North Carolina. 
According to a newsletter from the Plants Delights Nursery, a study done at Bristol University and University College London has shown that dirt is a good anti-depressant.  It seems that a soil-borne bacteria, Mycobacterium vaccae, has the properties of an anti-depressant because it causes brain cells to produce high levels of serotonin, which most of us know is the “happy hormone.”  I suppose that you really have to get a lot of dirt under your fingernails to get the best effect for mood elevation, but I believe that the researchers are probably right – all the gardeners I know are happy gardeners.
Janet wrote two essays about gardening that appear in her delightful book, The Road Home, a book of happy memories about her childhood in Alabama, and I pulled the book from my shelves this morning to re-read before I went off to morning services at St. Mary’s Episcopal Convent.  The one essay that best represents Janet’s love of gardening is entitled “A Garden in Eden,” and I am again publishing excerpts from it, hoping that the passages will present a new way of getting serotonin uptake without resorting to pills:
“When I was ten, I lived in Eden, a place midway between here and there, right in the middle of nowhere, a tiny town carved out of a pine thicket where the railroad used to run.  Summers were spent riding my blue bicycle on packed gravel roads all the way to California (in my mind), swimming in an oversized cow trough, and ducking horseflies…
“The yard in Eden was a magnificent place.  At night it was filled with the sound of crickets chirping and the flashing of neon green fireflies.  It was the safest place in the world to play “Ain’t No Boogers,”
“Hide and Seek,” and other never-find-me games.  In the daytime, the backyard always provided shady places for picnics of outrageous pickle sandwiches, Oreo cookies, and Coca-Colas in eight-ounce, thick, green glass bottles.  One of the coolest places was under the pomegranate tree near the back door of the house.  I remember not liking to eat the pomegranate so much as I loved its rich red coral color dotted inside with hundreds of brown hard seeds.  Along the old rickety "bob-wire" fence on the east side that separated our yard from the yard of a haunted house, heavy round, orange-gold plums grew.  Farther down, there was a blackberry thicket where delicate white blossoms turned into purple juicy fruit. 
“A perfectly rectangular garden bordered by yellow and orange marigolds, both giant and dwarf varieties, covered the farthest edge of the backyard.  By design, the marigolds helped keep pests from the vegetables, but to my delight, the flowers drew summertime butterfly dancers, mostly yellow ones, and sometimes the orange and black or blue and black Monarchs.
“Tomatoes grew tall, their thin stalks made sturdy by tying them to wooden stakes with worn out stockings.  Summer squash plants grew as wide and round as the kitchen table, with blossoms that turned into yellow crooked necks.  When stewed down with onions and black pepper, these vegetables became the smell of summer supper cooking.
“There were always green beans and tiny butter beans, just enough in our garden for a “mess.”  Okra grew tall and prickly, waiting to be cut, floured, and fried…I begged for my okra to be fried to dark brown, just barely burned.
“The backside of the garden was strung with shiny tin pie plates that reflected sunlight to scare off birds.  There were enough tassels to allow pollination of the corn that grew at the edge of the garden, running perpendicular to the other rows.  Sometimes a watermelon vine or two threatened to spread and conquer the entire garden, but was worth the trouble when you found a thumping ripe melon with smooth, green variegated rind and anticipated the cold, sweet juice that dried sticky on your face after you had eaten so much chilled melon you thought your stomach would pop.
“When I was ten, I lived in Eden, but did not know it.  Now, on winter days when the best I can do is hope for Spring and the warm explosion of color, and when I cannot bear to watch another Sunday afternoon colorized movie classic on television, or to hear another basketball shoe squeak against the highly-glossed parquet floor, my greatest longing is for a little sunshine and the smell of good dirt.  The next best thing is to reach for the Burpee Seed Catalog and to choose prize-winning vegetables, low shrubs, fruit trees, to contemplate pears and peaches and the time it will take to harvest the first pecans from a newly-planted backyard sapling -- and I single out the best hybrid roses, the wildest vines of morning glory and fragrant jasmine…so I can recreate Eden.”
Hope this message from a southern gardener incites visions of digging in the dirt and getting your shot of serotonin via rich soil.  Happy gardening!
Select The Road Home by Janet Faulk-Gonzales to order or write to Border Press, P.O. Box 3124, Sewanee Tennessee 37375.  

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