My original vision for Garden Summer was pumpkins and zinnia and fuck everything else. That vision is still within reach, despite the drip irrigation system being francamente fallado, a term my wife and I heard on our honeymoon during the introduction to a screening of Otto Preminger’s Bunny Lake is Missing, at an art-house in Toledo, Spain. Actually, I misheard it as francamente flujado, which is the term we have adapted over the ensuing 29 years to describe frankly flawed things.
Fact-checking myself right now, it appears that flujado actually means not flawed but fluent. The film scholar introducing Bunny Lake probably intended to describe the movie not as flawed but rather as fallado, an utter failure. Nevertheless, my wife and I bathed side-by-side in lights of lush black and white from the early 1960s, when we were little babies. It was, as we like to say, mo-rantic.
Our love continueth; however, the simple but elegant irrigation system is defunct. This is problematic because another flaw in my gardening technique is that my wife and I leave town for weeks at a time during the summer. I keep hoping to set up a self-sustaining garden that will thrive as I hope the world will, after I die, despite all evidence that thrive is not the word you would use to describe what’s coming. At the start of this summer, the house-sitter insinuated to my wife that my hopes are unrealistic. She said, “Why does Mark keep planting things that he’s not going to be around to take care of?”
If I had been there to defend my francamente fallado strategy of gardening in absentia, I would have said, “The entire point is, you want stuff to grow when you’re gone.”
But I was not there to defend the foods I had planted for our own ample consideration: Early Sunglow Hybrid corn, Padron peppers, Malabar spinach, and Wando peas; Sugar Baby and Crimson Sweet watermelon. These were all wildcards, potential sacrifices to the truth that not everything you plant is gonna grow. For our four brown-to-golden laying hens, I cast ample handfuls of “Black Oil” sunflowers, buckwheat, alfalfa, and white oats. I envisioned returning to admire the grains and sunflowers swaying in the breeze and undulating in the summer light.
Of pumpkin abundance, there would be no doubt. I planted four varieties — Howden, Early Giant, Big Max, and Kakai. On their seed packet covers, each variety of pumpkin shared a magnificent dignity, like the first characters onstage in any Shakespeare tragedy. These eminences would be surrounded by zaps of multi-colour from bright pink, bright orange, bright red and yellow California giant zinnias. I broadcast many, many handfuls of seed in the hope of coming home to Paradise.
This is not to blame our house-sitter. She did a great job looking after the chickens.
But alas, my home garden did not thrive because unbeknownst to me – or, let’s be as honest as possible – ‘knownst but not consciously in the aware-of in the sense of doing-anything-about way — I was the assassin, for I had killed the irrigation system.
It died of accumulated machete nicks, cuts, and gouges from my overenthusiastic de-brambling. I myself might have been a body piling up, but for that, I am pretty good at following this one piece of self-preservatory advice: swing the machete away from the body. And wear long pants. And garden gloves. Ten cuidado con los dedos, that’s what I tell myself. Careful with those fingers. You might want to pick up a guitar again someday. Might want to write something by hand.
Also requiring hardly any effort was the irrigation system, when it worked. It was on a timer. The brown irrigation tubes lay flat on the ground and drip-dripp-dripped for 10 minutes in seven 40-foot-long ovals; until, due to my thrashing about with my Salvadoran machete, the tubes sprouted leaks ranging from misting station to a fire hydrant cranked open and spurting on a hot sticky day.
I tried patching these gouges up with waterproof tape, which was mostly ineffective but did, in some spots, convert a gusher to a confused and angry babble. It is difficult to confuse or anger water, but I managed until finally the entire system not only stopped working but practically disappeared.
Now I cannot even find the faucet or knob to turn it back on again. Isn’t that embarrassing? Isn’t it a blow to my masculine pride, which must necessarily be predicated on the free-flowing of fluids? Well, actually, that’s a pretty mean thing to say, and I wonder what makes me say that. Hmmm? It’s easy to insult people. What’s my plan? How about instead of insulting myself upon coming home after being gone for much of June and a chunk of July to find my garden
Now I can either pout about how my bid for garden immortality has come up short, or I can come up with a plan for how we’re going to get zinnia and pumpkin to thrive.
But why not both? Is it always wrong to complain? Who did not manage to take care of this garden while I was away – that is the question I would like to ask if I did not already know the answer is Marko.
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So what I can do to restore the garden before I leave yet again is lay down four inches of compost around the few pumpkins that are thriving, hanging in there, or barely hanging in there from my first attempt at utopia-in-absentia.
I had been using homemade compost tea, which I think killed my pomelo tree. I put compost in a plastic mesh bag and put the mesh bag into a bright green plastic 20-gallon tub. I especially like this tub because it is pliable, not rigid. So far so good, but you’re supposed to aerate your compost tea with an aquarium pump. That surpasses my mechanical wherewithal, so I just blew into it from time to time with a cut-off piece of garden hose.
My daughter Claire said this was the most Rastafarian thing about my garden, and I treasured the idea that she thought there were other Rastafarian things. I clearly need to aerate my compost tea more than just the occasional out-breath; however, because a few days after I encouraged the always problematic pomelo with a good dousing of compost tea, it dropped all its leaves, gasped, and got x’s for its eyes.
Whenever they seek my plant advice, I tell all my friends that it is natural for plants to die and natural for gardeners to kill their plants and not to worry about it, just get another one. However, I still have the skeleton of that pomelo tree in the ground because I had not been able to face its mortality until I noticed the dry brown branches are nowadays embraced by the supple and thriving vines of a stephanotis.
Over the past week, I have moved ¾ of a ton of compost, five fifty-pound wheelbarrow loads per each of six rows. I’m just about out of compost. The seventh row will have to wait for its compost until the green and brown yard waste combines with the chicken poop and decomposes.
There is a lot of exposed sycamore root back there, looking like a mouth in the ground, more specifically a hungry dirt maw, clamouring for brown and green matter, which would concern me if this was a nightmare or scary folk tale. However, it’s just normal life still, and everything is okay.
After all, once you start looking for brown matter, it’s everywhere, such as hanging from the banana trees. Those majestic green banana leaves eventually turn yellow, then brown, at which point they really have to come down because living things coming up behind them need the light.
I realized this while machete-wielding, and with all those freshly revealed sunbeams flying around, I further realized the seventh row is okay the way it is. It’s got primrose and dill entwined at one end, a wife-requested Meyer lemon tree at the other — all flourishing — and a blueberry bush in between, holding its own. Tomatillos are in the mix as well, and they will get go-go cranking as soon as the temperature cracks 80 degrees three days in a row.
If I wasn’t supposed to be leaving again in three weeks, I would plant multiple rows of tomatillos. That would be a good crop to deliver to the World Harvest Food Bank on Venice Boulevard in Mid-City. Who doesn’t like salsa verde and tomatillos are beautiful with their profuse branches and bright yellow flowers; beautiful and elegant with their paper-lampshade husks and pale green little tomato-shaped fruit.
But I am planning to be gone again in three weeks and not back again for over a month. So what I really should do is stick to the plan: zinnia and pumpkins. This, of course, is the same plan I had when I left last time, with dusty results.
Who has written of Eden after Adam and Eve? Does it prosper or become a snake pit? A few days ago, my wife informed me that our garden looks like hell before I commenced hand-trucking compost. Patchy, she said. Random. Messy. Dead. As if I didn’t know. Yet after she broke it down for me, I had to stand there on the chickenshitty porch for a while, absorbing the blow.
Everyone’s under a lot of stress these days. We had ourselves some back and forth about the garden’s status; no one hurt too badly to make up later. Things were said about the stress of quarantine. The upshot being, I resolved to structure the garden not to satisfy my fleeting whim but rather to grow food. I emailed the World Harvest Food Bank and said me and my backyard are at your service. They promptly replied back, “Awesome.” I’m sure they hear this all the time and always write back, “Awesome.” I’m going to have to show I’m serious.
Meanwhile, I have tidied up the garden and, in the process, have noted that there is much to celebrate: creeping thyme filling in nicely between the pavers, blackberries-a-go-go, the unknown bush with tube-shaped flowers the colour of candy corn, oregano with purple-flowered runners leaping into the air like flying fish. Additional grapes have taken root in the way-back, where I also planted more blackberries as part of my plan to have the wayback be an impenetrable bramble.
I envision zombies and/or other marauders as these times become increasingly desperate. I am all for giving our food away but not into it being taken from us.
In one last attempt to salvage the current irrigation system, I managed to fuck it up worse so that now a row of sprinklers is going non-stop. And by non-stop, I mean, how do you stop this thing? I tried messing with the so-called control panels and got mosquito bites. I temporarily gave up, a trick I learned from recalcitrant computer printers. Give up and come back later. That usually works with printers which are wily but not as wily as sprinklers run amok.
How do you stop this thing? I called our gardener; he was kind enough to come right over and give it a shot. I admired his urgent aspect as he set about messing with the controls and began pointing out very politely how many different ways I had broken them in my frustration. “Sí, yo he roto mucho,” I confessed.
I finally called in Guy Marcia, the guy who’s going to install the new irrigation system. He promptly turned off the water to the house, then cut and capped the sprinkler tube. Problem solved. Thank you, Guy! He also identified the bush with the candy cornflowers as cuphea ignea or Mexican cigar plant. He said it’s a great pollinator and also congratulated me in general on having rich soil. He further identified a bush I had never paid the slightest attention to as arbutus “Elfin King” and pointed out its edible berry. “You have a food forest here,” he said.
I really like people who make me feel better. Thus encouraged, I continued with the pumpkin and zinnia plan, aided by my theory of crabgrass. According to my incomplete theory, crabgrass is the garden’s neural network, which considers neither what the garden might be thinking nor what the crabgrass network might be connecting.
Nevertheless, I like my theory and keep thinking about it whenever I tug at a tuft of crabgrass and either pull up a satisfying string the length of a shoelace or only a dissatisfying bit of thin, brittle blade — in which case I come back with a hand shovel and dig in, determined to show that crabgrass I am the boss, even though this is clearly a delusion. Crabgrass is obviously the boss. It has my garden surrounded and will take over as soon as school starts, and I shift my attention from attempting to nurture plants to attempting to nurture students.
School starts in three days. Fortunately, I have refined my theory over the past few weeks of planting and transplanting pumpkin and zinnia. I know what the garden is thinking: “Let’s grow some calabasas gigantes and get these zinnia popping too!” That’s not all. From the good old days of me planting whatever I felt like wherever I felt like it, the plants that thrived not only think but state boldly, “Here we are, milkweed! Here we are, pineapple sage! Here we are, Mexican cigar plant, lavender, primrose, tomatillo, chives, oregano, heliotrope, African basil, blackberries, creeping thyme, bananas, Meyer lemons, Valencia oranges, finger limes.”
I am happy to report that not only plants announce themselves. The compost has also spoken. Turn over a hand spade of soil in my garden, and you will find white powdery mycorrhizae, prized for helping roots draw nutrition. Turn over another hand spade, and you will find worms squiggling ecstatically. Nitrogen announces itself in the form of atmospheric funk. My garden has the atmosphere of bases loaded, tie game, full count; heightened in these sad times of unattended baseball games by the hot dog and mustard aroma of chickenshit. My garden is thinking, “We are here,” which is what you are supposed to say in the presence of God. הנה אני. He-nay-nee. I am here.
I have also figured out how the neural network of the crabgrass is connected. My friend Jimmy taught me. He said about things growing in the garden that aren’t what we planted, “It’s all beneficial, it’s just a matter of what else would you want to be growing there.”
Now every time I encounter crabgrass in the garden, it declares, “This is fertile soil.” Furthermore, it asks me, plainspokenly, “What would you rather have growing here?” I answer, “Pumpkin and zinnia.”
And this is how I came to realize that the neural network of crabgrass is connected to me.
Mark Gozonsky (he/him) frequently writes for The Sun, where his essay “Gritty All Day Long” appeared before being featured in Best American Sports Writing 2020. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Lit Hub, The Santa Monica Review, and The Austin Chronicle. He lives in Los Angeles, where he teaches high school English. Poke him to see if he moves at gozonsky.com or on Instagram.