Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Matteo and His Fig Tree

Sustainability Is Where You Find It

Stringing Tomatoes
When you teach classes at a community college that sits in the midst of a multicultural patchwork of neighborhoods at the edge of a great metropolis, you never know who will show up. Evening classes, which I often teach, are particularly diverse.

Matteo showed up one semester and sat in the front row, a stocky, round-faced, round-headed man, balding, with a fringe of white hair. His appearance, in itself, was not unusual, since students of all shapes and sizes present themselves, nor was his age, really, which I judged to be somewhere west of sixty-five. My classes frequently include students ranging in age from sixteen and not yet out of high school, to grandparents who are finally able to begin the college education they have always hoped for. Matteo said he’d come to the U.S. from Sicily at some undisclosed period in his youth, took a job, married, had children and then grandchildren--a pretty average story for this part of the world. Other than his self-confident air and loud voice, there was nothing to make me think about him too much.

This changed one evening when I talked about gardening, which I don’t teach. However, since I believe everything is connected, wherever I am, gardening and the environment get mentioned. At this, Matteo came alive. "Ms. Fisher, I didn't know you are a gardener. I am too."

"That's nice," I said. But Matteo persisted. In a subsequent conversation he discovered that, while I have an understanding of perennial food plants such as berries and herbs, I’m a newbie when it comes to serious annual vegetable gardening. He began to share his knowledge. Some he brought with him from Sicily, some he’s picked up elsewhere, and all has been honed in his modest backyard.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Spring Dispatches from the Backyard

Gardener, 18th-cent. American
In the evening after work, at dusk, I squat near the fence on the south side of my yard, putting in bare root strawberries (Fragaria virginiana) around the chokeberries (Aronia melanocarpa). My neighbor, mother of the bff toddler (now 3 1/2), comes out.

"Doing a little night-time gardening?" Interested, as she often is, in what my puttering might accomplish. I explain that the strawberries have arrived in a box, and when planting bare root plants, a cloudy, cool day is best; but in any event, they need promptly to get out of the container of water in which they are soaking and into the ground. The day having been sunny, and I at work, dusk seems the likeliest opportunity. Though you do end up putting tiny plants in barely discernible holes, everything turning gray in the twilight.

She tells me about Barbara Kingsolver's book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (HarperCollins 2007), which, finding I haven't read, says she'll give me forthwith. Thus does my reading list constantly expand. She goes back in. It is getting too dark to see. I fill the watering cans and spot water each plant, with a wish for each to grow well. Once years ago I read a story about Prince Charles of England doing some night-time gardening. The writer took an amused tone--our whimsical, eccentric prince; after all, gardening is for the daylight hours, and if you're a prince, for the help to do--but now I think, there you are, stuck days tending to your princely duties, or whatever. You get your gardening in when you can.