A lifelong obsession with dirt and the ongoing quest for homegrown ratatouille

By Bill Colvard - bcolvard@MtAiryNews.com

This time of year as the air begins to warm and the days to lengthen, I am obsessed by the idea of growing my own food.

The conversion of dirt, water and sunshine into food is alchemy of the highest order. The fact that those three ingredients — so common as to go unnoticed most of the time — can turn a tiny seed into lunch never ceases to astonish me. That the magical process is facilitated by the addition of a little cow poop brings an element of delightful absurdity to the miracle.

And yet, my attempts at gardening have been uneven. Last year I started some seeds indoors and on the first warm spring day after my beautiful little seeds had sprouted into even more beautiful little seedlings, I moved the seed-starter tray out into the warm sun and a few hours later all 72 plants – tomatoes, eggplants, basil, hot peppers, sweet peppers, zucchini, squash, tarragon – were all stone-cold dead.

How was I to know that moisture evaporating from the soil and then condensing on the clear plastic lid of the seed-starting tray would act like a million tiny magnifying glasses and intensify the rays of the sun to a deadly level?

Contrast that debacle with the most successful garden I ever had. It was in Brooklyn, which is, perversely, a far less hospitable environment for a garden.

After 10 years of apartment living, our little family had managed to situate ourselves in a row house way out where the trains don’t run. The tiny house boasted a tiny backyard in which I envisioned a lush vegetable garden. Never mind that it had been paved over with concrete a half-century before. Before there could be any hope for my imagined wonderland of green, the concrete needed to be removed.

A neighbor loaned me a sledgehammer.

Never have I gained so much enjoyment from such backbreaking work, and soon I was dragging trash cans full of concrete out to the curb for trash day. Which the trash man promptly refused to touch. Can’t say I blamed him. They weighed a ton, possibly literally a ton. So before trash day rolled around again, I emptied half of the concrete chunks and left the trash man half a trash can full of concrete which he also politely refused.

I now had an ever-increasing pile of concrete rubble and nowhere to put it. The concrete needed to be not just busted up but removed before my dream of a vegetable garden could come to pass. A Shawshank-like project of concrete disposal began and continued all through the winter.

Every trash pickup day, I would hide a chunk or two of concrete among our household garbage. A few of my more neighborly neighbors allowed me to hide rubble in their trash also. A few more assisted without their knowledge. I kept a running mental inventory of all dumpsters in the neighborhood and may or may not have chucked hunks of concrete into them under cover of darkness.

As the project advanced, it became clear that we had another problem. There was no topsoil under the concrete. It had been removed to pour the concrete. Under the concrete was not soil, but dirt. And trust me, there is a difference.

The next step was to load my then three-year-old daughter’s red Radio Flyer wagon (we didn’t have a car) with as many concrete chunks as its little axles would hold and toddle off with her to a garden center about 20 blocks away, surreptitiously divesting ourselves of concrete along the way and then return home with the wagon filled with bags of topsoil, manure, mulch, sand and lime and an exhausted little girl perched on top. We mixed it all up in her kiddie pool according to a recipe I had found in an old gardening book. That little city girl who had never made a mud pie before was now making one of gargantuan proportions as she stirred the mess with a hoe and squealed with delight.

It has to be noted that between the chain gang activity of busting up a concrete backyard and flinging around massive bags of dirt and sand, I looked the best I have ever looked that summer. It’s true what they say about gardening being good exercise.

Meanwhile, seedlings were started inside and joined us on a patio table outside when the weather was warm. The northern sun was not direct enough to fry them to a crisp and by the middle of the summer, we had a beautiful garden with more vegetables than we could eat.

I took baskets of produce to all the neighbors whose trash cans had been appropriated for stowaway rocks, the ones who had given me permission to do so, and also those who had not.

I will never forget the face of one elderly neighbor when I handed her a basket filled with Italian plum tomatoes and a couple of eggplants with bunches of fresh basil and oregano on top. Fighting tears, she said she hadn’t seen anything so beautiful since she left Sicily as a little girl.

She fried the eggplants and made up a big batch of Sunday gravy, as red sauce was known in that neighborhood. On Sunday afternoon, she brought some over to share with us, along with some meatballs. She thanked me again and told me to feel free to put as many rocks in her trash as I wanted to. Which, possibly unbeknownst to her, I had been doing for quite some time.

Fast forward 25 years and hope springs eternal that the 36 heirloom seedlings basking uncovered in my sun room, steadfastly refusing to die, will at long last become the homegrown ratatouille of my dreams.


By Bill Colvard


Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.

Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.

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