Charlotte Salley, 24, grew up in Washington, D.C., and graduated from The University of the South: Sewanee in 2014. She still lives in D.C. and works for The American Scholar Magazine. On weekends and sick days, though, she spends her time on her parents’ farm in Sperryville biking, hiking, and playing with their two dogs. She’s currently tending her very first vegetable garden and fully expects to harvest cornucopias of the county’s best produce in the coming months. This is the first of an occasional column tracking the progress of this first-time gardener and her soon-to-be garden.
I’m starting my own garden. This is because I spent the past few days in the countryside, away from the rattle of city living, relishing daffodils and soggy soil instead. My parents have a “farm” in the Virginia Piedmont. It is not a farm. For the past 20 years it’s been a piece of land in Sperryville upon which to take long walks and admire the curve of the hillsides from every angle. This past weekend, though, as I biked past a neighbor’s freshly tilled garden, I decided that it’s high time we set down some roots.
Thankfully, my order of Vegetable Gardening for Dummies arrived à la Amazon Prime. Finally! I’ve found a source for all those gardening questions I’ve been too embarrassed to ask, even to the internet—lest they show up on my Google search history. With book in hand, I’ll be able to sit on the patio of my local D.C. coffee shop, order a muffin, put up my feet, watch the afternoon rush hour crawl by, and read all about the manual labor I’ll soon be doing. How hard can it be?
I rolled my great-grandfather’s baby blue wheelbarrow into the middle of the back field to stake my claim for the greatest ever first vegetable garden. I placed it on a jaunty angle (handles straight up to the sky, lip pressed down into the earth) to notify any passerby that this land here will soon be gaily employed in the production of food.
Maybe it’s just because I grew up in a big city, but I think growing one’s own food is so cool. It’s got to be magic. You take a seed that looks as useful as a piece of lint and you stick it in the dirt and then water and weed around it every couple of days for a few months, at which point it turns into food! Food that you eat! Food that you can pick and eat with the smug sense of satisfaction that somehow you’ve ensorcelled a little speck to turn into grocery store produce.
Before I started dreaming about my vegetable garden—where the tomatoes would be, where the wildflowers—it hadn’t really ever dawned on me that there could be homemade groceries, produce that you produced. Even though I grew up going out to Rappahannock every weekend and vacation—I even worked on an organic farm in high school—I accepted food as fact and never wondered about the process. But the good part about this is that finally putting together the farm-to-food concept is like noticing for the first time in a long time that the sky is blue or that a breeze is invisible—it’s great to realize once again how awesome nature is.
All of this is my way of saying how excited I am to see the blue wheelbarrow metamorphose from ornament into tool. And perhaps my brain will start piecing things together once I’ve begun all that weeding and watering. That was my hope for this past weekend; I was so thrilled to be able to get my hands in some earth, to build my raised garden beds, till the soil, and finally start my own seed witchcraft. But then it rained the whole time and I let out a soft whimper of defeat and spent the days thinking about gardening in that same old abstract, disconnected sort of way.
Oh my goodness, I am so exhausted. I spent last Friday building four 4×8 raised garden beds, which is a physical and mental drain since all my carpentering knowledge comes from YouTube videos. How does this electric drill work? Let’s find out…nope, apparently not like that.
This is a project I should have done last fall, but because I didn’t know I was going to start a vegetable garden until a few weeks ago, I thought I could build the beds in a couple of hasty hours on my day off. I learned, however, that construction is not quick and it is not easy. It’s been four days and I am still sore from hauling lumber and sawing boards and tearing sod from where the beds would go. And math. I did a surprising amount of calculations trying to figure out the dimensions of the beds—a simple diversion if you’re the sort of person who can split a bill in half without inadvertently tipping the waiter an extra 50 percent.
I built three of the beds for my plantings—snapdragons, daisies, and the whole vegetable menagerie—and the last bed I saved for my mom. Previously all four of the beds had been under my jurisdiction, but once my mother began lifting her eyebrows every time I mentioned the possibility of a flower that wasn’t monochromatic, I decided she needed her own garden bed.
Perhaps I have some of my mom’s fondness for organization, though. I tell everyone that the reason I chose raised beds—instead of planting directly into the earth—is because the soil here is too full of rocks and clay. But the real reason is that having a timbered border allows me to keep everything contained within its own little box. Everything will be neat, everything will be hemmed in, and there will be no possibility for any legume gerrymandering or tomato shenanigans.
That Friday, on my drive back from Lowes with a trunk full of lumber, I was re-directed off the highway into a subdivision. I followed a gaggle of SUVs and pickup trucks past blooming cherry saplings, hoping that at some point I would pop out further down the interstate. As with all recent housing developments, everything was organized down to a T—the straight lines transplanted from drafting table to terrain without any curves to enliven the view. There was no whimsy in sight. Ah, a metaphor!
Because, as earlier confessed, I’m not a skilled carpenter, I stuck to my plan to build my four little rectangles. There was no chance I could have constructed a spiraling, serpentine, or even rounded garden bed. What I could do, however, was begin to accept that the inside of my beds should be overrun with vegetable anarchy. Any passing rabbit will not be bored with straight lines: basil will encroach on garlic, carrots will mingle with arugula, and cucumbers will spill over the edge on an anthropological expedition to my mom’s garden bed, still under its totalitarian regime. She’s going to be thrilled.