I love being in the woods or the forest from time to time, but there’s something so fun about being in a well-designed beautifully laid out garden, whether it’s someone’s backyard or a more extensive botanical garden. To me, the intentional efforts of those responsible for such a beautiful creation are palpable. Growing up, I used to admire my mom’s sister who grew all kinds of vegetables and fruit in her backyard. I would have my own backyard vegetable and fruit garden one day!
Unfortunately, I have an active professional life which leaves me less time for some of the softer things in life. Even so, I set to work as soon as we bought our first house ten years ago in San Antonio. One of my friends taught me a word, smultronställe, “a place of wild strawberries; a special place, discovered, treasured, returned to for solace and relaxation; a personal idyll free from stress or sadness”. My backyard fruit and veggie garden was going to be it, my smultronställe! I rallied up my mom and her sister who sent me seeds of all my favorite vegetables –chikkudukaya (a type of green beans called so in Telugu), kakarakaya, sorakaya and beerakaya (different types of South Indian squashes), gongura, amaranth, spinach, okra, tomatoes, eggplant, green chilies and even sweet corn. That very first summer, boy, we had a bumper crop or what! The produce lasted us the entire summer and fall even after sharing generously with our friends. Our gongura plants grew so tall and lush that a friend suggested that the cops might come knocking on our door like they did for someone he knew!! The gongura leaves look like marijuana leaves from a distance. If you meet someone who loves this green leafy vegetable, that person is not just South Indian. That person is a South Indian from Andhra Pradesh! It’s a tart-tasting leaf that goes well with dal, makes an excellent pickle and even makes a great base for other solid vegetables and meats. It is so ‘Telugu’ that when a new friend of mine at Tulane who happened to be a white American told me that her boyfriend is Telugu, I looked at her funny because it was the first time I was hearing of a Telugu guy with a white girlfriend, but the look disappeared from my face even before she noticed it because she continued to say that I should go over to their place for some gongura pickle if I was feeling homesick.
After the first year of heady success, for the next two summers, it was all quiet on the garden front. I got too busy. And then we moved up North to Dallas. The backyard in our house had lawn, so I had the gardener clear a 12×12 feet patch of lawn to plant my vegetables. The lawn mowing guys asked me, “Are you sure?” “Absolutely,” I stated. The first year – nothing grew, I mean nothing. Strawberries grew nicely along the wall, but the pest control guy declared that it is not a good location for edible plants and that our beautiful strawberry shrubs needed to be sacrificed. The next year, my veggie patch to-be took on the appearance of a trash pit. The summer after that, I filled it with river rock and made it a ‘Zen garden’ in acceptance of life’s small defeats. At the same time when I cleared the lawn for veggies, I had also planted a plum tree in the front yard and a couple peach trees, an apricot tree and a couple fig trees in the backyard. The plum tree gave sweet, thin-skinned, yummy plums the next summer. None of the vegetable saplings performed. With the exception of one peach tree, the other fruit trees didn’t do anything. I was driving to work one day when I heard an ad on NPR (they don’t do ads, but they do). I made the call to this local organic gardening company and invited this expensive gardening consultant one Saturday morning. He walked around for two hours – talked to me about organizing my front yard and backyard into themes, planting fruit trees along orchard lines, asked me to spray neem oil on a peach tree that was dying, and on and on. Later, I heard a lip from my husband for paying the amount I paid him.
The fall before last year, we made some new friends in the neighborhood who invited us over. Their front yard had the tallest and the most fruit-laden fig trees you can imagine. The proud gardener, Anupa, said the trees were ten years old (mine were three at that time). She showed me other fruit trees in her backyard that were 3-7 years old, all producing great fruit. I instantly requested her to help me figure out where I went wrong. On her ‘garden consultation visit’, she went thusly (as Alton Brown says). “Your backyard is to the east. Not enough hours of direct sunlight. The oak tree casts a shadow towards the North – not helpful. The Zen garden was a good idea because nothing would have grown in this spot no matter how hard you tried. This peach tree that died – although it’s in a spot that gets direct sun – it’s planted in a low area – cold air pools at the bottom and that’s what killed it – I don’t think the neem oil would have prevented it’s eventual demise. The plum tree is over the flood drainage line – anytime it rains too much, it’s going to be in waterlogged soil and plum trees thrive in well-drained soil (this prediction came true last summer). You need to move your figs to the western wall – they like alkaline soil and the soil next to foundation is alkaline and this particular location on the side of your house gets the western sun. You could make this your veggie patch (pointing to a flower bed without flowers along the fence along the Western side of the house)………” I was humbled and inspired at the same time by how much gardening expertise she gained over the fifteen years she had been at it.
Rejuvenated and recharged by my friend, I got to work last spring. Between the rains and my work schedule, by the time I planted my veggies, it was already late April. I decided to take my chances and spent eighty dollars on manure, top soil, veggie plants – okra, tomato, green chilies, eggplant, squashes, beans and watermelon. The plants grew to 1-2 feet tall. I was seeing them once a week or so. It’s usually dark by the time I get home from work. The results say the attention I gave them wasn’t enough. All I got was the okra you see in the picture. The backyard we had in San Antonio was to the West. The plot was level and the soil probably drained off quickly after rains. The years have certainly blurred my memory.
My friend Anupa who lives just a couple exits away continues to send us cantaloupes and veggies and pictures of strawberries that grew in her garden. Some consolation for me – the kumquats and curry leaves in the pots made me proud. The herbs are doing okay. The malle (short thick jasmine flowers) and the kanakambaram (orange pretty flowers without any fragrance) plants in the pots gave me enough flowers throughout summer to make a foot-long string of flowers every other day. As for the smultronställe I wanted for myself, it has to remain a virtual place in my head for now.