Horticultural productivity does not come easily from my sticky, orange Virginia clay, whose most common use has been brickmaking, not agriculture. I learned early that to change the soil’s productivity I had only to alter its complexion, and so I added copious amounts of humus, which created dark, fertile, mounded garden beds that encouraged growth and drained exceedingly well. Despite my success at ridding my life of grass and creating fertile garden soil, I continue to be nagged by the feeling that I could do better, get more out of the dirt, and use the space more profitably.
My desire to increase productivity comes, not from my genes, but from family tradition. My great-grandfather, Domenico, and his brother, Francesco, came to America from the Italian province of Fruili more than a century ago, and they carried with them a peasant tradition of obtaining more from less. For them, land was precious, and to coax food from it was a necessary part of life. Francesco viewed flowers as nonessential: “You can only smell flowers. They have no practical use.” Domenico was a stern moralizer who considered growing grass a serious sin, a waste of the earth’s potential. I have tried to follow the catechism set down by those two grand old gardeners and make every inch of my land productive.
Imagine my delight several years ago when I discovered two Italian parsley plants growing from the cracks in the deteriorating mortar of the brick steps that descend from my house to the backyard. I was surprised that these plants had found a site on their own, and I was grateful that they made use of a bit of space that I had overlooked. I felt that the spirits of Domenico and Francesco, which hover over my garden, would see to what extreme their peasant dictates could reach in this new world.
It amused me to watch these parsley plants struggle without my help in this hard, barren spot. I vowed to do nothing to assist them, but I was careful not to step on them. Those two parsley plants did not exactly flourish without water or fertilizer, but they grew enough that I could pick leaves occasionally as I walked in the back door.
As fall turned to winter, a fit of distemper engulfed me, and I yanked the parsley plants from their home and threw them out uneaten as if they were weeds. For a moment, I was proud of myself for making everything neat and tidy and for putting an end to green things that sprout from cracks in mortar and brick.
The following spring, a new humility replaced my tidy arrogance, and I got a reminder of Fruiliani peasant tradition when I became aware of a small alpine strawberry plant sprouting where one of the parsley plants had been. I didn’t notice it again until it flowered and produced a small crop of berries. It was then that I inspected the strawberry plant carefully and found an oregano seedling growing beneath its leaves.
The oregano plant was small, stunted and nondescript; its distinctive aroma, however, identified it as Origanum ¥ majoricum, a hybrid that rarely if ever produces viable seed. This specimen, hidden below the foliage of the runaway strawberry, was thus a botanical marvel.
It angers me that birds and slugs have an affinity for strawberries. Birds steal the sweet berries just before they become fully ripe. Slugs take random bites, marring the berries’ symmetry and beauty; they seem to lack mothers to admonish them to clean their plates. As the berries ripened, I realized that a strawberry plant growing from a brick step was ideally camouflaged from its worst enemies. Birds would not look for berries in such an unlikely spot, especially when they were more interested in the cherries ripening on a nearby tree. Slugs, being lazy and opportunistic, stayed close to a tasty pot of zinnias at the foot of the steps.
To all things come a season, and finally I had the pleasure one cool June morning of picking, then eating a small, succulent, perfume-sweet strawberry from the plant growing out of the brick steps. Its taste was as perfect as that of any carefully cultivated one.
My experience with a step garden has convinced me that there is always space for more plants in the garden, and if you can’t find it, nature will.
Tom DeBaggio watches weeds and other edible plants grow in Arlington, Virginia, where he is a commercial herb grower. He is the author of Growing Herbs from Seed, Cutting, and Root (Interweave Press, 1994).