A One-Step Garden

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.

| April/May 1995

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.

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