Down the Garden Path, Part II

By Shirley Barker, Special to the Planet
Friday April 13, 2007

The digging of a vegetable bed of all gardening activities seems to elicit a passion like no other in the bosom of the horticultural writer. 

True, it is hard work, unless one is Ruth Stout, who, having put quite a few years towards her allotted span, gave up digging altogether. With considerable gusto she advocated her alternative, the piling of salt hay on to the vegetable beds to a consistently maintained height, after which she never raised a shovel again. The ground beneath the hay became over time permanently soft, friable and enriched. 

Salt hay sounds what it is, peculiar to the East Coast, along with salt box architecture, salt water taffy and so forth. I even heard an East Coaster once preach the benefits of sprinkling salt crystals directly on to the earth, but she was after all a priestess, and judging from the magnificence of her robes, groveling in dirt was not on her high-priority list. 

At the other extreme there are people like John Seymour, who recommends the wretched practice of double-digging. The very thought of this labor-intensive, literally back-breaking activity is enough to put any normal person off gardening altogether, and goodness knows we’re short enough as it is of the sane. 

Seymour, author of The Self-Sufficient Gardener, conceals the nature of this horrid chore behind such important-sounding terms as The French Intensive Method. Seymour says that Peter Chan, noted horticulturist mentioned in a previous article, even “wrote a book about it.” In this book, Better Vegetable Gardens the Chinese Way, Chan actually says, in his Introduction, quite the opposite, that “The French Intensive Method…is just too much work for the home gardener.” Which shows how desirable it is to mistrust all words, written or spoken, especially when they concern our gardens. It is so much more rewarding to get out into nature and enjoy its non-verbal communication, to try to tune into what the garden actually needs at any given moment, to become more sensitive and observant. 

This might work well with humans, too. 

Nevertheless, without recourse to books, one would miss many pleasurable by-ways. Freya Stark, noted traveler in Arab lands, describes in her 1937 Baghdad Sketches (readily available through our admirable public library Link network) the digging in Iraq of vegetable beds. It is, or was, carried out by three men, one of whom operates the spade. The other two hold a rope attached to the spade, pulling it out of the ground when the digger indicates his readiness for this. Stark says this enables them “to do the work of one man in double the time.” Perhaps she meant half the time, or twice the work, for there is no questioning her empathy for and partiality to the Arab world. Fortunately she soon goes on to tell us that her mathematical education was neglected. Not so her socio-political acumen: even at that time she had noticed that Progress, as she ironically put it, would soon walk hand in hand with Oil. 

In any event, we can no longer put off the moment for digging our pre-measured plot. So we insert a regularly shaped spade along the middle of our marked rectangles, plunge it up to the haft only, just in the way that Chan describes; we lift it, and turn the earth. Having repeated this from one end to the other, now we take a straight-edged spade and define the perimeter. The result is a raised bed. 

Chan has more to say about this single-digging method. As he lucidly points out, unless one is growing vegetables with long roots, like parsnips, salsify or in his case, certain varieties of radish, one shovel of depth is enough. Roots are perfectly capable of finding more depth for themselves, if necessary. For his long vegetables, he simply makes a localized exception, and digs deeply. 

After reading this, gardener’s guilt palpably fell from my shoulders. 

Having achieved a sufficient number of raised beds, which devoid of plant life look like so many burial plots, soon to be the scene of resurrection we hope, one can loosen and deepen the earth with a stick. It is a mystery to me why the epithet “digger” is considered pejorative. It is now deemed impolite to refer to Pinus sabiniana as the Digger Pine for fear of offending native American Indians, whose forebears had the enterprise and knowledge to eat the delicious nuts and to garden with sticks. More power to them, for surely after the hand, sublimest of tools, comes the stick. What, apart from sending the world to hell in a herring basket, have we Westerners achieved with our so-called high technology, that can compare with such simplicity and common sense? 

Whatever its name, P. sabiniana uniquely heralds the approach to the Sierra Nevada, since it is native to the foothills. Its sparse, feathery branches and stately isolation are unmistakably easy to spot and elevating to the spirit. It is comforting to know that when we have completely run out of fuel, we can still walk from the East Bay to see them as John Muir did, carrying a wool blanket and tin box of matches. Better still, these days we can bicycle there, giving us plenty of time to admire and taste the pine’s magnificence, instead of whizzing past in a polluted and polluting frenzy. Interestingly, in traffic the motorist inhales more toxins than does the cyclist beside him.  

Since Sunset’s Western Garden Book describes this pine as thriving in Seattle as well as being very drought-resistant, we could grow our own source of its fruits. The best-known use of these pine nuts is in pesto (Genoese) or pistou (Nicoise), in which they are pounded with olive oil and cheese, and sometimes basil, to enrich an otherwise bland vegetable soup. In French Provincial Cooking Elizabeth David uses them whole in a sweet omelet. Heat them first in butter, but take care, she says, because they burn in a twinkling. 

Like all nuts, pine nuts are also great for snacking, packing a nutritional wallop for their size, high in protein and healthy fats. Almost feather light, they are a practical food to take hiking, backpacking and cycling. Stopping often for brief snacks is particularly important for cyclists. Indeed, such is the body’s need to take time and energy to digest meat, it is a short step from the bicyclist to the vegetarian, and thence to the ecologist, and the digger who gardens without pesticides. Light, easily-digested fresh foods, oxygenated air, and clean mineral-rich water that burnishes our teeth as it whistles past our tonsils—well, perhaps that’s going too far. But the human engine does need those things to function optimally, things in Stark’s words that are ordinary, and indispensable. 

Let us hope it is not too late.