My Two Gardens
By Michael Pollan
Forbes, May 13, 1991
My first garden was a place no grown-up ever knew about, even though it was in the backyard of a quarter-acre suburban plot. Behind our house in Farmingdale, on Long Island, stood a rough hedge of lilac and forsythia that had been planted to hide the neighbor’s slat wood fence. My garden, which I shared with my sister and our friends, consisted of the strip of unplanted ground between the hedge and the fence. I say that no grown-up knew about it because, in an adult’s picture of this landscape, the hedge runs flush against the fence. To a four-year-old, though, the space made by the vaulting branches of a forsythia is as grand as the inside of a cathedral, and there is room enough for a world between a lilac and a wall. Whenever I needed to be out of range of adult radar, I’d crawl beneath the forsythia’s arches, squeeze between two lilac bushes, and find myself safe and alone in my own green room.
I think of this place today as a garden not only because it offered an enclosed and privileged space out of doors but also because it was here that I first actually grew something. Most of the pictures I can retrieve from that time are sketchy and brittle, but this one unspools like a strip of celluloid. It must be September. I am by myself behind the hedge, maybe hiding from my sister or just poking around, when I catch sight of a stippled green football sitting in a tangle of vines and broad leaves. It’s a watermelon. The feeling is of finding treasure—a right-angled change of fortune, an unexpected boon. Then I make the big connection between this melon and a seed I planted, or at least spit out and buried, months before: I made this happen. For a moment I’m torn between leaving the melon to ripen and the surging desire to publicize my achievement. Mom has got to see this. So I break the cord attaching the melon to the vine, cradle it in my arms and run for the house, screaming my head off the whole way. The watermelon weighs a ton, though, and just as I hit the back steps I lose my balance. The melon squirts from my arms and smashes in a pink explosion on the cement.
Watermelon perfume fills the air and then the memory stalls. I can’t remember but I must have cried—to see so fine a triumph snatched away, to feel Humpty-Dumpty suddenly crash onto my four-year-old conscience. Memories of one kind or another play around the edges of every garden, giving them much of their resonance and savor. I’ve spent thousands of hours in the garden since that afternoon and there is perhaps some sense in which all this time has been spent trying to recover that watermelon and the flush of pride that attended its discovery.
I can’t recall whether I tried to salvage any part of the melon to show my father when he got home from work, but I can assume he would not have been greatly impressed. My father was not much for gardening, and the postage-stamp yard of our ranch house showed it. The lawn was patchy and always in need of mowing, the hedges were unclipped and scraggly, and in summer hordes of Japanese beetles dined on our rosebushes without challenge. I remember him as strictly an indoor dad, moving around the house in his year-round uniform of button-down shirt, black socks and tie shoes, and boxer shorts. Maybe it was the fact that he hated to wear pants that kept him indoors, or perhaps the boxers were a way to avoid having to go outside. Either way, my mother was left with the choice of her husband doing the yard work in his underwear, or not doing it at all, which in the suburbs is not much of a choice. So while the boxers kept Dad pinned to the kitchen table, the yard steadily deteriorated to the point where it became something of a neighborhood and family scandal.
My mother’s father lived a few miles away in Babylon, in a big house with beautiful, manicured gardens, and the condition of our yard could be counted on to make him crazy—something it may well have been calculated to do. My grandfather was a somewhat overbearing patriarch whom my father could not stand. Grandpa, who would live to be ninety-six, had come to Long Island from Russia shortly before the First World War. Starting out with nothing, selling vegetables from a horse wagon, he eventually built a fortune, first in the produce business and later in real estate. In choosing my father, my mother had married a notch or two beneath her station, and Grandpa made it his business to minimize his eldest daughter’s sacrifice—or, considered from another vantage, to highlight my father’s shortcomings. This meant giving my father large quantities of unsolicited career advice, unsolicited business opportunities (invariably bum deals, according to my father), and unsolicited landscape services.
One time he sent a rose garden that ran the length of our property, from curb to back fence. But it wasn’t enough to send the rosebushes: Grandpa held my father’s very soil in low esteem; no plant of his could be expected to grow in it. So he had his men dig a fifty-foot trench three feet wide and a foot deep, remove the soil by hand and then replace it with soil trucked in from his own garden. This way the roses (which also came from Grandpa’s garden) would suffer no undue stress and my father’s poor, neglected soil would be at least partly redeemed. Sometimes it seemed as if my grandfather was bent on replacing every bit of earth around our house, a square foot at a time.
Probably his concern for our soil was also an extension of his genuine and deeply felt love of land. I don’t mean love of the land, in the nature-lover’s sense. The land is abstract and in some final sense unpossessable by any individual. Grandpa loved land as a reliable if somewhat mystical source of private wealth. No matter what happened in the world, no matter what folly the government perpetrated, land could be counted on to hold and multiply its value. At the worst a plot could yield a marketable crop and, at least on Long Island for most of this century, it could almost certainly be resold for a profit. “They can print more money,” he liked to say, “and they can print new stocks and bonds, but they can’t print more land.”
Visits to Grandma and Grandpa were always sweet occasions. There’s something about a lush, fresh-cut lawn that compels children to break into a sprint, and after the long ride we couldn’t wait to spill out of the station wagon and fan out across the backyard. The grass always seemed to have a fresh crew cut, and it was so springy and uniform that you wanted to run your hand across it and bring your face close. Usually I made straight for the break in the hedge that gave onto what was unquestionably my favorite and my grandfather’s proudest part of the garden—indeed, the only part of the property I every heard anybody call a garden: his vegetable garden.
Grandpa derived the keenest pleasure from his vegetables. Vegetables had given him his earliest success, and the older he got, the more devoted to them he became. Eventually care of the ornamental gardens fell to his gardener, Andy, and Grandpa spent the better part of his days among the vegetables, each spring adding to the garden and subtracting from the lawn. I’m positive that, had Grandpa lived another twenty years, his suburban spread would have reverted entirely to farm. As it was, Grandpa had at least a half-acre planted in vegetables—virtually a truck farm, and a totally unreasonable garden for an elderly couple. He could afford to be extravagant with space, and no two plants in his garden ever touched one another. I don’t think a more meticulous vegetable garden ever existed; my grandfather hoed it every morning, and no weed dared raise its head above that black, loamy floor. Grandpa brought the same precision to the planting of string beans and tomatoes that Le Norte brought to the planting of chestnut trees in the Tuileries. The rows, which followed the curves of the garden wall, might as well have been laid out by a surveyor, and the space between each plant was uniform and exact. Taken as a whole, the garden looked like nothing so much as a scale model for one of the latest suburban developments: the rows were roads, and each freestanding vegetable plant was a single-family house. Here in the garden one of the unacknowledged contradictions of Grandpa’s life was symbolically resolved: the farmer and the developer became one.
But what could have possessed my grandfather to plant such a big vegetable garden? Even cooking and canning and pickling at her furious clip, there was no way my grandmother could keep up with his garden’s vast daily yield. Eventually she cracked and went on strike: she refused to process any more of his harvest, and true to her word, never again pickled a cucumber or canned a tomato. But even then he would not be deterred, and the garden continued to expand.
I suspect that this crisis of overproduction suited Grandpa just fine. He was foremost a capitalist and, to borrow a pair of terms from Marx, was ultimately less interested in the use-value of his produce than in its exchange-value. I don’t mean to suggest that he took no immediate pleasure in his vegetables; his tomatoes, especially, pleased him enormously. He liked to slice his beefsteaks into thick pink slabs and go at them with a knife and fork. Watching him dine on one, you understood immediately how a tomato could come to be named for a cut of meat. “Sweetasugar,” he would announce between bites, his accent mushing the three words together into one incantatory sound. Of course he would say the same thing about his bermuda onions, his corn, even his bell peppers. Grandpa’s vocabulary of English superlatives was limited, and the “sweetasugar” was the highest compliment you could pay a vegetable.
Eating beefsteaks was one pleasure, but calculating their market value and giving them away was even better. Having spent many years in the produce business, Grandpa had set aside a place in his mind where he maintained the current retail price of every vegetable in the supermarket; even in his nineties he would drop by the Waldbaum’s produce section from time to time to update his mental price list. Harvesting alongside him, I can remember Grandpa holding a tomato aloft and, instead of exclaiming over its size or perfect color, he’d quote its market price: Thirty-nine cents a pound!
At the time I didn’t like vegetables any better than most kids do (tomatoes I considered disgusting, acceptable only in the form of ketchup), yet there it was: the vegetable sublime. Probably I had absorbed my grandfather’s reverence for produce, the sense that this was precious stuff and here it was, growing, for all purposes, on trees. I may have had no use for tomatoes and cucumbers, but that fact that adults did conferred value on them in my eyes. The vegetable garden in summer made an enchanted landscape, mined with hidden surprises, dabs of unexpected color and unlikely forms that my grandfather had taught me to regard as treasures. My favorite board game as a child was Candyland, in which throws of the dice advanced your man through a stupendous landscape of lollipop trees, milk-chocolate swamps, shurbs made of gumdrops. Candyland posited a version of nature that answered to a child’s every wish—a landscape hospitable in the extreme, which is one definition of a garden—and my grandfather’s vegetable patch in summer offered a fair copy of that paradise.
This was Grandpa’s garden. If I could look at it and see Candyland, he probably saw Monopoly; in both our eyes, this was a landscape full of meaning, one that answered to wishes and somehow spoke to a human language. As a child I could always attend more closely to gardens than to forests, probably because forests contain so little of the human information that I craved then, and gardens so much. One of the things childhood is is a process of learning about the various paths that lead out of nature and into culture, and the garden contains many of these. I can’t imagine a wilderness that would have had as much to say to me as Grandpa’s garden did: the floral scents that intimated something about the ways of ladies as well as flowers, the peach tree that made legible the whole idea of fruit and seed, the vegetables that had so much to say about the getting of food and money, and the summer lawns that could not have better expressed the hospitality of nature to human habitation.
My parents’ yard (you would not call it a garden) had a lot to say, too, but it wasn’t until I was much older that I could appreciate this. Landscapes can carry a whole other set of meanings, having to do with social or even political questions, and these are usually beyond the ken of young children. My father’s unmowed front lawn was a clear message to our neighbors and his father-in-law, but at the time I was too young to comprehend it fully. I understood our yard as a source of some friction between my parents, and I knew enough to be vaguely embarrassed by it. Conformity is something children seem to grasp almost instinctively, and the fact that our front yard was different from everybody else’s made me feel our family was odd. I couldn’t understand why my father couldn’t be more like the other dads in the neighborhood.
One summer he let the lawn go altogether. The grasses grew tall enough to flower and set seed; the lawn rippled in the breeze like a flag. There was beauty here, I’m sure, but it was not visible in this context. Stuck in the middle of a row of tract houses on Long Island, the lawn said turpitude, rather than meadow, even though that is strictly speaking what it had become. It also said, to the neighbors, f— you.
A case could be made that the front lawn is the most characteristic institution of the American suburb, and my father’s lack of respect for it probably expressed his general ambivalence about the suburban way of life. In the suburbs, the front lawn is, at least visually, a part of a collective landscape; while not exactly public land, it isn’t entirely private either. In this it reflects one of the foundations of the suburban experiment, which Lewis Mumford once defined as “a collective effort to live a private life.” The private part was simple enough: the suburban dream turns on the primacy of family life and private property; these being the two greatest goods in my father’s moral universe, he was eager to sign up. But “owning your own home” turned out to be only half of it: a suburb is a place where you undertake to do this in concert with hundreds of other “like-minded” couples. Without reading the small print, my father had signed on for the whole middle-class utopian package, and there were heavy dues to pay.
The front lawn symbolized the collective face of suburbia, the backyard its private aspect. In the back, you could do pretty much whatever you wanted, but out front you had to take account of the community’s wishes and its self-image. Fences and hedges were out of the question: they were considered antisocial, unmistakable symbols of alienation from the group. One lawn should flow unimpeded into another, obscuring the boundaries between homes and contributing to the sense of community. It was here in the front lawn that “like-mindedness” received its clearest expression. The conventional design of a suburban street is meant to forge the multitude of equal individual parcels of land into a single vista—a democratic landscape. To maintain your portion of this landscape was part of your civic duty. You voted each November, joined the PTA, and mowed the lawn every Saturday.
Of course the democratic system can deal with the nonvoter far more easily than the democratic landscape can cope with the nonmower. A single unmowed lawn ruins the whole effect, announcing to the world that all is not well here in utopia. My father couldn’t have cared less. He owned the land, he could do whatever he wanted with it. As for the neighbors, he felt he owed them nothing. Ours was virtually the only Jewish family in a largely Catholic neighborhood, and with one or two exceptions, the neighbors had always treated us coolly. Why should he pretend to share their values? If they considered our lawn a dissent from the common will, that was a fair interpretation. And if it also happened to rankle his father-in-law, well, that only counted in its favor. (One should be careful, however, not to minimize the influence of laziness on my father’s philosophy of lawn care.)
The summer he stopped mowing altogether, I felt the hot breath of a tyrannical majority for the first time. Nobody would say anything, but you heard it anyway: Mow your lawn. Cars would slow down as they drove by our house. Probably some of the drivers were merely curious: they saw the unmowed lawn and wondered if perhaps someone had left in a hurry, or died. But others drove by in a manner that was unmistakably expressive, slowing down as they drew near and then hitting the gas angrily as they passed—this was pithy driving, the sort of move that is second nature to a Klansman.
The message came by other media, too. George Hackett, our next-door neighbor and my father’s only friend in the development, was charged by the neighbors with conveying the sense of the community to my father. George didn’t necessarily hold with the majority on this question, but he was the only conceivable intermediary and he was susceptible to pressure. George was a small, somewhat timid man—he was probably the least intimidating adult in my world at the time—and I’m sure the others twisted his arm fairly hard before he agreed to do their bidding. It was early on a summer evening that he came by to deliver the message. I don’t remember it all, but I can imagine him taking a drink from my mother, squeaking out what he had been deputized to say, and then waiting for my father—who next to George was a bear—to respond.
My father’s reply could not have been more eloquent. He went to the garden and cranked up the rusty old Toro for the first time since spring; it is a miracle the thing started. He pushed it out to the curb and then started back across the lawn to the house, but not in a straight line; he swerved right, then left, then right again. He had made an S in the tall grass. Then he made an M and finally a P. These were his initials, and as soon as he finished writing them, he wheeled the lawnmower back to the garage, never to start it up again.
It wasn’t long after this incident that we moved out of Farmingdale. My father was by now doing well enough to afford a house on the more affluent north shore, in a town called Woodbury. We bought one of the first houses in a new development called The Gates; the development was going in on the site of an old estate, and the builder has preserved the gigantic wrought-iron entrance gates in order to lend the new neighborhood a bit of aristocratic tone.
It must have been obvious to my parents that the “S.M.P.” approach to lawn care and gardening would not go over in the Gates. Fortunately, they could now afford to buy a fancy landscaping job and, even more important, a maintenance contract that would help keep my father on the right side of his new neighbors. It’s important to understand that my parents were not indifferent to the landscape; even my father cared about his trees and shrubs. He simply didn’t like lawns and preferred to deal with the rest of the garden at a remove, ideally through a window. But with money came a new approach to gardening, one that replaced laborious, direct involvement with the earth and plants with practices more to his liking: supervision, deal making, shopping, technological tinkering, negotiation.
The man may parents hired to design, plant and maintain our yard must have been a renegade among Long Island landscapers. Taking his cues from my father, he came up with a radical, low-maintenance design that included only a slender, curving ribbon of lawn. The retaining wall along the driveway was a terraced affair made out of railroad ties, which at the time were a novelty in landscape design. (They weren’t generally available then, but my father somehow arranged to buy them off trucks from LILCO and LIRR employees.) Much of the property was left wooded. And the Toro stayed behind, in Farmingdale. We may have been the only family on Long Island that didn’t own lawnmower.
Since my father’s line on watering was more or less the same as his line on mowing, he decided to order a state-of-the-art sprinkler system. From his command post in the garage he would be able to monitor and water every corner of his acre, one zone at a time. An elaborate timer, working in conjunction with a device that judged the moisture content of the soil, was supposed to ensure that the grass and pachysandra enjoyed optimum conditions. But it soon became clear that the sprinkler man had taken my father for an expensive ride. We had hundreds more sprinkler heads than we could possibly need; every six feet another bronze mushroom poked out of the ground. And the system never worked properly. Often in the middle of the night, or during a rainstorm, the sprinkler heads would suddenly start hissing and spitting in unison, as if under the control of some alien intelligence. From some heads the spray roared like Niagara, but most of them dribbled pathetically. My father would spend hours at a time in the garage, standing in his boxer shorts at the control panel, trying vainly to reign in the system’s perversity.
From my point of view, my father’s remote-controlled landscape was sorely lacking. Once the crew finished planting the shrubs and laying down the carpet of sod, there was nothing left to do but look at it. For all its banality, the conventional suburban landscape, like the suburbs themselves, was tailored to the needs of children. As a place to play, nothing surpasses a lawn. Beautiful as it was, my parent’s yard, with its sliver of lawn and masses of shade trees, was inhospitable to children; it was a spectator landscape, its picturesque views best appreciated indoors, in boxers. You certainly couldn’t play in the pachysandra.
But what it lacked most was a garden. True, considered whole, it was a garden, but to my mind (as in the common American usage) a garden was a small plot of flowers or vegetables; everything else was a “yard.” A yard was just a place; a garden was somehow more specific and, best of all as far as I was concerned, it was productive: it did something. I wanted something more like my grandfather’s garden, a place where I could put my hands on the land and make it do things. I wanted to dig.
I persuaded my parents to buy me a few yards of topsoil, and in the space of a hundred square feet I crammed a dozen different crops: tomatoes (just then become edible), peppers, eggplants, strawberries, corn, squash, melons (watermelon and cantaloupe), string beans, peas. Everything but lettuce, which, since it bore no fruit, held not nearly enough drama for me. Why would anyone ever want to grow leaves?
Years later when I read about European techniques of intensive agriculture, I realized this is what I had been doing without knowing it. I enriched the soil with bags of peat moss and manure, tilled it deeply, and then planted my seedling virtually cheek-by-jowl. Since the bed was long and narrow, I decided to dispense with rows and planted most of the seedlings no more than six inches apart, in a pattern you would have to call free-form. Everything thrived: by August, my postage-stamp garden, haphazard though it was, was yielding bushels of produce.
Even my parents took note of this garden, marveling at the peppers and tomatoes I brought to the table; but the person I really wanted to impress was my grandfather. As the years had gone by, my relationship with Grandpa was badly frayed. I wore my hair long and had grown a beard, and this deeply troubled him. By the time I turned fifteen, I could do no right by him, and visits to Babylon, which once had held some of the sweetest hours of my childhood, had become an ordeal. From the moment I arrived, he would berate me about the beard, my studiously sloppy clothes, the braided leather bracelet I wore, and any other shred of evidence that I had become one of those despised ‘ippies, as he spat out the word. I figured that if there was one place where an elderly reactionary and an aspiring hippie could find a bit of common ground, it was in the vegetable garden. I had finally made a garden he’d be proud of, and when he and Grandma made one of their infrequent visits to our house that summer, I couldn’t wait to take him around back and show him what I’d accomplished.
But Grandpa never even saw the garden I had made. All he saw were weeds and
disorder. You call this a garden? he barked. It’s all too close together—your plants are going to choke each other out. And where are the rows? There have to be rows. This isn’t a vegetable garden—what you’ve got here is a weed garden! The big red beefsteaks, the boxy green peppers, the watermelons now bigger than footballs: everything was invisible to him but the weeds. He looked at my garden and saw in it everything about me—indeed, everything about America in 1970—that he could not stand. He saw the collapse of order, disrespect for authority, laziness, the unchecked march of disreputable elements. He was acting like a jerk, it’s true, but he was my grandfather, an old man in a bad time to be old, and when he got down on his knees and started furiously pulling weeds, I did feel ashamed.
For at least a decade I probably didn’t think once about plants or even notice a landscape. Eventually, though, I came back to the garden, which is probably how it usually goes. Much of gardening is a return, an effort at recovering remembered landscapes. I was lucky that when I took up gardening again my grandfather was still alive. He was over ninety by the time I had my own house, and he never got to see it. But I would bring him pictures, carefully culled to give an impression of neatness and order, and, after examining them closely for evidence of weeds, he would pronounce his approval.
By then, his own garden consisted of a half-dozen tomatoes planted by the back door of his retirement condominium. I would help him weed and harvest; he still grew enough beefsteaks to give a few away. He would ask me to describe my garden, and I would, choosing my words with care, painting a picture of a place that I thought he would find hospitable.
The garden I described was largely imaginary, combining elements of my actual garden with memories of Babylon and the kind of pictures that I suppose are common to every gardener’s dreams. It was one of those places that is neither exactly in the past or in the future, but that anyone who gardens is ever moving toward. It was somewhere we could still travel to together. On one of my last visits to see him, he told me I could have his Dutch hoe, declaring it was the best tool for weeding he had ever found. Grandpa was ninety-six, three times my age exactly, and though his step by then was uncertain, he took me outside and showed me how to use it.