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Commentary: Thoughts About Gardening

By Chris Tucker, KERA Commentator

Dallas, TX –

For the past seven springs, I've planted a good-sized garden - usually 18 or so tomato plants, a bunch of cucumbers, peppers, eggplant, okra, and whatever else strikes my fancy. There's a lot of startup work in March and April, but I enjoy most of it and we love the payoff in May, June, July, and sometimes August - fresh vegetables that do not taste like the bags they come in. Now I can't say that everything I needed to know I learned in the garden, but I do find certain ideas popping up while I'm grubbing around in the dirt and wondering what chewed that weird jigsaw pattern into the zucchini leaves.

First, self-sufficiency. Providing some of my own food, even part of the year, makes me think about all that I don't provide, and where it comes from, and how all those things get from somewhere to my dinner table. It's amazing that we've built these complicated, globe-spanning systems whereby the vast majority of us never produce one mouthful of food, yet most of us eat all we want - and more.

Second, empathy. I don't pretend that I'm any kind of "farmer," but the garden gives me a small window of insight and a lot of respect for those who try to pull a living out of the earth. It means more to me now when I read stories about crops in the Texas Valley or Florida being a "total loss" after bad weather. I'm keenly aware that if my garden fails, I can just drive to the store and pick up some food, but millions of people around the world don't have that option; for them, crop failure means disaster.

Third, the need for connection with nature. I'm a native Dallasite and I love many things about city life, but the astonishing growth of the Dallas area over the past two decades has made it harder than ever to maintain some contact with the world that people didn't make, the world beyond glass and steel and plastic. That's why school districts like Richardson should hold on to valuable assets like their nature center, so that kids can learn something about that odd green stuff that grows between the strip malls. You can't value or protect something that rarely impinges on your life.

Which brings me to my last point, humility. A small urban garden is a healthy reminder that our lives depend on mysterious and miraculous processes we did not create or set in motion. I take a measure of pride in my gardening, but it's tempered by my limited knowledge, my mistakes and what I can only call the Gardener's Fate. Gardening is an art, not a science. You do something one year and get great results, but next year the same method flops completely. I simply don't know why, three years ago, I had more cucumbers than I could give away, while last year's garden produced exactly two weirdly misshapen cukes. No matter what you do, disease and insects and visiting munchers will take their part.

Oh, and don't forget the weather: In last summer's freakish rains, some of the vegetables just drowned, while others had banner years. Chances are this year will bring our usual hot, dry summer, but who knows? That's part of the mystery.

Chris Tucker is a writer and literary consultant from Dallas.

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