There are no bad seeds in May

Our vegetable garden is now in the ground. Even here in Lincoln, Vermont where we’re still waiting for global climate change to make the New Haven River warmer in August than a Frozen Slushee, my wife and I strive to have the seeds and seedlings planted before the first of June. Sure, some years it seems as if the whole growing season in this mountain town is the Fourth of July weekend. To wit: We had a frost earlier this week. But we still view June 1 as the date when the garden should be planted, fertilized, weeded and marked.

We have been doing this for over two decades, but the satisfaction is as great now as it was when we were preparing the soil for the very first time in our mid-20s.

There are lots of reasons for this, but I’m honestly not sure that the harvest that begins in late July is among them — at least in my case. Sure, I like vegetables, but I grew up on canned peas so it’s not like I’m a fresh vegetable snob. My mother was all but allergic to food that was green. One time she tried to cook asparagus for my brother and me, and I swear it was like eating boat rope that had been pulled from a swamp: Chewy, stringy and marsh-like. Years later, my wife served her broccoli soon after we were married and she proceeded to ask her daughter-in-law in complete earnestness why there wasn’t hollandaise “to cover up the taste.”

So, why do I join my wife planting seeds around Mother’s Day weekend? Why does having a vegetable garden matter to me? First of all, we plant it when the days are still growing long and summer spreads out before us like a billowing bed sheet. May is a month rich with optimism: All things seem possible when the sky is still light at 8:30 at night. In May, baseball players don’t really take steroids. In May, commercial airline pilots don’t show up for work and fail breathalyzer tests. OK, they do and one did. No matter. May is still a month of promise.

Second, I get enormous satisfaction watching the grass grow. Let’s face it, a lot of guys do. It’s a way for real men to nurture. And the pleasure I derive from watching grass seed sprout is similar to the gratification I get from watching the first carrot sprigs emerge from the dirt or the first yellow buds unfurl on the tomato plants. I am an avid weeder. (I’m an avid reader, too, but that’s another column.) I was a dedicated gardener before I was a father, but I wasn’t surprised to discover in the days after my wife’s and my daughter was born that I love being a parent.

Which brings me to the third and perhaps most important reason why I am so keen on planting the garden: It is one of those annual rituals that puts my life in perspective. It’s like a diary. Each year I look at the garden and recall where I was in years past. For instance, there is the corner where I sat my daughter in 1995, when she was a mere toddler, and watched her hold the pea seeds in her chubby little hand as if they were gold. There is the fat Albert — a Colorado spruce — beneath which is buried the ashes of one of our cats. And there is the square patch of grass that now spends most of even the longest days in shade because of the trees that have grown tall in the last decade and a half, but once was the section of the garden where we grew lettuce and string beans and snow peas.

Yes, each May I’m a little older and I find myself a little more stiff after hours of bending over. My knees and my back won’t last forever. That, too, is worth noting. But I love the way the memories are massaged into the soil with the seeds and how, year after year, new ones emerge along with squash and peppers and beets.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on May 31, 2009.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.