Pitzer column: Best garden moment: 'Oh my gosh, those are beans!'

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 21, 2008

By Sara Pitzer
For the Salisbury Post
Shopping at the farmers’ market puts me in mind of my own first garden. I was a graduate student at Penn State. One afternoon I heard two of the other graduate students in the Speech Department talking about lima beans and corn and zucchini squash seeds.
“Are you guys talking in some kind of code?” I asked.
No, they said, they were planning what they’d plant in the garden plots the university made available to graduate students for just a few dollars.
Monkey see, monkey do. If these guys were going to garden, so was I. Each of us had a plot, maybe 10 feet by 10 feet, in what had been a field of alfalfa. The soil was rich brown and, because of the alfalfa, high in nitrogen. Somebody plowed it for us and put up our markers, and then we were on our own. I didn’t have garden tools, so I bought a rake, and maybe a hoe and trowel, and set to work evenings and weekends, with other students, smoothing the soil, planting seeds, and transplanting tomato and pepper starts.
The first thing I noticed was that everybody gardened the way they’d seen it done at home. The students from drought areas planted in trenches that would catch and hold water; those from wetlands planted on ridges that would allow water to drain away. The people with farm backgrounds did a lot of hoeing.
The Asian students brought a small bucket every day, pulled the weeds by hand, and carried them away. I’d grown up in Pennsylvania and, as I’d always seen it done in my family, simply planted on level ground, first marking out rows with string to keep them straight.
From that point on, the Asians and everybody else put me to shame as far as appearance goes. I pulled the worst of the weeds, tossed them on the edge of my plot, and let nature take Her course.
The tomatoes came on in huge quantity, as did the peppers and squash and cucumbers. I carried this stuff home by the basket load, a little amazed by the bounty. But it was the beans that blew my mind.
I’d been watching the bean plants grow, watching little white blossoms form on the vines, and then seeing some tiny little green spikes replacing the blossoms. And it was a miraculous moment. “Oh my gosh, those are beans!”
How to explain my astonishment at the miracle – I’d watched my father grow beans and pick them; I’d seen my Grandpa Jack gather them in a backyard garden, but here I was, Sara Pitzer. I’d put bean seeds in the ground and green plants grew and one day I was harvesting beans. I’ve never had a better moment in a garden.
The sociology of the whole experience was equally memorable. Except for taking my children, Lee and Dana, along sometimes, I worked alone. Many of the graduate students came as couples. I remember a sweet pair who hadn’t a clue about what was going on but were giving it a try. They dug up something I recognized as an alfalfa root and wondered what it was? A potato, one of them speculated. I never said a word.
Another couple worked on their plot every day, fighting loudly and bitterly the whole time. I don’t remember the issues, but I do remember lots of “you always” and “you never” recitations of current grievances. They didn’t curse, but they sure were loud. At first, I was dismayed, and then I realized a curiosity. At the end of every gardening session, they stopped yelling and walked off toward their car, arm-in-arm, chatting amiably.
Cheaper than a counselor and probably more effective.
Besides, I’ve never known a therapist to advertise, “I will work for zucchini.”