My first garden put me in the hospital.
I was sixteen, and after slaving away in my step-father’s okra-infested patch of dirt for so many years I was surprised to admit to myself that I missed gardening. I had a couple of years break from weeding and watering after he and my mom divorced, and may have gone on several more years without even thinking about fresh produce if it weren’t for the seed catalogs that began arriving in our mailbox. Always gullible, I became enthralled by the glossy photographs and snappy ad copy. I envisioned harvesting pounds and pounds of giant beefsteak tomatoes, English cucumbers, snap peas, corn, lettuce, kale, carrots, chives and green onions. Watermelons! Sweet, ruby-red flesh, chilled and sliced lengthwise and sprinkled with a little table salt to intensify the flavor. This was going to be the garden to beat all gardens.
I ordered more seeds than I could possibly use, and once they arrived I rented a tiller and went to work plowing the gumbo soil so prevalent in southeast Texas. I formed the rows and planted what I was convinced was going to be the biggest producing plot of dirt in the neighborhood.
I didn’t wear gloves, so I got blisters. The blisters got infected and about a week after they healed I was playing baseball with the other guys in the neighborhood, caught a line drive in the palm of my mitt instead of the pocket, and saw my left hand swell to twice its normal size. A visit to the doctor revealed the infection and the need to operate. “He needs to have it drained within the next few days or he’ll start losing the use of his hand. It will be permanent.”
So off to the hospital I went, eleven days total with the surgery and observation time (this was in the mid seventies, when health care was a lot better. I’ve got a seventy-four year old friend who was recently released from the hospital two days after a quadruple bypass, and he has excellent insurance!). Two of my aunts visited me while I was in the hospital, one bringing me a book on organic gardening, another bringing me the “No Work Garden Book.” Both of those books changed how I would garden from there on out.
Ruth Stout’s book is all about mulching. Using her method saves water and keeps the weeds down to a bare minimum. No more hands and knees gardening for me unless I was planting or harvesting. I lost the other book years ago and can’t remember the title or author, but it had even more of an impact on not only the way I treated the planet, but how I treated myself. Organic food tastes better, it’s better for you, it’s better for the environment.
I steadfastly refused to use chemical fertilizers and insecticides, not realizing at the time how polluted the air, water, and soil was all around me. I was living in Port Neches, TX at the time. Port Neches is in the Golden Triangle area of the state, so named because of the large petrochemical complex that was in my little corner of the world. Of course, my organic garden was in one of the most toxic little towns on the planet, but at least I was headed down the right path.