Wild city // Eating the yard

I love August. It is so lush. All summer, as I nurse the garden along, I anticipate these eating days. We now have too much of everything: tomatoes, green beans, heat, humidity, and also thunder, for those of us who have a dog frightened by it.

I have been working our piece of ground for 14 years, and have good soil to show for it.

Back when we first started, my husband was more of a lawn guy. He liked the idea of a garden, but drew a line in the grass with his toe. Don’t dig up anything beyond here, he said.

So I dug my first of what are now 10 beds, and planted the pumpkin right on his line. The vines ran out of the garden and took over the whole backyard. My husband good-naturedly threw up his hands.

We started with vegetables, and then added fruits. Besides apple trees, we have a chokecherry tree, raspberry bushes, a black current bush, and a winter-hardy grapevine called “Bluebell.” This year the late spring frost, sad to say, zapped most of the nascent chokecherries and grapes.

Our grapevine has the honored place at the head of the vegetable garden. The tiny orbs are, at first, light green with a dusty blush, then, magically, in late summer, plumper, and a little purpler each day. They taste like Concord grapes, good for eating right off the vine, and good for pie.

Veggie-wise, besides tomatoes and green beans, this year we are growing snow peas, white egg plant, cabbages, Brussels sprouts, yellow crooked-necked summer squash, French beans (I am a sucker for anything with the word “French” in the name), French breakfast radishes, cucumbers and green peppers. We have herbs, lettuce, kale and chard.

I go out to the garden just before dinner and harvest whatever is ripe and ready. The satisfactions: the lively tastes, the freshness, and knowing all the work invested amounted to something. And then there are those twinges of guilt — a little more watering and mulching might have boosted our yields.

Gardening may seem like a tame pursuit for putterers, but for me it has been a way to be outdoors, noticing the weather, seeing birds and butterflies, observing what is wild here, while at the same time being close by and available as we were raising our daughter.

She has just graduated from high school, but rather than back off on gardening this summer, I’ve redoubled my efforts. The local food movement got me thinking I could raise even more edibles. Of course, the rabbit population exploded this year. I read somewhere that, due to warming trends, and the resulting longer summers, rabbits are having more litters.

What my husband calls “the little bunny bastards” ate the tops off our pea and bean plants, mostly ignoring deterrents that had kept them wary other years, like blood meal and whirly-gigs. After a pause, the plants grew back.

I am a strong proponent of backyard vegetable gardens because of how I was raised. I lived on one piece of ground up north for my first 18 years, and we grew much of what we ate. We didn’t do it because it was local, but because it was cheaper. Something profound happens to a person, though, when you are rooted in one place, and you, in essence, eat that place. You feel as though you belong to it, and it to you.

As backyard vegetable gardens have become more popular, I’ve been waiting to hear a spirited debate about the use of lawn chemicals. They worry me. When you are married to a person with cancer, you start looking around, wondering what your family is being exposed to, and every time I see one of those lawn service trucks parked on our street, I cringe and close the windows.

It is a delicate subject. People want a perfect lawn. It doesn’t seem neighborly to criticize or protest. Telling people that they are risking their health and yours for a lifeless monoculture will get you nowhere, but I have to say that when I tear out grass to extend our gardens, the ground under the sod all but sighs with relief.

The other day I was riding my bike and saw a guy in his yard carrying one of those metal tanks of herbicides and spraying his grass. He lived about a 10-second walk from the creek. Something in me had just had enough. I called out, “Those weeds aren’t going to hurt you.” He looked up, startled. “No, but they are going to hurt my lawn,” he said.

“That grass isn’t doing any of us any good,” was the best I could do in reply.

Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at The Loft Literary Center. Her book of poems, “The Truth About Water,” was published last year.