Wild City: Salad days

I love it when laziness pays off royally. Last summer my good intentions to plant a second crop of salad fixings in the greens and herbs garden outside our kitchen door went by the wayside. But neither did I pull up all the early season plants that had gone to seed.

This spring we found a lush bed of baby everything: arugula, Russian kale, romaine, red leaf lettuce, oak leaf lettuce. It felt like magic. I hadn’t prepared the soil, or planted the seeds. This stuff just appeared, and it came up thick so weeds weren’t able to compete. A few dandelions did take hold; I left them in place and added their leaves to our salads.

Last year I got a kayak and went my own way, merrily neglecting the garden, but this year I’m working harder on it than ever. The five flowerbeds out front I’m reworking. The veggie beds in back are, through my efforts, better organized, fertilized and fenced.

I’ve added more plants in pots on the little apron of grass in the alley, where we have our best sun. We have the makings out there of a great meal (pear tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, peppers, basil) and my husband and I plan to set up a table in our driveway, next to what we call the alley garden, and eat a dinner cooked from the bounty later in the summer.

I think it was the film we saw in March, just before gardening season began, that inspired me. Called “Truck Farm,” it is about a guy who moves to New York, misses the land, and plants a garden in his truck bed, which he parks on a busy city street.

There were lots of shots of fabulously healthy seedlings grown either by this guy or by the roof gardeners he interviewed. I sat there in the dark on a raw March evening thinking, “I can do that!”

And it is not just gardening that I’ve gone after with everything I’ve got. I am training to ride a 100-mile bike ride in September, which means more bike riding (both each week between now and then, and on the day of the event) than I have ever done before.

Add to that: I am finishing a complex book. Even the spatial logistics of the process are demanding. Imagine trying to get 350 pages of manuscript in your head at once.

Not surprisingly, in May I wasn’t sleeping very well, and when I was asleep I was clenching my teeth so hard they hurt in the morning. It took me awhile, but eventually I realized my body was telling me I had bitten off more than I could chew.

I also realized that the way I was thinking about my intense involvement with gardening, biking, and writing was adding to my stress. It came to me that if I could quit fussing, quit pushing myself, I was capable of doing these three demanding things at once. And I am doing them.

Not without resistance or complaining, of course. As my husband likes to say, I can do this, but I can’t make it look easy.

These activities I’ve committed to compete for my time and energy, but they also complement one another. While I’m on my bike I get ideas for writing; while I’m gardening I’m toning my core and upper body for better overall fitness.

Back to the salads. I was cruising along, eating several fresh salads a week during early summer, when suddenly the plants began to go around the bend. I have gardened for years, and I know this happens to cool-weather-loving plants, but it surprised me nonetheless. It had seemed like we would have salads forever.

The lettuce sent up spikes of yellow flowers and the lettuce leaves tasted bitter. Arugula, while still edible, had a more intense taste. The Russian kale stems and leaves were no longer tender enough to enjoy eating raw.

The Buddhists say that the only constant is change, and that all human suffering springs from our denial of this reality, from our attachments, including our attachment to the way things presently are.

If you are like me, and are writing a memoir, add the compelling attachment to the way things were. I have spent years reconstructing my childhood and young adulthood. Now, in order to finish the book, I have to let them go.

One of the many things I love about gardening is the way it quietly teaches about reality. In May we were awash in peonies, but now they are done. They gave way to irises, but now they are done. The lilies are blooming, enjoy them.

Beauty comes and then it goes again. Nothing stays.

Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at The Loft Literary Center.