The Garden of Self-Defense

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People garden for many reasons: for leisure, for hobby, for health, some even for sustenance. My dad, on the other hand, gardens for the same reason that the United States and the U.S.S.R. kept right on building nuclear weapons far beyond logic and means.

Gardening is Dad’s deterrent to a massive, full-blown vegetable assault. You see, my father is a small-town pastor in West Virginia, and thus a cultural target for excess produce. For a solid century-and-a-half, pastors were paid with food and goods instead of cash. Parishioners simply gave their religious leaders all the extra long-necked squash and zucchini that came out of their gardens. The tradition hasn’t changed all that much, and a pastor just can’t say “No” to the little gray-haired ladies who so lovingly grow all that long-necked squash and zucchini. And there’s only one thing Dad hates more than long-necked squash: zucchini. He was once forced to accept a squash-and-zucchini pie. He took it home, threw it in the trash can, and wrote a thank-you note which read, “Thank you for the pie. I can assure you, a pie like that doesn’t last long in a house like this.”

Because Dad cannot stomach all that squash, or risk his position by refusal, he practices a bit of small-town detente. Every June, Dad plows up a good-sized rectangular garden in the yard, where it is easily seen by passing cars. Then he plants five rows of corn, four rows of sunflowers, and one package each of squash and zucchini. And that’s it—the sum total of Dad’s gardening for the year. After that, he just lets it go. No fertilizing, no watering, no weeding. It is a very Darwinistic approach to horticulture.

After a month or so, Dad’s garden gets, well, unruly. To some, Dad is seen as a sort of a garden slum lord, letting all the delinquent plants and weeds, move in, intermingle, and cross-pollinate. Your average tulip or marigold just would not feel safe in Dad’s garden after dark. But to Dad, it is beautiful. Stately sunflowers stand by Queen Anne’s lace, corn stalks give shade to dandelions, and squash vines grow willy-nilly and hither-thither.

Our neighbor, a tidy man, once told Dad, “Your garden reminds me of my brother’s garden. Now mind you, my brother is inclined to be lazy.” But Dad just smiles. He calls it his Self-Defense Garden.

And best of all, it pays off. When the little ladies approach Dad after church on Sundays with big bags of yellow and green gourds, he can assuage his guilt and spare their feelings by saying, in all honesty, “No thanks, I grow my own. And I’ve got more than I could possibly eat.”

This story was originally published in GreenPrints, “The Weeder’s Digest,” the magazine that shares the personal side of gardening.

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