Suddenly we're growing vegetables. Mini victory gardens are sprouting in windowboxes and backyards across the city and people are excitedly chattering about all the delicious salad greens they've planted. Turned into connoisseurs by our fabulous Greenmarkets, we have become obsessed with fresh, local stuff. And what could be more local than your personal patch of dirt? The recession has upped the ante. Somehow we have convinced ourselves that in difficult times, it's more economical, more worthwhile and authentic to harvest our own precious little crop of arugula than to buy a fragrant, earthy sheaf of the stuff from a lovely farmer for $1.50 or so. All a matter of preference, I guess. But my advice is to stay away from the whole vegetable thing.
When you grow plants for their looks, you tend to be philosophical if they disappoint. You toss them or wait for them to behave better next year. But with vegetables, there's so much at stake. You're salivating for the payoff--sweet, juicy tomatoes; skinny runner beans that will impress the hell out of your friends. And that urgency, that need for results will involve you in all-out warfare with the assorted wildlife that's waiting to nibble on each tender shoot as it emerges.
My parents, raising three daughters in strapped post-war Britain, relied on the harvest from their big vegetable garden to keep us healthy, but oh, the stress of it! Every weekend in growing season my father was out there with the evil poison pump (mmm, DDT-infused potatoes!) or enlisting his mutinous girls to help him net the raspberry canes against the foraging birds. He knew that just beyond our neat suburban fence hordes of predators were massing, poised to move in on the very first peapods. The garden was under siege. One morning, incensed at the sight of a rabbit lolloping over to the lettuces, he took out his hunting rifle and fired it through the dining-room window, which, fortunately, was open at the time. The bunny bit the dust; the lettuces survived. Was it worth it? You'd have to ask my father, who had to deal with his sobbing, accusatory offspring.
I'm no sissy. If you were to come and visit me in the little backyard of my Brooklyn brownstone, you might find me scrubbing out the mucky, fishpoo-laden pond or tossing around aged, dried manure, the presence of which so delights my neighbors. I get real pleasure from squishing the aphids that colonize my hibiscus plant. But still, I'd rather not kill every single thing that might come between me and a nice plate of vegetables for supper.