A Dirty Little Secret

Navigating the plant-emic


By Maria Johnson

It started as a joke. Sort of.

Faced with lots of time together this past spring, my husband and I decided to build a victory garden, a nod to the vegetable gardens that Americans planted to boost self-sufficiency and free up food supply chains during both world wars of the 20th century.

Moved by the global impact of coronavirus, we decided we could, we would, grow our own food.

Some of it.

OK, a couple of salads’ worth.

Let’s be real. We don’t have acres and mules, like my grandparents did when they literally ate out of their rural garden during the Great Depression.

Later, after they moved to town — town being a relative term — they weathered WWII by turning more than half of their deep backyard into a garden. To extend the harvest, my grandmother canned vegetables, which was a major operation with glass jars, rings, lids, funnels, rubber gloves, forceps and hot water baths.

Well times, they’ve a-changed. I’m pretty sure our homeowners’ association would bust us if we went full scarecrow on our yard, and the only thing getting a hot water bath in this house is me.

No, we wouldn’t bite off subsistence farming.

But we were down for some garnish farming.

It would be a fun project, a good thing for a couple of work-at-home empty-nesters to do together.

With a smidge of skill and a lot of luck, we could declare victory over the tyranny of Zoom and the never-ending search for a camera angle that doesn’t give you five chins, not to mention the pressure of arranging a bookcase background that says “casual genius,” while making sure the camera is far enough away that no one can make out your complete collection of Calvin and Hobbes cartoon books.

Ours would be a victory garden all right, victory being a relative term.

Full confession: I’ve always wanted a beautiful raised-bed garden. They’re peaceful places to me, perfect microcosms of life. To the best of your ability, you arrange them to be bountiful, knowing that events beyond your control — weather, weeds, pests, disease — will take their toll. Some loss is inevitable.

On the other hand, if you don’t tend your patch in small ways every day, it’ll go to ruin.

Over the years, I’d made several runs at the raised-bed dream by buying a flimsy frame here and there and planting what a friend refers to as spaghetti sauce in the raw: tomatoes, basil, oregano, bell peppers.

The results were always kind of puny. Turns out, tomatoes get this thing called blossom end rot, which looks as nasty as it sounds.

Plus, squirrels eat tomatoes. Correction: Squirrels like to take ONE BITE out of a tomato, then hand it to you and go, “Want some?”

Another lesson learned the hard way: Plants need sun. And water. Other than rain.


The point is, I’m older and wiser now. More Zen and able to breathe deeply and see deeply. 

Also, I found a slingshot in one son’s room.

Hear that, you !@#$% squirrels?

I skimmed the Internet for hearty-looking raised bed frames. Unfortunately, they all came with hearty price tags.

That’s when I decided it would be better if we  — and by that I mean my husband — built the frames from scratch.

I dug out a YouTube video of a carpenter assembling what seemed to be an easy-to-make frame. At least she made it look easy. Same thing, right?

Jeff watched the video and said sure, he could do that.

Sweet. The next thing you know I’m in a home improvement store buying lumber and screws and garden soil and composted manure and mulch (to keep the weeds out, natch) and, let’s see . . . what else?

Oh yeah, seeds.

Standing at the seed rack, I heard someone else laying plans for a “victory garden.” It was a communal moment. All around the seed rack people stood, hands on masked chins, staring thoughtfully at the packets, much as they might ponder titles at a local bookstore — and with the same realization: There are so many titles you’ve never experienced.

Who knew there were so damn many kinds of self-help books — or green beans?  I bought a couple of varieties of the beans — shorter ones, and longer ones, for you gardening aficionados — along with some peas, carrots, beets, radishes, cucumbers and okra.

A gardener friend, who raises his tomatoes from seed, kindly donated some German Johnson and Brandywine plants to our cause.

The next couple of weekends went like this:

Drill-drill-drill. Hammer-hammer-hammer. Measure-measure-measure.

Mulch-mulch-mulch. Shovel-shovel-shovel.


Dig-dig-dig. Sew-sew-sew. Plant-plant-plant.


I must say, things are looking good. We have four gorgeous cedar frames resting on an apron of hardwood mulch and brimming with dirt the color of chocolate cake. The tomatoes are fuzzy and vigorous. Peppers and basil stand sentry nearby. The seeds are sprouting, each type with its own distinctive leaves. We like to watch them grow and change.

We pluck weeds, study sun and shadow, and talk to our tender charges.

“Are you happy?” I ask them over coffee in the wet chill of morning. “Do you have what you need?”

Someone asked me how much this garden cost. In dollars. I don’t know. I don’t want to know. I have shredded the receipts.

This much I do know: Victory takes many forms, and there’s more than one way to feed a soul.  OH

Maria Johnson is a contributing editor
O.Henry. She can be reached at

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