I, Farmer David

Burpee Seeds

I have a complicated relationship with plants. Not all plants, just vegetables. And not vegetables themselves, actually, just the growing and harvesting of them.

See, I was subjected to indentured servitude on a farm in Swansea, MA, when I was 13 years old. Momma and Poppa Leite had felt the experience would be “good for you.” Besides, what else do you do with a depressed teenager who’s not only morose but terribly anxious? Considering it was the early ‘70s, my parents had two choices: hard work or hard-core meds. (Remember, this predated the age of mixologists MDs, so the drug of choice was Mother’s Little Helper: Valium. Plus, I’d gotten ahold of a copy of Valley of the Dolls that someone had left for trash, and there was no way in hell I was going to turn into Neely O’Hara—sparkle or no sparkle.)

So for three ballbusting years, I spent my summers bent over and picking peppers, green beans, zucchini, and summer squash; stringing and popping suckers off tomato plants; and slicing cabbages from their roots with perhaps the dullest, rustiest knife ever honed by man—all the while getting redneck sunburnt, scratching my ass (never relieve yourself in the middle of a poison sumac patch), and praying for rain, a tornado, hurricane, or other natural disaster.

I also had to endure the ceaseless taunting by the other hired farm boys, who pointed to their crotches as they called my name because they somehow knew I was the rarest of things on a vegetable farm: a fruit. (To be fair, no one escaped the ribbing. It just stung extra bad because though I was years away from florid denial—I was too young and naive even to be in denial yet—I somehow knew what they so crudely intimated was true.)

During lunch I’d sit in the cool shade of the maple tree, fantasizing that one day I’d become as rich as Jay Gatsby and that I, too, would wear swell Brooks Brothers clothes and drive a yellow Rolls-Royce while the other boys pumped my gas. (The Robert Redford-Mia Farrow film had just come out, and though I was too young to see it, I devoured the novel as well as every single sentence about the movie in the premiere issue of People magazine.)

Seed PotsIt was with this swirl of memories—possible child-labor violations, adolescent bullying, and a penchant for pastel, pin collar dress shirts—that I faced off with our garden this past weekend.

Recently The One and I had agreed that if I’m really going to go all Green Acres on him, as I promised in our first podcast, I really need to grow all our vegetables from seed this summer. In years past, we’d trudge over to New Morning, our local organic food store, and bring home armloads of young plants and herbs that I’d happily dump on him, instructing him where to put them. But this past Sunday we ambled through The Home Depot until we found Burpee seed starter kits and organic seeds. We argued over which to buy—I campaigned for any carbohydrate or allium, The One insisted on green rabbit food—and, as a way of demonstrating to him my newfound devotion and recommitment to country living, I uncharacteristically acquiesced. Kind of—I still got my onions. And I didn’t stop at 25 sod pods, as he pleaded. Nor 50. Or even 100. No, I went for the big kahuna. I bought 150 sod pods. Plus five pots for herbs. The sprawl of what will be Jardin Chez Leite, as I call our backyard behemoth-to-be, is so large, I had to drag a folding table from the basement and abut it against the windows in the family room to hold all my seedlings. (Oh, he loved that.)

Garden HatCome Sunday, as The One relaxed with the New York Times (witness him reclining on the chaise in one of the photos above), I spent the better part of the afternoon shaded by the brim of my ridiculous-looking new gardening hat (I’m trying to control a bout of adult-onset rosacea, not pretending to be fashionable) while I seeded, watered, charted, and cursed those seed pods. Do you know what a pain in the ass it is to get exactly two mesclun, broccoli rabe, or onion seeds—which, incidentally, taste exactly like the onion seeds you get in fancy restaurants…who knew?—into those freaking small holes in the dirt? After an hour I gave up and just started cramming as many seeds as I could into each pod. I figured at least one seed is bound to take root. (Uh, right?)

Herb PotThe next morning I rushed to the trays of pods, each covered with condensation clinging to plastic covers, and peered in. I knew one night wouldn’t make much difference, yet I still poked each of the sod pods, looking for any signs of life. It reminded me of a project I had to do in Cub Scouts, in which Momma Leite (who was also my den mother) and I raised plants in Dixie cups pulled from the space-age dispenser glued to the bathroom cabinet. If I remember correctly, every single one of those plants died.

I’m hoping that all those years of backaches and perpetually dirty fingernails from the farm taught me a thing or two. Stay tuned.

Update May 1, 2013 2:15 p.m.

I think my seedlings-to-be have suffered death by steam heat. The instructions on the Burpee starter kit read, “Just add water and light.” So my logic went like this: If plants like full sun, and seeds are baby plants, then seedlings like full sun. So I carefully carried the covered trays to the front porch and placed them on the warm slate floor. The plastic covers instantly filled with tiny fish-eye beads of condensation. And there the trays sat for eight hours yesterday and six hours today. When I just took my umpteenth peek, hoping to find my little ones tendriling, all I found were a few pallid-looking beans with wilted shoots. I’ve gone from creator (with a little “c”) to mass murderer in fewer than 72 hours. I have chlorophyll on my hands, I tell you. Chlorophyll.

David Leite's signature



  1. Better luck next time! My local company is the Sustainable Seed Co. Their site has quite the selection if you’re into looking for different varieties. I usually start my seeds in little garden flats by a windowsill…uncovered ;)

    Thanks for sharing David!

  2. Your story reminds me a bit of some sort of twisted Calvin & Hobbes cartoon where the dad keeps saying “it builds character”. Poor you! But if there is one bright side of a horrible childhood experience is all the stories it feeds. Makes me want to give the young you a hug. But it is true – you look marvelous in a hat, but as a former milliner, I do have to say you need a slightly wider brim. I really do admire your passion and determination for your “jardin”. Good luck. Wish I could send you seeds from Nantes.

    1. Marliee, thank you for your kind words. Yes, the bullying was pretty awful, but I don’t think it compares to today’s bullying, what with all its online components. I feel bad for today’s kids.

  3. Oh my gosh! I admire your pluck! I have taken the easier way out – picked up a plethora of seedlings from New Morning and Maple Bank. Too many of them, of course. Maple Bank has some cool things like bok choy and celery, both of which are doing great, as well as a wild assortment of kales including cavolo nero. The herbs and greens seem to like it here and while I can grow tomatoes, peppers fail. Not a full day’s sun – we have too many darn trees. Speaking of which, I’m using newspaper layers to keep the weeds away this year and it’s working very, very, well. The newspaper layer is supposed to be covered with a layer of wood chips (not bark or nuggets, chips). I need to get around to finding out where in town, after all our storms, they have hidden what must be a pile of wood chips as tall as the Great Pyramid. And David, I have a hat much like yours. It’s a look, isn’t it?

    1. Kelly, Maple Bank sells seedlings? Really? I gotta get there this weekend.

      I’ll have wood chips soon; they’re felling a few trees. Isn’t there some sort of newsprint requirement/suggestion so that you don’t use harmful ink? You and I HAVE to grab that coffee together at Mamie’s. So much to talk about.

      1. It’s an old wives tale that there’s lead in newspaper ink. People get it on their hands so it’s safe. In the garden, use two to three layers of newsprint to cover the bed, cutting holes in it with your trowel and just dropping the seedlings in. Cover the newsprint with at least 4″ of wood chips (as if you were generously frosting a chocolate cake!). Maple Bank’s seedlings are great – all of them are raised right here in their greenhouse. Lots of heirloom varieties of tomatoes, culinary specialties. Oh, get the lovage!!! It’s a perennial, comes back year after year in early spring, is fantastic for cooking. Yes, we need to catcha cuppa David – would be fun!

  4. David, I thoroughly enjoyed this post. I was bullied as a kid, as were most of us, I venture to say. I’m delighted to be out of that time.

    I am, for only the second or third time in my life, attempting a garden this year. We had a 10×10 sandbox for the shorties for several years, and now that the youngest is 9, I dug out the sand and transformed the box into a garden. We have tomatoes, herbs, peppers, eggplants and one zucchini, as well as assorted herbs. I’m looking forward to this, even as my husband tells me it would be cheaper to just visit the farmer’s market every week.

    1. Carmen, yeah, I sometimes think it would be a lot easier and probably cheaper to go the farmer’s market, too. But I want–at least for one summer in the autumn of my life–to get my hands dirty and return to that time, sans the bully bastards. (Watch, I’ll probably hate it!)

  5. A few years ago, when the economy was actually headed downwards rather than the current sideways, my wife and I had one of those great conversations that later makes you cringe.

    Me: You know, I was just thinking that rather than having all this grass all over the place, we should dig it all up and plant ourselves a real garden. A BIG one! Big enough to supply us with fresh vegetables all summer! And in the fall I could can all of the extra stuff and we could eat that all winter. And I could learn to hunt and fish and maybe we could get some chickens….. We wouldn’t have to ever worry about our jobs ever again! We could go off the grid!

    Her: Uh huh…..

    Thanks for the reminder David.

  6. Oh David — I so enjoy your writing and it never fails to bring a smile to my face. I have a notoriously brown thumb (and accompanying fingers), so wouldn’t even attempt to cook seedlings as you have. Forge on! I can’t wait to read about your gardening successes.

    1. Susan, well the thumb is getting browner. I just had to dig out the dead beans. They were non-starters–which is ironic considering the package is a seed starter kit….

  7. If it’s any consolation, I, too, have been bitten by the grow-your-own food bug and yet still have dead plants. I ran out and bought potted herbs and brought them home and set them out in the backyard. I came back two days later to find them dried up and dead. I had kind of forgotten the California sun in the Mission is deadly to delicate herbs. I bought more and those are sitting in the relative safety of my kitchen.

    1. KitchenBeard, I, too, think I have a plant store in my future. I adore herbs, but they demand more attention than Kim Kardashian on a good day. All that watering.

  8. My brother just finished building a L shaped raised bed in our back yard. Can’t wait to get started. This first time we’re going to use starts. hopefully next year we’ll be able to plant from seed. we have PERFECT growing weather here in Orange Co., California.

    1. Mkibstedikeline, lucky you. We have ruinous weather in CT. Cold, then hot, then warm, then frost, then hot. You get the picture. Those babies aren’t going outside until at least after Memorial Day. And even then I’ll fret.

  9. David, here’s the great reality. If the seeds don’t work you can go to any number of organic farms that will be selling baby plants in a 6-pack. I refuse to not have spring peas because my seeds didn’t work, and I’ve now given up on trying to grow herbs from seed except for mint because it’s impossible to kill it, as a seed or in a pot.

    1. Ellen in Providence, yeah, that’s Plan B. We’ve already talked to the folks at New Morning–just in case. I’m thinking herbs from seeds aren’t a smart thing. I’m going to start some herb cuttings in water and others in soil. I think ye gods of the gardens say it can be done. Let’s see….

  10. You had a Nova? My first car was a Nova also, and I’m sure I rode in yours once or twice but I don’t remeber it but I can tell you who played what in “The Sound of Music….”

    Admit your defeat…Farmer’s Market.

    1. Never! I’ll never admit defeat!

      And you definitely rode in my Nova. Don’t you remember, you, Robie, and Tom, and I would drive for hours (that’s when gas was .54 a gallon)?

      And what “The Sound of Music” has to do with my lack of farming skills is beyond me….

  11. Bravo!! Truly well done. “share your pain” doesn’t say it! I’ve been farming-almost 4k sq. ft. for about 20 years and still kill WAY more than i harvest. My wife BEGS me to “just buy whatever you want”. NO WAY!! Tristar strawberries are MY WHIT WHALE!!. Stay at it- i will too!!


    1. JW, ha! So good to know I’m not alone. And after 20 years, you’re still killing. Maybe my little masacre ain’t so bad after all. Expect more posts and pictures of the carnage. Um, I mean garden.

      1. Sounds eerily similar to mine and my wife’s first adventure with growing our own garden. Funny thing is…this many years later and we still struggle with it every year. Better luck with your next adventure!

        1. Thanks, Seymour. Things in the garden have gotten a bit better. But, damn, it’s hard work. At least the local farmers have been seeing a lot more of me these past several weeks.

  12. Yow! We lived somewhat parallel lives. When I was an angsty 11- or 12-year old, my mom decided it would be good for me to pick prunes at the Russian River. This did not involve climbing trees. It meant picking them up off he ground after they shook the trees to dislodge the ripe ones. Oh, my aching back. I only lasted about a day and a half, but, already 5’9″, I got to learn to drive the big flatbed truck (stick shift! go me!) that went through the orchards to pick up the filled crates of fruit. I also learned that if you see a muddy path with cow prints in it, you don’t want to walk there. Shudder.

    Yep, you steamed your veggies. If you put them out again, put them where they don’t get direct sun and take the covers off — they hold in the heat and cook the poor buggers. Last year I got a setup like yours but decided it was too much trouble and went back to sowing directly in the ground. This year I’m going for raised beds, like 4′ high. I used to guilt my mother out by telling her my bad back was the direct result of being forced to pick prunes when I was a mere child. ;)

    And I’ve got to say that, in that hat, you could still be a teenager. You have aged very well.

    1. I adore you. “You could still be a teenager.” Do you hear that The One?!! A TEENAGER. He and I constantly quibble over who looks younger. But I ask you: He spent summer after summer baking in the sun with no suntan lotion in sight. I spent all of my summers inside looking out. Who do you think would look younger?

      And, yes, it seems as if we are psychologically conjoined twins. Our mothers must be related.

  13. After a long, clunky work week, I promised my family ‘no more’ after 4 pm Saturday. So, yesterday afternoon, we putzed in the garden, checking on a few seedlings and basking in the sunshine, grateful that the fires in our county are being contained, grateful to be home and quiet.

    And this morning my first treat is to read your essay – I cringed at the bullying – a painful truth that most of us with children face, and navigate the best we can, though it never feels successful – a different essay on that.

    David. You have a gift for bringing the Big Wide World into your writing, doused with your lovely humor, intelligence and openness. What can I say? Everytime I write I send a Huge Thank You for your way of shaing your life with us, for your wonderful, wonderful self, shining through each time – I love reading your work. (And thanks, too, to The One – good for him, resting on the chaise.) Truly, thank you, again.

    1. “Clunky work week.” Love that, Elizabeth. And thank you for your kind words. Nothing makes me happier to know that readers enjoy my work. And I think you’ve hit the nail on the head of what I’ve been trying to do with my blahg, but haven’t articulated very well: I want to bring the world to readers, share my particular life story with The One, and make them laugh. Thanks for clarifying it one brief paragraph. (You should be in marketing!)

  14. It’s snowing in KC. Waaaaaah! My lilacs just bloomed yesterday & the tulips are freezing. Glad I didn’t start my spring planting yet.

    P.S. Your hat looks goofy.

  15. That School Marm look of disgust over your reading glasses competes with the jaunty hat you’re sporting there, David …and the button collared shirt. You planting in an office? I know, it’s that damn small print on those seed packets, the damn small seeds and that damn small pots that big fingers have to work in.

    Story…My bother in law graduated with a degree in horticulture and I was just sure he had technical expertise and words of wisdom that would help me keep my plants alive, so I consulted him about the problems I was having. His advice…water them only when they just start to wilt, if they survive, and they should, that’s what they are supposed to do. If they die…throw those bitches out and get new ones. I thought he was being jokingly ruthless but I gave it a try and he was right! Haven’t had a problem since.

    1. I try to maintain a Brooks Bros. look while gardening. (No, I was just modeling the hat. The crappy clothes went on afterwards.)

      And, I agree with your brother-in-law. But I’m determined to get back to the earth, as I did as a kid, and watch these f$#$%kers grow, if it’s the last thing I do.

  16. Don’t worry, I was a plant killer last summer. The plants finally got some gumption and started growing. I blamed the plants for having poor work ethic, you should do that too.

  17. David, I have to say you totally brightened up my day! Not only do you have a superb site, but your blog is so wonderful to read and you have such an outstanding way with words! Thanks for the laughs and I look forward to reading more about your adventures in gardening :)

    1. Abbe@This is How I Cook, I think you’re right. And the weird thing is, my family never canned or pickled anything, with the exception of a salty pepper paste my dad made, which he calls massa de pimenta. I have no idea where this deep-seated, agrarian, homesteading need is coming from. It’s so far from what I usually covet–duck fat, foie gras, macarons. You get the idea.

  18. I have some plants growing on the kitchen table right now, until it is safe to plant them outdoors. Started some bell peppers and cucumbers by seed, but I did buy tomato plants. Will plant herbs and squash, pole bean seeds outside when it is safe. Already have rhubarb and blueberries in the ground and still covered because it’s not warm enough to uncover them quite yet where I live. I think your plants will do good. All of my plants are being grown in very large pots as the ground here is horrid. I do have some onions coming up in the ground, they never came up last year so don’t know what is up with them coming up now. Yet, I’m not complaining, if they turn into onions great, if not I’m not going to worry about it. My brother did farm work like you did a couple of years so he could save up some money. Our parents didn’t believe in allowance and we still had a boat load of chores to do, so if we wanted money we had to find ways of making it ourselves. I remember cleaning houses, doing laundry and ironing, as well as babysitting to make money. My brother did the farm work, and mowed lawns, my older sister actually went to work at 14 for a department store, my younger sister mostly did babysitting. Yet, sometimes I wish I hadn’t worried about making money and would have just had fun, but our parents stopped buying us our clothes at age twelve and that is mostly where our money went. My Dad was like that because at age 12 he had left school and was earning a living trimming palm trees in Florida, until he got on with a tree trimming firm in New Mexico, then to Korea (younger than he should have because he lied and said he was older), then came back and got on with a Power Company as a line man and advanced in that company until he retired on Disability. I think he thought if he could make it at age twelve that all kids needed to have a sense of being able to make a living at a young age. I don’t agree with that though, I think kids need to have fun, you become an adult too soon in my opinion.

    1. Lauralee, hear, hear. Kids are becoming adults faster than we ever did. I, too, think a childhood is designed for fun, learning how to socialize, and just experiencing life.

      Mamma and Pappa Leite saved every penny I made (prior to working on the farm, I had a job delivering Saturday circulars for two years) and let me buy my own car. I will NEVER forget that my Uncle Tony took my dad and me to an auto auction when I turned 16 1/2 years old. I had $1500 in my hot, dirt-stained hands. There was a gorgeous, sexy red Thunderbird and a puke-y yellow-colored Chevy Nova that were in my price range. To this day I haven’t forgiven Pappa Leite for making me buy the Nova. I think it was the last nail in the coffin of coolness. Never again would I have the opportunity to be the guy everyone envied. The only thing that gives me comfort is that the following year, in 1978, we had a terrible blizzard, and they sent the students home from school early. On my way, I plowed into the back of Mrs. Slowe’s car. Her car was fine; mine had to have to a fender, bumper and hood replaced–all from three different cars. I never had the car painted in protest. So I drove around with a puke-y yellow car, red fender, and white hood. I sure know how to cut my nose to spite my face, huh?!

  19. Loved the story and the hat! You made my day and I was finally able to laugh about my childhood, it seems WE had pretty much he same experience growing up!

  20. I have a little plastic scoop with a ratchet wheel that you rotate, it gives a vibration and bounces your seeds; 1 or 2 at a time into the planting hole. I assume they still them in catalogs, Johnnies Selected Seed, from VT is my favorite for local temp tolerant seeds.
    If you can’t find one I’ll send you mine; Haven’t used it in years.

        1. Kenneth, I had to do a little searching because the link takes you only to the catalog, not the page itself. I think you mean the Vibro Hand Seeder, on page 6, correct? It looks fantastic.

  21. Ah, I can’t wait to follow your gardening adventure, David! Every year the kids & I start tomato plants from seed, I call it “step one in making salsa”. And we throw about 4-5 seeds per hole, and just trim off the excess when they start to grow. Better than nothing coming up at all!

      1. Herbs take a LONG time, at least in my experience (I usually cheat and buy the plants, nothing wrong with that.) Beans will germinate quickly, and everything else will just require patience & sunshine. In Manitoba we usually can’t get into the garden until the beginning of June, and I seed beans & peas straight into the ground then, no transplanting required.

          1. Haha, that is a problem! Oh dear – you killed beans. The one thing they let 6 year olds grow in a cup with paper towel. Maybe you should start there – get out the dixie cups and paper towels again.

  22. Beth beat me to the punch – I was going to write how fetching you are in that hat! I have not clicked on the links to see the difference, but I grew thinking that summer squash and zucchini were the same, one yellow and one green.

    1. Phillip, why, thank you! Zucchini and summer squash are the same, yes. But that’s what we called it back then. Sometimes we used “yellow squash.” Remember, this was 1973–the newest food revolution in our town back them was the arrival of McDonald’s.

      1. Actually, no, zuccchini varieties come in all kinds of colours, from almost white, to light pale green, striped green, dark green with tiny spots, almost black green and of course, yellow. Zucchini´s will never become as hard skinned as summer squash will if you leave them long enough on the vine. The plastic cover over the seeds only makes sense if you want to create a warmer, moister environment than the outside temp or your livingroom can provide. If it´s already quite balmy outside, don´t leave the plastic cover on while you let them sunbathe, just make sure the soil doesn´t dry out, check in the evening and water then if necessary. Good luck!!

    1. Kasha, ha! It’s always good to feel like a kid–sans the bullying. It’s amazing how cruel can be. And thanks for the well wishes for the garden. I’m trying to get excited about bending over for hours on end (with, um, extra padding that wasn’t there 40 years ago) in the silly hat.

  23. Aw, I hate the bullying anecdote, but I chuckled when I scrolled down to you in your hat. You’re adorable. And I’m sure your garden will flourish. (Breathable sod pods are surely a better start for seedlings than waxy Dixie cups.)

    1. Thank you, darling. Yes, I was ruthlessly picked on. So were others, but it was two of us who got the worst of it.

      These pods seem to be great. My beans are already unfurling. But question: Can you plant a seed upside down? Because I swear a few of these are growing downward.

      1. Hmm. I suppose so, a la bulbs and asparagus crowns, but you’d think that any sprouts from wee seeds that are pointed downward would somehow find their way upward with a little extra effort. Maybe organic seeds are more prone to slacking.

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