I, Farmer David

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 Pots

It 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 Hat

Come 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 Pot

The 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.

The word "David" written in script.

About David Leite

I count myself lucky to have received three James Beard Awards for my writing as well as for Leite’s Culinaria. My work has also appeared in The New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, Saveur, Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Yankee, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, and more.

Hungry For More?

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David finds he may have a green thumb after all as he looks upon the chlorophyl duking it out in his garden in Darwinian style.

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  1. David, you make me laugh…well, except for the bullying part, that made me say “aww”. How do you write like you do? What a gift you have. Love your writing.

    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.

  2. 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!

        1. Thanks for the info, Kelly. The One is in Pennsylvania (his aunt passed away), but when he’s back, we’re going to attack the garden. In the meantime, I’m going to Maple Bank Farms and New Morning for more seedlings.

  3. 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!)