When my husband proposed to me he offered to let me choose a diamond. I turned it down. I mean, I’m not really a diamond kind of girl, and to spend that much money on something that I was probably just going to lose, or ruin while doing some kind of manual labor seemed, well, ridiculous.
Eighteen years later, I’m still not a diamond kind of girl, and I’ve never regretted that decision. We’re pretty low-key on all the traditional romance kind of stuff anyway. We like to go out to eat, but since becoming parents it’s a table for three, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. There are couples that go out of their way to have “date nights” when they can spend some time alone, just the two of them, and I totally appreciate and respect that. But honestly, I don’t want to date my husband. I mean, I don’t want to date at all. Dating is stressful. It implies a certain distance and formality between two people that needs to be maintained until the relationship becomes more intimate, more settled; until it becomes something that you can, well, take for granted.
Taking a person for granted is supposed to be a bad thing. And yet, if you can’t take your spouse for granted from time to time, then what’s the point of being married at all?
I approach my garden in pretty much the same way – the wanting the comfort of being able to occasionally take it for granted part, that is. But that’s where the similarity between me the wife and me the gardener comes to a screeching halt. In almost every area of my life I am both risk-averse and anti-drama. But in the garden I am a high-maintenance drama queen. But then again, so is my garden. Not for a moment does it ever let me take it for granted!
Witness me and the potato.
Potato and I got through our first year together without any real issues. I ordered my seed potatoes – Red Caribe and Russian Banana Fingerling – from “a reputable seed company”, which everything you ever read about potatoes tell you to do, so we were off to a great start. They were supposed to ship at the correct time for planting in my zone, so when they arrived, I trotted them right outside and, carefully following the directions that came with them, put them in the ground. I waited a few days and then…
You know how it is. You meet this great guy, or you go out on a first date, and you think everything is all stars and rainbows and fireworks, and he not only promises to call you but he even goes in for that first, sweet, tentative kiss that promises everything and then…
He doesn’t call. Ever again.
This is what I’m saying. Dating stinks.
Naturally when I didn’t hear from potato right away after our first, brief encounter, I was concerned. But I was cool. I didn’t exactly stalk him. I mean, there was that one incident when I dug one of the seed potatoes back up just to see what was going on down there. But when I saw that it was sprouting, slowly but surely, I hastily covered it back up and made a quick, shame-faced retreat. And sure enough, within days, we were an item.
I love the way a potato plant looks when it first comes up out of the ground. It is such a dark, vibrant green. It has such sturdy foliage. I walked out to the garden every morning and admired them. I admired myself, too. I was a success! I was growing potatoes! But the first blush of romance passed by all too quickly. Like every relationship, there came a time when ours required some effort.
Before I knew it I was full of hilling anxiety. Of course I had known that Potato had needs; who doesn’t? I’d known it was coming. Still, when the moment came, I was once again Googling in a panic. How high should the hills be? Am I hilling enough? I read articles. I watched You Tube videos. I know we hadn’t been together for that long but I was really attached to Potato. I wanted this relationship to succeed. It occurred to me that I might be falling in love.
That first year I was so worried about under-hilling that I even went so far as to build cages out of rabbit guard and garden cloth and heaped the dirt into them. A few days later, I got uber-paranoid about what might be leaching out of the cloth and I pulled the cloth out. I then watched in dismay as the dirt crumbled out of the holes in the rabbit guard. I was big into buying straw that year, so I got a bale of straw and spread that around on top of the dirt, and stuck it in around the edges of the rabbit guard where the garden fabric used to be.
I have realized over the past few years that I went way overboard that first year with Potato. But he didn’t take advantage, and I could tell that he really appreciated it. I got tons of potatoes, and I don’t recall ever seeing a single insect pest on them, either.
But of course that was our honeymoon year, and I was still a fairly novice gardener. It may be that I was simply wearing rose-colored glasses.
I mean, it happens to everyone – and to every relationship – sooner or later, right? Life sets in. There are droughts. You try to help but you overcompensate with the sprinkler and end up with mush instead of potatoes. There are beetles, and you don’t realize when you’re admiring their brown and cream-colored exoskeletons that your partner is in distress. A few weeks later you’re staring at the red and black potato beetle larvae in bewilderment, and saying to your partner, “You want me to do what?” But you do it, because that’s what relationships are all about. You smush the potato beetle larvae. You make a game of it. You even develop your own special techniques. You fold the leaves they’re on in half and crush them in the middle so as not to get the ickiness on your hands. For every larvae you destroy, you start to feel a sense of accomplishment. And yet, all the carnage is unpleasant. It makes you question your values. I mean, am I still the woman that I once was? I used to have Grateful Dead stickers on my car. I used to think seriously about Buddism every time I swatted, and killed, a fly.
But in the end you get through it okay. You kill the beetles; you keep your partner healthy, and he makes potatoes, and you eat – good, safe, healthy food that you have ushered into the world and for whom you have taken responsibility from cradle to grave. And that is worth something. That – you realize – may just be what life is all about.
So for a few years Potato and I settled into a comfortable relationship. You know what I mean. The kind of relationship where you’re in the kitchen getting the beers, and your beloved, sitting in front of the television in the other room calls out, “Hey! The show’s getting ready to start!” and you get all warm and fuzzy inside because you know, in that moment, in a way that no diamond ring can ever say, that he loves you. And lest you think that that doesn’t go both ways – it does. Sometimes you’re the one sitting on the sofa waiting for your beloved to come back in and top off your wine glass and it’s your turn to call out, “Hey! The show’s back on!” And you thank your lucky stars that you have someone in your life with whom you can share this simple and otherwise inconsequential moment which simultaneously says both nothing about you both, and everything.
So that’s pretty much where Potato and I were for several years. Until this year.
Now, I’m not much of one for wanting to “spice up” a relationship. Wearing wigs, meeting up in bars and pretending like you’re strangers, role playing – that’s not for me. And yet, like anyone else, I can’t help but think that things in any relationship can be improved, and I’m not against working towards that improvement. Take, for example, these darned potato beetles. I mean, it was all well and good the first few years when we were first discovering each other. But do we have to go through that kind of agony every year? Isn’t there something we can do about this? So I did research, and I came up with a couple of options – horseradish, and Cornells’ King Harry hybrid potatoes, bred to resist potato beetles. Potato and I talked it over. He was cool with the horseradish, but skeptical about the King Harry. What was wrong with Red Caribe and Russian Banana Fingerling? They’d done well for us every year. And what about last year, when I’d grown German Butterball? What about that? They’d gotten some kind of disease, and I’d ended up with a useless crop of pock-marked golf balls, and whose idea was that? Oh right. That was mine.
Potato really does have a snarky side.
But I was relentless, and ultimately, convincing. I was doing this for him. Why should he suffer, season after season, having his thick and beautiful green leaves shredded and demolished by senseless insects? Sure, he can lose thirty percent of his foliage to pests before it affects his yield, but does he really want to? And do I really want to be seen in public with a potato plant that has lost a third of his foliage to a potato beetle? I’m sure that I do not. Call me superficial. Call me petty. But when I step out, I want my partner to look good.
So we spent twenty-something bucks on horseradish roots, and ordered a bag of King Harry seed potatoes. I put some of the horseradish in pots in the potato corners of the garden, and a few others in the ground in pots that I had cut the bottoms out of so that the horseradish wouldn’t take over the place. So far so good. But all you with relationship experience know what comes next, right?
The “I told you so”.
But not about the potato beetles! For all intents and purposes, potato season is over. Potato and I have made it through unscathed. I am being perfectly honest with you – though I doubt you will believe me – when I tell you that on 42 potato plants that I had in the garden this year, I found exactly one – that’s right, one – potato beetle which I promptly smushed, and not a single larvae. Did you get that? Not one larvae. Was it the horseradish? Was it the King Harry? I would like to think. Because if it’s the horseradish and/or the King Harry then that means that our potato-beetleless spring and summer was the result of a gardener’s – that is, my – skill and prowess. And you know that’s what I’m telling Potato, even though, for all I know it could have been some weird, once in a lifetime, climate-change-related anomaly that temporarily wiped out potato beetles from the face of the earth. I think that’s what Potato would like to believe. He’s rubbing it in my face that my potted horseradish has died; that I never watered it, that I didn’t provide it with the appropriate steady steam of nutrients because, as he knows all too well, when it comes to plants with really special needs, I am lazy. But I think he’s harping on the horseradish because he just can’t stand the fact that I was right.
That – I believe – is why what happened next, happened at all. I think it’s pure spite.
Here’s the thing. When the first plants, about eight or ten of them, began to turn brown and fall over, I went out and started harvesting potatoes. And they were beautiful. Some of them had a really good size on them. They were firm, their skin was clear, and I mean they were perfect, all the more perfect for having had a perfect, pest-free growing season and minimum watering. Not one time did I put my hand into a mushy potato. I brought them in the house. It took me several trips. I put them in a cardboard box in front of the AC vent in the living room, which is where I’ve stored them in previous years. Every day or two I pulled out a potato, or a handful of potatoes, and fried them up. I ate them for breakfast. I gave them to the kid with lunch or dinner. I was feeling right proud of those potatoes. I was a rich woman.
And then tonight I went into that box with the intention of baking a few for dinner, and I realized that a lot of them were already starting to go bad! You can imagine my horror. Brown spots, soft spots, soft and brown spots! How could this be! What on earth is going on?!
Because there was not a thing in the world wrong with these potatoes when I pulled them out of the ground, and because they are clearly rotting, and not diseased, I suspect temperature is the culprit. I have had them directly in front of the air conditioning vent, because 65 degrees is supposed to be the ideal storage temperature and because I had good success storing them there for a few months in the past.
I put a thermometer down there and sure enough it is exactly 65 degrees in that corner, and 42% humidity. (And lest anyone think we are frivolous with energy around here, my thermostat is set on 74 and the only place that even comes close to 65 degrees is directly in front of that air vent. The rest of the living room, as we speak, has finally, after another scorching day, reached a low of 75.) In previous years, before our recent HVAC system crash and overhaul, that spot never got below 69 degrees, so perhaps these past few weeks the temperature has been too low. Or perhaps the humidity is too high. Or maybe there wasn’t enough air circulating around them in the box. I don’t know. I will have to experiment with different locations in the house and do some more research before I harvest the rest of those potatoes.
I sorted through the potatoes in the box and took out everything that was showing any sign of rot. At first I thought I’d just end up with a big old pile of French fries for dinner, but the problem was far worse than that. I probably found about ten pounds of potatoes that looked fine, and another ten or twelve pounds that were clearly on their way out. We had a huge heap of French fries with dinner, and I have a handful washed and set out to fry for breakfast, but the situation is still dire. What am I going to do with the other pounds of potatoes that must be eaten in the next day or so, so as not to go to waste?
It’s only as I’m writing all of this down in my vegetable lover’s diary that I realize what I have to do. Tomorrow I’m going to make one mother of a potato salad with what’s left of that first harvest of potatoes, while there’s still a good amount of them to salvage. I’m talking potato salad to last for a week.
Or least through the Fourth of July.
And now I’m getting all misty eyed, because, you see? That’s what a relationship is all about. You work hard together towards a common goal. You help each other out. You make sure each other has a drink in hand and never misses the first five minutes of your favorite program. Sure, you struggle. You fight. You compete. You get on each other’s freaking nerves. You tit for tat. You seek petty revenges for minor wrongs. But then there you are together on a holiday, telling your friends and relatives that yes, you grew the potatoes, and not only that, you grew both the onions and the cucumbers that became the pickles that are in that potato salad, and you don’t leave each other’s side all afternoon – and then it happens.
You get to experience what Wendell Barry says is the reason for remaining faithfully married, despite life’s vicissitudes:
“What marriage offers – and what fidelity is meant to protect – is the possibility of moments when what we have chosen and what we desire are the same.”
Oh Potato. I take it back. I do trust you. I do.
I do love you so.
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I’ve recently put together a slim volume of my garden experiences called Confessions of a Vegetable Lover which is available as a print or an e-book at Amazon, Smashwords and B&N.com. For the month of July only, you can get the e-book for free at Smashwords if you use the coupon code SSWIN at checkout. I am also currently hosting a giveaway for this book at GoodReads. Three free print copies are up for grabs. If you’d like to sign up for the chance to win a free copy, you can do that here. (Log in and scroll down the list of giveaways until you find the book!) If you are not already a member of GoodReads, all you need to join is an e-mail address. The giveaway closes on 10 July.