Learning Zen Through The Revolt of the Nightshades

August 4, 2010 § 2 Comments

As a child, my mother taught me that I controlled my own destiny: that I could achieve anything if I set my mind to it and worked hard. This belief became further ingrained in me as I saw that hewing to it worked: I worked hard and got good grades, I created a path to attend the college of my dreams, I secured the jobs that I wanted, and I accomplished ambitious goals at work — despite whatever hurdles stood in my way.

This belief that I could control my environment, my actions and the outcomes served me extremely well. Until I started gardening.

Gardening has humbled me in a way that no other experience so far has. There are plenty of elements you can control in gardening: the quality of the soil and seeds with which you start, fertilizer, water, placement in enough sun, and so on. Although you can defend your tender edibles against things like the weather or pests’ unremitting attacks, obviously you can’t control whether the sun shines or whether new bugs will hatch and eat your carefully protected strawberries.

Case in point: the slugs have found a way around my strawberry-in-a-sock trick. They have figured out how to climb into the sock to chomp on the berries, leaving just a trail of slime inside the sock as proof of their cleverness. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised — scientists have found that slugs’ brains use some of the same chemical methods to learn and store information as do mammals’ minds. I am surprised, however, that an entire team of scientists studied slug brains.

Or take the jalapa pepper (a jalapeno supposedly bred for San Francisco’s microclimate) and cherry tomato plants in my garden. I was told by gardening experts and read myself that peppers and tomatoes, both of the nightshade family, don’t do well in foggy San Francisco as they need sun and heat and hate moisture on their leaves. But, due to a combination of excitement as a novice gardener and hubris borne of having controlled  other aspects of my life successfully, I decided to try growing them anyway.

During a sunny May and June when the temperatures rose to 70-80 degrees many afternoons, it looked like the plants might prove the pundits wrong. The tomatoes stretched up to the sky, producing a multitude of starry yellow blossoms and branches of fruit; the pepper, though slower-growing, began flowering and even set a tiny fruit.

Juliet cherry tomatoes ripening in afternoon sun

Jalapa fruit setting

But with July came unrelenting fog and morning mists (worse than usual, I’m told by those gardening experts). Each morning, the plants are shrouded in water droplets.

Waterlogged Early Girl tomato plant

Some of the tomato leaves are turning brown, droopy, and most alarming of all, moldy.

Wilty Juliet cherry tomato leaves

And then the saddest thing of all occurred: that tiny jalapa fruit that took so long to emerge leapt to its death, landing in the dirt. It’s as if the plant said, “Screw this — I’m not meant to live in this weather” and revolted against the whole situation.

When I turned to the tomatoes, I saw that three fruit had done the same. The stems on the branch were empty, and the vermillion tomatoes were scattered in the dirt. I lovingly gathered the tomatoes and set them on my kitchen counter, hoping each morning they would ripen. Last night, one of them had, and I sliced it in half so my husband and I could each sample it. Disappointing. The flavor was decent — an interesting combination of sweet and rich, somehow — but the texture was mealy.

When I went to the garden center to seek advice, I received a recommendation on a fungicide I could try. I also received a stern talking-to from Molly, the store manager. “You just can’t grow tomatoes here. Peppers are the same. If you can get your head around the fact that tomatoes are tropical vines and our weather is cold and foggy,” Molly lectured me as I hung my head, “you’ll realize it’s folly. Once you accept that, you can actually become a good gardener.”

When I told her, in a hopeful tone, that although parts of the plants are wilting, they’re still producing blossoms and fruit, Molly responded, “Well, lots of plants do that right before they die.”

Not too comforting.

All of this has led me to understand, in some small way, the Zen Buddhist concept of “right understanding”, which is the understanding of oneself as one really is. Gardening is certainly teaching me more about who and how I really am. But it’s also teaching me that certain living things are what they are meant to be, they will never be another way, and that, my friends, is simply that.

As I attempt to nurse the pepper and tomatoes through this nasty weather and into San Francisco’s sunny September, I am also nursing a small ray of hope, to be honest. (If any of you has advice for me on this, please share!)

But I have also come to accept that I must respect the “right understanding” of what certain plants really are. The tomatoes and pepper may continue to revolt. But the chard, artichokes, mesclun, herbs and apple tree are coming along quite nicely — because they are meant to be in this climate.

Chard chilling in the mist

Artichoke seedlings in May

Artichoke growth by August!

I am embracing that there are constraints to what I can control, and I have to admit, it’s a freeing sensation. And I am also seeing that there are infinite joys to experience when being with the world in the way that it really is.

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§ 2 Responses to Learning Zen Through The Revolt of the Nightshades

  • […] Tomatoes actually grow. Despite erratic watering and life amidst a construction zone, my plants produced juicy, sweet, delicious tomatoes…nothing like the sad, moldy cherry tomato plants I struggled to keep alive in San Francisco. More on the zen I learned from that experience here. […]

  • Kelly says:

    hahahahaha…glad this has been such an experience for you. In the wise words of the Rolling Stones….”you can’t always get what you want”. :OP

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