The Sacrament of Garden Life on the Dakota Plains

This spring has been so hectic that it would have been sensible not to plant a garden this year. But that is not the kind of life I wish to build for myself. A number of my close friends are gardeners, some of them master gardeners by my standards. One of them said you need to spend an hour a day in the garden just to stay on top of the weeds. Oh dear. Last year I lost control of my garden to two predators: Canada thistle and a group of pesky pheasants who live in the diminishing patch of prairie west of my house. Those darn pheasants are still here, or their cousins. They are as regular as a village rooster in the way they torment me at dawn every day with their "kruk, kruk" call.

I spent the winter devising a non-lethal pheasant abatement program. I need to test fire my paint ball assault rifle soon. A friend from work made me a heavy two-dimensional metal coyote silhouette out of a piece of oil field pipe. It is already holding a gleaming and tireless vigil at the corner of my tomato patch. And, after a reader last year suggested that critters are afraid of pinwheels, I ordered 40 of them online. If nothing else, my garden will be colorful this year! For added protection, I put four of those miniature solar-powered yard torches on the corners of my raised garden. If necessary, I will play tapes of Glenn Beck lectures to scare rabbits, raccoons, and pheasants away.

All of my tomatoes are planted: 47 by my last count, plus six ceramic containers where I planted cherry tomatoes for the famous triathlete Melanie Carvell, who stops by to graze before she runs off with the antelope towards Double Ditch.

I have two gardens this year—my regular vegetable garden, with a large and unruly raspberry patch in its center, and a 12x24 foot raised garden, which I'm calling my Square IX garden. It's part of a project I am doing with the garden staff at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. I send them Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara seeds, like the ones Meriwether Lewis sent to Jefferson from Fort Mandan in the spring of 1805, and Monticello sends me Jefferson garden seeds. We keep obsessive Jeffersonian planting records at both ends, and compare baskets of produce during Monticello's annual garden festival in the fall. Jefferson, who was one of the most orderly individuals who ever lived, designated one portion of his immense garden terrace "Square IX," as a plot in which to experiment with new or unusual seeds. He was a one-man cooperative extension farm before such things were invented in 1914.

Last year I did a fundraising dinner at a lovely farm-to-table restaurant in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and Monticello's head gardener Pat Brodowski supplied all of the vegetables from Jefferson's terrace. It may sound a little silly, but eating straight from the garden of the Sage of Monticello is a very heady and moving experience. We are, after all, what we eat.

I quadrupled my rhubarb patch this year. I made my first rhubarb pie of the year on Mother's Day, and my mother reported it that she devoured it like Little Jack Horner.

The late May freeze and the chaos of my schedule have kept me from being a very systematic gardener this year. On the day you read this I will be flying back from Calgary, Alberta. If my plane lands on time, I will have just enough time in the evening to finish planting, because the next morning I have to go to Fargo for a couple of meetings. What I have needed, and did not have this year, was a full weekend of long days with my hands in the soil. The best garden days are when you can stay dirty all day and well into the evening, hands in the soil, planting, grubbing, pruning, trimming, hoeing, mowing, weeding, weed-whacking, with periodic interruptions to drive to the plant store and the hardware store for flowers and parts and gadgets that suddenly seem necessary to make everything right. And then, at the end of the day, the simplest possible meal out on the deck, as the breeze comes up and the sun goes down—a baguette, some fine cheese, a bit of salami, and a good glass of wine. It's a ritual as old as humanity. You can read about it in Homer's epics, in the famous agrarian odes of the Roman poet Horace, in the Georgics and Eclogues of Virgil, and of course in Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia.

I love that moment, perhaps the greatest moment of North Dakota life, when you are sitting out on the deck on a summer evening, reading or talking with a friend or just gazing out onto the prairie, sipping (but not drinking) wine, and at first it is almost too hot and bright to enjoy the experience. But this is North Dakota, where for eight months per year it is too cold to sit on the deck, so in May or June you persevere out of a kind of "I will pretend this is California!" stubbornness. Then towards sunset, at first imperceptibly, the intensity of the heat and the light begins to diminish. At some point a kind of invisible trigger trips, and you realize that the temperature is now perfect and the breeze heavenly in its gentle caress. It is one of the happiest moments of life. Almost everything that really matters is free.

I like to linger then just a little bit longer, to watch the western sky exfoliate in arrays of pink, tangerine, slate, charcoal, and Bloody Mary red, and someone says, because they cannot help it, "I cannot believe it's still light this late in the evening." And everyone goes silent with wonder, and somehow all of those months of trying to start the snow blower at 23 below or waking up and coming home in the dark are instantly redeemed. The last step in such an evening of perfection is to sit out until it is just barely chilly enough that you think you should go in to get a jacket, but you don't, because you realize the chill is actually not uncomfortable. In its own way, it is a very agreeable sensation.

This year I am dedicating my garden to Eleanor Rixen, who was precisely what we think about when we remember the ideal rural women of North Dakota, when we were still a lovely forgotten backwater in America, scratching a living out of the soil, and thanking God for the blessings he had laved on us, and watching the western sky for hail. She supplied the hollowed gallon coffee cans that protect my tiny tomato plants. They are rusted and battered from thirty summers. I love them for all the memories and the quiet humble husbandry they represent.