Keith and I planted our first garden the year before we married, a sort of compatibility test. Ours was a second marriage, for both of us, and we knew fully well that cohabitation–the typical test of a relationship’s strength–was not a suitable trial by fire. Too many marriages end because their partners are too lazy to do the work involved, and by work I mean something far less superficial than being magnanimous when one cannot abide the other’s toothpaste squeezing habits. A successful cooperative garden, we reasoned, would demonstrate the true spirit of commitment on which marriage thrived. From winter visualization to fall fallowing, growing a garden is a twelve-month project. It requires a business plan-like precision, a conception of the garden’s mission, objectives for achieving it, research, financial planning, implementation, trouble-shooting, and damage control. At the same time, its rewards to diligent laborers are bountiful: The frenetically loquacious song of the watching mockingbird. The first ripe tomato eaten warm in the garden. The salty kiss at the end of a hoed row.
I suspect the vegetable garden is one of the most ancient of forms, so replete with conventions and so provocative of associations that no garden is ever only itself. Our marriage test garden was built in the shadow of our first marriages’ gardens, our childhood gardens, our parents’ gardens. We were both reared by mothers who had raised a hundred tomato plants in one season, both married to other people who appear in old photos holding the first radish or showing our then-small children how to plumb a row or test sweet corn for ripeness. Yet anxiety of influence is not a bad thing when one can indeed do better than her precursors. And so we did, with our computer generated garden layout, a Troy-bilt tiller, family heirloom seeds and tools, compost, organic pest control, and a joint vision of vegetable Eden. Because Keith plows the straightest line and sows seeds to a perfect depth, these jobs were his; because I am a considered picker of produce and our family’s chief cook, and because my husband cannot see green tomato worms on green tomato plants, these were my chores. Most importantly, we grew only what we both loved to eat: asparagus, Roma tomatoes, basil, garlic, super sweet corn, meaty green beans, sugar snap peas, zucchini and yellow squash, and a profusion of peppers, red, yellow, and purple, sweet, hot, and crying hot. And all summer and into the fall we had whole meals of next-to-nothing but fresh vegetables–skewers of sweet, roasted garlic, zucchini, and peppers; ears of butter basted, grilled corn-on-the-cob; salads of tomato and basil drizzled with olive oil and dressed with fresh mozzarella.
Neither of us could have said so at the time, but our garden became the workbook in which we erased all the mistakes of our previous relationships. We communicated. We compromised. And a year after this first garden, we married.
This year we celebrated our nineteenth crop.
In year two, convolvulus—i.e., bindweed–first appeared in our garden, probably as renegade seed in straw we’d used to mulch a nearby strawberry bed. I knew it on sight, a deceptively fragile looking vine that was using my sage for a trellis. But like a novice’s first experience with poison ivy and credit cards, I did not take it seriously. It was just another weed to me then, no match for a weekly whack with a hoe. Except that, from time to time, weeks escaped. Sometimes it rained. Sometimes I was called to duty at a child’s piano recital or a holiday. As a result, by the end of that summer, a narrow ceinture of bindweed encircled the waist of our garden. By year three it had throttled the sage plant, garroting new shoots in its merciless, spiraling climb. By year four it had ventured north and south toward the sweet corn and sunflowers, hungry for altitude. By year five it had so insidiously infiltrated the strawberry bed that it bound the berries to the earth in a net that ultimately drowned them.
Bindweed is Eurasian in origin, a plant Renaissance herbalists called “wythwynde” for its habit of twining “wyth” other plants in its counterclockwise ascent. Some time in the eighteenth century, it made its way to North America the way vegetative interlopers usually do, as seeds in the digestive tracks of birds or in stores of grain. Its spade shaped leaves snake alternately up its viny stems. Its flowers are trumpet-shaped, small, white-to-pink. A double root system makes it nearly impossible to eradicate: Bindweed has a vertical tap root that may reach depths of thirty feet, while lateral roots as long as ten feet eventually grow downward and produce stem-like rhizomes that establish leafy crowns on the surface. A single plant may produce as many as twenty-five crowns and in this way occupy a space nearly twenty feet in diameter. Today bindweed is one of North America’s top ten noxious weeds, right up there with thistle, kudzu, and multi-flora rose, notoriety earned from its tendency to out compete other plants for water, nutrients, and sunlight, to unhouse grain, and to tangle farm machinery in its relentless quest to reclaim the natural world.
At first, Keith and I made the mistake of tilling under what the weeds strangled. But bindweed loves raw earth, the more fertile the better. It is osmotically compelled to recover vacant ground, to sew its edges with green thread. We finally came to understand that we walked barefoot over a sleeping giant, and we anxiously awaited its next move–rooting tomato cages to the ground, strangling basil, felling corn stalks. With every whack of the hoe we imagined it regenerating fleshy, subterranean tentacles that, long after we were home and asleep, it prodded up through the surface of the soil, reaching hungrily for the moon.
A typical bindweed season—of which we have more and more as the world heats up—goes like this. Spring comes early, and we are able to put out the cool weather vegetables we are often denied, lettuce, radishes, sugar snap peas. Then the temperature soars. For three weeks we carry water to the garden in five gallon buckets. We make dust clouds with our hoes, though in truth, nothing–neither basil nor crabgrass nor bindweed–is growing.
And then it rains . . . steadily . . . for two weeks.
By the time it is dry enough for us to set foot in our garden, it has been consumed by a vast convolvular bloom. We were awe-struck the first year, the way victims of freak accidents are, for example, when they find themselves sitting in the middle of a whelping elk herd just after their cable car breaks. Our scorched earth was now as lushly green as a seventies shag carpet. In every square inch of the garden, bindweed performed its spiral death dance, the dancers so numerous that they had to begun to bind to one another. The tomatoes were pinned to their cages. The onion tops withered. The basil drowned in the convolvular sea.
Short of spraying bindweed with noxious chemicals–which we cannot do–we had little recourse. Garden specialists are little help in this arena: Whack, they all say, and then compost and cover with impenetrable black plastic. But don’t expect miracles. All we wanted was a little basil in our tomato soup. And so we began to amputate each wiry little green arm with our terrier fingers and shining silver hoes.
By dusk, we had cleared less than a quarter of the garden. Given the ease with which bindweed regenerates, all our work would be for naught if we waited our usual week to return. Neurotically inspired, Keith wrote a poem on the drive to work: “The bindweed is too much with us,” he intoned, “late and soon . . . .” From the beginning, the weeds had more importance to him than to me. I thought this was a result of gender difference at first, his being male–and thus unwilling to be thwarted by a goddamned little weed–and my being female, in particular, a mother. For I am representative of women who have, after of few years of experience, decided it is acceptable in certain instances to give in, to leave undone. Certainly there are absolutes in life, things we should do every day: Read, laugh, pay attention, do something new, spend time outdoors. But worrying about uneaten peas and weedy gardens is not included in my daily to-do list.
My husband’s mind works differently than mine does. Bindweed does not obsess him–it is just the embodiment of whatever is obsessing him. The stock market. His job. Turning sixty. My husband is a poet in the making of his own misery, and bindweed is the symbol of his inability to disturb the course of the universe. He cannot articulate this. But I know from experience that tackling the symbol eases his other concerns. He wrestles with bindweed sleeping and waking, tormented by the knowledge that just outside our door, convolvulus creeps like guerilla soldiers into the wounds our hands and hoes had made, sewing them shut. And so each year, I do what any other person in love would: take time off from work, haul him out of his own office, and mount an attack to take back our garden.
I admit that I like it when, once again, our garden is a clean child tucked into dark sheets of, well, thick black plastic, the lapsed Protestant in me understanding that my satisfaction is the result of hard work, the lost saved. It won’t be long now before the green beans come on, thick, meaty beans grown from seeds handed down for generations among members of Sam’s family. I am fortunate to be part of this history of planting and weeding and reaping and eating and saving just enough beans for the next garden.
And when, a week later, the remnants of that very first narrow belt of bindweed reappear just west of the garden, I keep my mouth shut. Because I can live with it, not just because it is not–in the scheme of this world’s ways–important. But also because it, too, is a part of my life. I have yet to let a bindweed bloom in my garden, which explains why I’d forgotten my first acquaintance with it, as a child walking the lane to the pasture that bordered the abandoned orchard where I loved to play. My mother called it “wild morning glory,” in the associative way rural people name things they do not know (“yellow-top” is Keith’s name for any tall plant that ends in yellow flowers). And I can remember now how it knitted up the blue chicory that grew along the lane, wreathing it with bells, as Wordsworth wrote, trumpet-shaped white flowers that melted to pink at the center like the chocolate-covered ice cream-on-a-stick we called a “cherry bomb.”
To whack bindweed, we use hoes that have been in Keith’s family for decades, their blades worn smaller but kept clean and sharp–good for work close to the vegetables we’re trying to protect–and their wooden handles smooth as marble. I admit that our pursuit of a weed-less Eden is a modern, middle class, pseudo-secular phenomenon. We will not be punished for trying. We will not starve if we fail. But in every battle with our bindweed garden, we come face to face—or hoe to weed—with the tenacity that survival depends on. And what better paradigm for a long-lived marriage?