How Does Your Garden Grow

Mistress Mary in her vegetable garden
Illustrated by William Wallace Denslow. Image source: Wikimedia

Mistress Mary had a garden where, astonishingly, silver bells and cockle shells grew. I have a vegetable garden. I have no pretty maids to help weed or water or harvest. It’s a one-woman operation in the middle of Amsterdam. Not quite farming on an industrial scale.

In the midst of a pandemic, it’s a comforting thought to know that you can grow your own food. Cold comfort, that is, as it supposes that all other food sources have dried up or are otherwise suspect. A prepper has a vegetable garden, an oil reserve and a stockpile of arms. All I have is a few tomatoes and some green beans.

At least, I did before I left for Los Angeles.

Sick Plants

This year, many of us have turned to gardening as an outlet for lockdown angst. Out in the fresh air, alone among the green life, it seems like a healthy thing to do. If I dig my fingers deep into the beds of my vegetable garden, I’ll find worms to aerate my soil and pillbugs to feed it. Every morning, I visit my vegetable beds to see which seedlings have thrust their way to the light, which plants have borne new fruit.

Last month, I abandoned my vegetable garden. For the duration of my stay in Los Angeles, my husband promised to water the plants. On a FaceTime call midway through my trip, however, I learned the sad truth. My vegetable garden was suffering.

A plant’s leaf is its face. If you are well acquainted with a plant, you can differentiate hunger from thirst, sickness from hale, vigor from torpor, all from the look of the leaf.

A. Hope Jahren, “Plants can get sick, too” in The New York Times (international edition), 26 May 2020

Plants are subject to multiple perils: fickle weather, disease, and pests. A virus affects a plant just as it does a human being. Once a plant is infected, pests like the leafhopper spread disease until an entire crop is killed. Since there are no vaccines for plants, the remedies for plant disease sound eerily familiar to the coronavirus style solutions currently being touted. To socially distance, to cull heavily or to allow the disease to run its course.


It seems foolish to invest so heavily in a few square meters of dirt when greengrocers, organic grocery stores and farmers’ markets abound in Amsterdam. The idea of growing your own food becomes positively stupid once, like us, you become a member of a CSA.

Big Patch vegetable garden
Big Patch vegetable garden

CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) […] stands for a closer connection between consumer and producer. In the Netherlands CSA’s are often ‘pick-your-own gardens’, but another example is a direct link via a membership. That’s nice for the farmer, since you pay up front, so that the producer can use this money to invest in seeds, compost, manure, tools etc. Also, there is a shared risk: when the harvest is good, you get a bit more – and when the harvest is less good, the beets and carrots will be a bit smaller.

Esther Kuiler, de ommuurde tuin (The Walled Garden)

Every Friday, we walk 3 blocks to pick up our veggie bag from the local CSA. Their produce looks a lot like mine only bigger and better. We get familiar stuff like carrots, green onions, tomatoes, basil, potatoes and micro-greens. This week, we got a kohlrabi and a bunch of wood sorrel, two vegetables I’ve never eaten before. Luckily for me, I’ve got Yotam Ottolenghi to show me how to make a kohlrabi salad and Deborah Madison with her wood sorrel sauce for grilled fish.

Plant Love

Rather than the desert wasteland I had expected upon my return to Amsterdam, I found a jungle. The pumpkin had overpowered the beets and the carrots. The nasturtium overran the rest. It’s taken me most of this week to tame the wilderness to manageable proportions. I’ve got new seeds in the ground: sugar snap peas, 3 kinds of lettuce, and a little bok choy.

It seems to me that my vegetable garden is happy to have me back, just as I am pleased to be among my plants once more. I don’t actually talk to my greens though apparently I should. Supposedly, plants respond to sound, whether it’s a man who shouts insults, a woman reading out loud or the sound of music.

Concerto para el bioceno,

Such a polite audience. No coughing or booing or throwing tomatoes. 2,292 houseplants attended the concert at the Liceu Opera House. After the performance was over, the plants went home to their new owners: healthcare frontline workers in Barcelona.