I love the spiritual side of gardening: the feeling of communing with nature, and giving back to the earth. But if I dwell on that too long, I start to take myself too seriously. That’s when I shift gears and focus on some silly fun. Like garden graffiti.
This is a trick I invented through necessity more than thirty years ago. I was newly married and commuting between my work as a writer in New York, and College Station, Texas, where my wife was working as an environmental scientist at Texas A&M University. My wife was quite proud of the garden we had created around our Texan home. She bragged about it to colleagues and volunteered to host a barbecue in the garden for a gathering of colleagues. She hadn’t told me about this, however, and about a month before the barbecue, I decided I was tired of the plantings in the back yard and ripped them all out. My wife was stricken when she got home that day. When she told me why, I promised to rescue the situation, though I didn’t know how I would accomplish that.
The only plant I could think of that would mature sufficiently quickly was curly garden cress (Barbarea vernapraecox – also known as “upland cress”), the peppery green with which generations of English cooks have made sandwiches for tea. Garden cress will grow from sown seed to lush maturity in about three weeks. So three weeks and a couple of days before the party, I raked the back yard beds out flat and smooth, and began sketching patterns on the soil by dribbling garden lime between my fingers. If I didn’t like a pattern when I had finished it, I erased it by raking the soil again. Eventually, though, I completed a wild complex of curlicues, lightning bolts and crisscrosses that satisfied me. Then everywhere I saw white, I sowed cress seed, working it into the surface of the soil gently with a claw-shaped hand cultivator.
I watered daily and very soon, a green inscription began to emerge from the ground. Curly cress is a low-growing, thick and parsley-like green. When planted thickly, it makes a nice miniature hedge. By the night of the party, my freehand micro parterre was complete. When I turned on the floodlights in the back yard, the view was unforgettable. One English scientist told me he had never seen anything like it, which I decided to take as a compliment. My wife was pleased as the garden was the talk of the evening, especially after the wine and beer had circulated for a bit.
Years later I revived this technique when our son had started kindergarten. He was learning his letters, and, without warning him, I planted his initials in cress in a bed at the end of the driveway where we waited every morning for the school bus. He noticed his initials emerging in green and asked me about it. I suggested that the garden was trying to communicate with him. He didn’t fall for that, but he did watch that bed with a proprietary pride. When the cress matured, I harvested it with shears and added it to salads.
These days I practice garden graffiti as a decorative way to divide up beds, planting other greens such as arugula or beets in the pockets created in this fashion. This, and the memories it evokes, always makes me smile, and reminds me that gardening should be playful as well as serious.