by Brian Clarey

The back of my neck is sunburned, pink like Spam. I’ve got red clay under my fingernails and smeared against my cuticles. New blisters have formed underneath old callouses and tiny rocks have formed divots on my knees.

It was the peach tree that finally made me do it. It was other things, sure: history, the price of groceries, the national climate, an informal lecture I recently delivered regarding the creation of wealth and even the tall, skinny apricot tree that shares my backyard with the peach tree, but my mind kept going back to those peaches. The tree was in my backyard, anchoring the southeast corner, when we moved in. I didn’t even know it was a peach tree until a couple months later, when a few hard little green ones popped from the higher boughs. I paid them little mind. My people are not farmers, and I was raised to get my peaches at the grocery store like everybody else. Or maybe — maybe — a roadside stand, if the purveyor looked compelling enough. But a few years later, right in the middle of last summer, my little backyard peach tree bore serious fruit: dozens, maybe hundreds of peaches sprung from the tree seemingly all at once, and the ground beneath it was littered with another bushel. It was strange fruit indeed. Bugs had gotten to my peaches — which, I came to realize, I had done absolutely nothing to prevent. Birds had discovered them and pecked holes through the peach fuzz. I suspected possum had been noshing on them as well after finding peaches with bite marks in them at the base of the tree. I could be eating these peaches, I remember thinking. My family could be eating peach pie right now. I could be making cobbler, preserves… I could have brought peaches to all my friends. I could have been a peach guy. It seemed to me a criminal waste of food. I vowed that day to tend my peaches the next season, and in the ensuing months I also began giving lip service to the idea of starting a garden. Right there in my backyard.

I’m not alone in this desire to cultivate my land: Though it never really went out of style here in North Carolina, there is a gardening movement afoot in our nation. They’re springing up in vacant lots, backyards, rooftops and schoolyards. There is even talk that President Obama and his family plan to plant a vegetable garden on the South Lawn of the White House, something the president will neither confirm nor deny. It’s an idea whose time has come around again. Last time it was Word War II rationing that inspired a gardening movement. Backed by the US Department of Agriculture, Americans planted almost 20 million “victory gardens” which, by 1943, supplied an estimated 40 percent of the nation’s fresh produce. That’s a lot of tomatoes. And I love tomatoes. The problem: My only brush with agriculture, besides a few failed experiments in college, was a tomato garden my parents planted around the summer of ’83. Understand that my family had been outsourcing its fruit-and-vegetable needs since at least the 1950s, and also that my parents are infamously ill-equipped to handle the real-world rigors of gardening: You can’t keep the bugs off your tomatoes by arguing with them. The whole thing didn’t end well. But in my corner I have a strong will, a hispeed internet connection and a wife who grew up on a farm — she’s probably plucked more chickens than she’s ever eaten, and she knows a thing or two about fresh fruit and vegetables. Still, the heavy work came down to me. And so it was that on a fresh and bright Sunday afternoon I cordoned off a section of the slope in my back yard and, spade in hand, began to turn the rich, red Carolina clay. For good measure, I pruned my peach and apricot trees and drove fertilizing spikes into the ground around them. It took a couple hours of good, honest work, and afterwards I was rewarded with a 15-by-10 foot patch in a sunny corner, bounded by my fruit trees, its surface abuzz with tiny flies and wriggling earthworms. My wife says we’ll need to work this earth a couple more weeks, folding in the compost from a pile we started last month as the clay mulches. At some point, I guess I’ll have to get my hands on some actual shit and spread that around, too. We have big plans for this little space: fresh herbs, peppers, sunflowers, broccoli and leafy greens. Perhaps we’ll try some eggplants or zucchini. In June there’ll be peaches, and apricots, too. And there will definitely be tomatoes, though I’m hoping to grow some German Johnsons myself and not have to run out to the farmers market for them. That’s the whole point of a garden. From this endeavor, we hope to save a little money and eat better at the same time. We’ll take pride in cultivating our land, and teach our children something of value. And we’re gonna get real dirty doing it. On Sunday afternoon, as I broke up clumps of grassy soil, my 6-year-old came by to see what I was doing. He saw me crumbling the dirt, sending bugs and pink little worms scurrying, getting myself covered with all-natural filth. “Can I help you?” he asked me. “Sure you can, little guy,” I said, and set him down in a big pile of freshly-turned earth, where he immediately set to work getting it all over himself. We haven’t even planted a seed yet, and the good times have already begun. I’ll let you know how it all works out.

It doesn’t look like much right now, but in a few months this plot will be a prime example of hard work and nature’s bounty. (photo by BriaN Clarey)