“It’s time to plant onions”, the sign read, so I did, and so far all is going well. As a matter of fact, I’m having such good luck with following directions I’m presently keeping an eye peeled for a sign stating “win the lottery”. It’s out there…somewhere. And I remain eager to comply.
My mother taught me that the robin is the first harbinger of spring, but for me the onion holds that honor. Those delicious, pungent beauties are the first vegetables to earn membership in each new garden I create. What meal would be complete without the crisp, clean pop of a fresh, green onion between your teeth? Nothing says “you’re a dear friend” with more conviction than a bundle of neatly trimmed scallions with glowing white socks. Of all the ingredients used in fresh homemade salsa, none complete it more than the satisfying crunch of the zesty onion. Onions complement our chili recipes, and make our cheeseburgers sing. Never has a more enchanting tune thrilled a taste bud as delightfully as the song of a cheeseburger with a slab of onion wedged inside of it. However, I would be remiss and risk forfeiture of my standing as an avid and honorable gardener if I failed to at least mention the other tasty species of garden plants that offer value to the cheeseburger.
Until last frost, the hardy onions stand like rows of disciplined soldiers guarding a precious plot of land reserved for other vegetables less tempered against the cold. It’s only January, but a few gorgeous, sunlit days, unusually warm but characteristic for central Texas, tempt me to rev my tiller, wake the sleeping soil and prepare to plant the remainder of my garden. I resist, drawing inspiration from the staunch row of onions, and stick to my plan. Potatoes are next. Shortly after the winter mongrel squares his two cold shoulders towards the north and withdraws his troops from my southern homeland, I’ll slice them into chunks–two eyes to a piece–and allow them to sit silently and undisturbed in a cool, dry corner of my gardening shed. There, in the permeable darkness, their exposed flesh will stiffen into new armor that will guard them against rot and disease when they are laid into the warm, moist earth. After harvest, these delicious tubers will find their way into roasting pans and stew pots where they will simmer and absorb the succulent flavors of beef broth, or pork loin. But perhaps their greatest contribution will be as golden, crispy french fries– a praiseworthy addition to the aforementioned cheeseburger. Onions? Fries? What could impart even more deliciousness and further impress the palate?
The tomato; star of the garden. If the sturdy onion grants us a slight reprieve from the leaden veil of winter, and instills hope that a harsh season will soon expire as we press plump, papery bulbs gently into the soil, the tender tomato sprout heralds the re-birth of a bountiful age suffused with color that seems to pulsate as it illuminates the landscape. Spirited tendrils intertwine with our souls while stealing their way through trellises and wire cages. Misty green forests erupt and soon offer flashes of robust pinks and reds amid the feathery foliage. Whatever variety–mortgage-lifter, celebrity, costoluto genovese– slightly sweet and pleasantly acidic, sliced thick or thin the tomato is an invaluable cheeseburger ingredient. From the convenient currant (wild tomato) carried by the dozens in shirt pockets, to the hefty beefsteak that boasts the ability to cover the face of a burger with one slice, each variety, flavor and color of this delectable fruit (or vegetable if you agree with the supreme court) has a place in the heart of a gardener somewhere. In my heart, there is room enough for them all. Regretfully, my garden space is not nearly as accommodating, therefore, effectively forcing me to narrow my choices if I am to pursue other interests, e.g., okra, peas, watermelons, etc…
Come October, I’ll have grown weary of the garden, and may even consider swearing it off for a couple of years as I tug at the dried, raspy okra stalks that grip the earth as if it were prey. I’ll roll up string, and wrestle wooden stakes from the stubborn, black soil. I’ll pluck twisted brown vines from tomato cages, and drag piles of scratchy pea vines to the compost heap. I”ll itch, sweat, and decide that this is just too damn much work. But, by mid-december my rural mail carrier will plant that first seed magazine into my mailbox, and as I turn the pages, in my soul will sprout desire.
Jack had his magical beans that brought first wonder, then strife, and ultimately reward. For me, this captures the spirit of gardening. There will be many battles fought between the indisputable passion of placing that first onion in the ground and heaving the last tenacious okra stalk out by its gnarly roots, and in the end, though weary, I shall consider it all worthwhile each time I pluck from my cupboard a jar of spicy pickles, or harvest from the depths of my chest freezer a bag of breaded okra.
I believe all seeds possess magical properties. I challenge anyone to cradle a few of them in their hand and not feel a stir, an invisible, mysterious force inside beckoning to place these sacred vessels into the earth and witness the life contained therein. FYI, though it may sound logical, those tiny seeds that cling precariously to the toasted exterior of certain hamburger buns will not germinate into a cheeseburger plant. Magic, it seems, doesn’t always prescribe to my logic.
February urges my garden plans to full bloom. My supplies, seeds and desire threaten to shirk their dormant state with every unseasonably warm day. The onions stand firmly in the ground expanding layer by layer as hungry roots feast within the nurturing, silent earth. It’ll be a while before they’re ready for the table, but until then I’ll settle for a singing cheeseburger from my favorite diner. Make mine with a thick slice of purple onion, please.