Growing Pains

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Party Perfect
The Lost Art of Summer
Magnificently Terrified
Growing Pains
Less Is... Impossible: One Man's Quest to be like Mies

"There comes a point in every man's life," a city friend once told me, "when he feels an overwhelming desire to live off the land."

Of course, he told me this as we were waiting for our fish to be grilled at Whole Foods. "Are you kidding me?" I asked him, lotioning my legs. "I'll never be like that."

"It's primal," he continued. "It's like cavemen making fire. That's why reality shows like Survivor are so popular. Just wait."

I'll be darned if he wasn't right.

Part of the reason my partner, Gary, and I moved to rural Saugatuck, Mich., from St. Louis was to test ourselves – emotionally, spiritually, physically. We wanted to live more independently. We wanted to respect our planet. And we vowed that we would cultivate our own vegetable garden.

Once in Saugatuck, though, Gary had to remind me of our promise: "We have 3.5 acres of land – we should be able to use our God-given wits to grow something beside flowers," he said. "Just imagine how cool it would be to walk outside in the evening and pick our own, homegrown salad."

I imagined the future: Me carrying a cute basket, wearing little gloves, making my own balsamic vinaigrette with fresh herbs for that salad. I liked it.

What's more, I thought, the Pilgrims lived off the land, and they did it wearing big hats and buckle shoes. We can do this, I decided.

We started simply enough, choosing a 10-square-foot plot on a cusp of forest. It looked manageable until we began to whack and thwack at the underbrush, which seemed to have a Friday the 13th unwillingness to die.

We spent two weeks pulling roots and clearing brambles. I had so many mosquito bites that I began Googling the symptoms for malaria. With my face cut and dirt caked under my nails, I looked like one of the Little Rascals.

So I was thrilled when we were ready to go to a nursery to buy our veggie seeds. There, we also picked the brains of experienced gardeners.

Immediately, the intensity and knowledge of vegetable gardeners both intimidated and intrigued me, like the time I nearly became a Mormon because the recruiter looked like Orlando Bloom. An old man instructed us in the virtues of Big Boy tomatoes; then a woman in overalls implored us to amend the soil with only the best hummus.

They might as well have been speaking in tongues.

But Gary, already a gifted flower gardener, was pumped. So we spent $300 and planted the following in cute rows, just like we'd been instructed:

-tomatoes -onions (green and white)

-green peppers -red-leaf lettuce

-spinach -cucumbers

-strawberries -green beans

We built a fence to keep out rabbits and deer. We fertilized. We watered, weeded and waited. And waited.

By the time other gardeners in our area were bragging about their homegrown produce, we only had tomatoes the size of pimples; lettuce so gritty that running it through the dishwasher couldn't remove the dirt; onions that looked like pearls; and three – count 'em – three green beans. We didn't have enough produce to make a salad for the Keebler Elves.

Our experienced vegetable-gardener friends offered their assessments: "Not enough light. A vegetable garden needs full sun." "Soil is too sandy. Didn't amend it enough. Won't hold the water."

Personally, I attributed our problems to a

worm-beetle-larvae-thing I find on a leaf. It looked exactly like an insect I saw on Discovery Channel that got into a man's body and grew to be 25 feet long. An X-ray showed it curled throughout the man, crushing his organs, suffocating his brain – although to me it looked very relaxed…lounging really, like it was enjoying a mojito and a cigar.

I was convinced this thing was eating our garden. And my kidneys.

When I walked with Gary to check our garden one last time – him secretly believing, I know, that perhaps a beanstalk had miraculously sprouted into the clouds – I saw the devastated look on his face. Gary has a pact with the earth: He will nurture it. That's why his flowers look as if they should be in Better Homes and Gardens.

But that day, Gary retreated into our cottage, dejected. I picked a few of his flowers, which I took inside and arranged in a vase. I stood back to see them. This is how Gary says "thank you" to the earth, I think. This is how he gives back. When Gary walks in, he smiles.

"You can't do this with cucumbers and tomatoes," I remind him.

The next morning, I took Gary to the Saugatuck-Douglas Green Market for local produce, then to Crane's U-Pick in Fennville for fruit. That night, we had dinner at Journeyman, the Fennville restaurant that uses local, organic ingredients. Journeyman's slogan, ironically, is: Live off the Land.

I may not be able to, but I'm sure thankful someone else can.