Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Garden of Small Things

I have always loved anything in miniature. In childhood I favored Polly Pockets and those literary travesties "The Great Abridged Classics"; more recently my tastes have developed in the direction of baby shoes (for my niece and nephew) or tiny fruits like kiwis and kumquats. Call it a preference for the beautiful over the sublime, call it a weird girly fetish--whatever it is, I like small things.

So it would seem reasonable, would it not, that I would take to the greenhouse like a honeybee to her hive. In fact, the greenhouse terrifies me. The moment I pass through the creaking, top-hinged door and into the warm humidity of the greenhouse, I feel as though I am reverting to the awkwardness of adolescence. Tray corners reach out to me as though calculating the best possible angle to send them to the floor. Tender seedlings shiver in my passing. Thousands of tiny plants await my ministrations, and I suddenly understand why some people are afraid to hold a human infant.

In the greenhouse, my errors can be multiplied one hundred fold. I can make it too dry but also too damp. Too much cold and my tomatoes will never germinate; too much heat and I'll bake my little charges in their black plastic trays. And for all of the hardiness that a sea of blue-green leaves can bely in the morning, give them an afternoon of neglect and I'm suddenly standing in the vegetative ICU. The details dwell in the greenhouse. Yesterday, as we potted up everything from nasturtiums (lovely and big), to tomatoes (small and fragile, but still requiring no special tool but my hands), to Greek Oregano (microscopic and growing in knotted little bunches), I realized why the greenhouse so unsettles me. The greenhouse is the antithesis of spendthrift nature's fecundity.

In A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek Annie Dillard muses on nature's fecundity and finds herself appalled at the cheapness of life. She reflects on the swarms of ants, the rivers that run red with salmon, the millions of eggs that one mother mayfly will lay, and the brutal fact that the vast majority will perish without ever reproducing. This wild extravagance, she notes, unsettles us in insects and animals, though not in plants. If, in a acre of flowers, competition culls the strong from the weak, I don't mind, so long as I get my field of flowers. But in the greenhouse, every tiny plant has its individual cell. The thin plastic walls of the trays transform a green carpet into a thousand discrete units, each clamoring for attention and optimal treatment. I'm no longer worrying about how the swiss chard is doing in general; I'm monitoring 4 trays of 100 swiss chard seedlings each. Did cell 36 in tray A look a bit wilty this morning? But only a few rows over the stems are showing signs of dampening off from too much water...

As we potted up, spacial considerations forced us to favor the healthiest plants with roomy new pots and leave their less hardy neighbors in the original close quarters. As we set aside one such half-tray of unhappy nasturtiums, Paige, my boss, lamented the waste of viable plants. That's the greenhouse for you, a pro-life haven. And what am I but a pro-choice farmer.

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