Finding Israel

In the midst of winter some of us dream big garden dreams. And we start out with the best of intentions, we really do. Come July, though, we might just be overwhelmed by the gardening equivalent of eyes-being-bigger-than-stomachs, and a mess of weeds and tangled flowers. What’s a desperate gardener to do?

It’s usually about this time of year, in the garden, that I start realizing I’m in way over my head.

Sometimes almost literally, since my garden grows nothing more lushly than weeds. I look around and see tomatoes flopping over when I should have put them in cages; black-eyed Susans I should have separated taking over the flower bed; lettuces gone to seed; unplanted, dried-up seedlings still in their seed-starter packs; and weeds, weeds everywhere – especially in those places I never got around to mulching.

How, I ask myself annually (and perennially), did this happen? This year, I started out with such energy, such vision, such resolve to finally do it right. When it eventually stopped snowing in early spring, I, like everyone else on-Island, was almost frantic to see something green and growing. I loaded up on
compost and mulch, bought far more packets of seeds than I could possibly plant, and started checking the flower beds daily for signs of life among the perennials.

Then, as ever, life happened. I tried to schedule an hour in the garden on nice days, but more often than not, I never got there. By mid-May, I was already grievously behind. That’s when I caved. I hired somebody.
Generally speaking, I have nothing against hiring people. But true gardeners are purists: if you’re going to pay someone to plant your string beans, why not just buy them at Whippoorwill Farm? True gardeners talk soil acidity, compare mulches, divide their Shasta daisies and share them with friends. They squish slugs, pick hornworms off the tomatoes, and enjoy the smell of composted cow manure. True gardeners know from experience that edging a flower bed is sweaty, backbreaking work, yet it’s part of the purist gardener code of ethics to do it yourself.
This year, I’m not a purist. This year, I have Israel. My husband found Israel for me through a friend. Brazilian and very recently arrived in the United States, Israel spoke not a word of English on his first day working with me, but I didn’t care. I figured that between sign language and my rusty Spanish, we’d make do. Just twenty-one years old, Israel is strong, willing, and hard-working. His only drawback, if it can be called that, is that if the Ford Modeling Agency ever comes snooping around here, I’m out a gardener.

Lean and dark, Israel has chiseled features, twinkling eyes, and a smile that could thaw the North Pole.

My husband took one look at Israel, raised an eyebrow at me, and walked out of the room.  

Israel’s first task was to clean up my rosebush bed. It had been several years since I’d edged the thing, and so much grass had crept in that it was hard to tell it had ever been a bed at all. Slowly and carefully, in halting Spanish sprinkled with English, I explained what I wanted. He replied in Portuguese, making promising weed-pulling motions with his hands. “Si, si,” I said, “perfecto.” I wandered off with my husband to make a list of other chores we might have Israel perform. Fifteen minutes later, when we came back to check on him, the grass in the flower bed was still disappointingly intact, and Israel had dug up two of my rosebushes.

Since then, I’ve been more careful about my instructions, and there have been no further mishaps.

Israel has done an excellent job of weeding, composting, and mulching around my hydrangeas, daylilies, and raspberries, and he dug up my vegetable garden to prepare it for planting. One day, when he was out cleaning up the asparagus bed, my friend David called. I told him all about Israel, and the one question he asked told me that he had understood instantly the importance of Israel in my life: “Is he wearing a shirt?”

he asked. We discussed the complications of the language barrier and the need for communicating in sign language; we decided that if I wanted Israel to take off his shirt, I’d have to show him what I meant by removing mine first. Actually, though, Israel’s English is improving, and I’m learning to understand his Portuguese better. Recently, he told me that what he most misses about Brazil is his mama.

I have to confess to some lingering guilt about foisting off onto Israel (or anyone else for that matter) all the gardening jobs I least like doing – not so much out of fear of exploitation, but more because I wonder whether I can still legitimately call it “my” garden when a good portion of the heavy work has been performed by someone other than me. But then I go out and pick some bok choy and a bouquet of flowers in my beautifully weedless garden. I remember the sweet strawberries of June, and look forward to the juicy, colorful tomatoes of August. When guests ooh and aah over my lemony sorrel soup or some garlicky sautéed Swiss chard, I’ll just smile and say, “Everything tastes better when it comes fresh out of your own garden.”