Sunday, April 27, 2008

Obsessions and Blue Potatoes by Aaron Paul Lazar

My publisher just accepted the second book in the “green marble” series, entitled One Potato, Blue Potato. It’ll be my fourth book with Twilight Times Books, and I’m thrilled that the series has found a home. This one involves a peculiar green marble and a diabolical plot to blow up the President. Sam Moore’s job is to find his missing daughter, save the president, and naturally, tend his gardens. He’s recently retired, and I’m decidedly jealous of him.

Gardens are the prime feature of this series, just as music, family, nature, and food are highlighted in the LeGarde mysteries. It’s the tenth book out of my even dozen. I had a ball writing it, but the title has been niggling at me. I want to dig up and pan-fry some blue potatoes. Now.

But it’s more than just potatoes. It’s a hunger for my garden. A lust for the soil, the sun. I ache to be up to my elbows in the soft dirt. This longing goes deep; it permeates my days and fills my dreams. I want to kneel in the freshly tilled earth and poke pink bean seeds into the ground, to pull a cluster of plump blueberries from the bush and eat them right on the spot, or to dig down deep in the ground and find golden globes of potatoes, like treasures waiting to be discovered. I’m aching to spy the first cherry tomato or ripe strawberry and run inside to offer them to my wife.

It happens just about this time every year. Come fall, I’m sick to death of the garden and am happy to walk away from it. For a little while, anyway. In spite of that, however, I always manage to write about it. Incessantly. My characters become gardeners whether they want to or not. Sam Moore is a possessed gardener. It’s what he aches to do. And even Gus LeGarde, music professor, finds time to tend the hollyhocks and plant corn.

But when spring beckons, when one day in early March offers surprising summery breezes, I am primed. It happened last Saturday. It hit seventy degrees here in upstate NY. I spent eight hours outside, moving 50 feet of raspberry bushes, cleaning out the barn, and taking in the Christmas decorations.

Then it went back down to the thirties and it felt downright… cold. Remember, I’m affectionately called “Nanuk of the North” because of my cold-hardy ways. I love the snow, thrive in the cold.

But when the Stokes seeds arrive in the mail… I forget about winter. I’m poised. I’m ready. I yearn to be back in the furrows again, treading obediently behind my big orange Husqvarna tiller, attacking those rapacious weeds with vengeance.

What is it that makes me so different? Why don’t my friends drool over their gardening catalogues? Why don’t they fixate on the new raised bed that they might just build and impulsively order 50 strawberry plants, a nectarine tree, six black raspberry bushes, and red, blue, and Yukon Gold seed potatoes in one sitting at the PC? Am I that odd?

My wife thinks so. She thinks I’m obsessed. My kids affectionately tolerate my passion for the dirt and my colleagues laugh good-naturedly when I trundle into work with arms loaded with bags of summer squash, beets, and other goodies. I share because I plant far too much for my family. Probably enough for a small village.

Who else plants wide rows of beets eighty feet long? We’re talking hundreds and hundreds of beets, here, people. Who puts in eighty tomato plants? Well, I do fill the freezer with them, so it’s not completely irrational. But what about the twenty pumpkins that decorate my home around Halloween? After I’ve given some away to friends…

I never have enough. Veggies. Fruit trees. Flowers. The compulsion to add each year is strong. More trees. New berry bushes. Additional perennial gardens. Unique, bizarre shapes and sizes of vegetables. After all, how cool is it to grow Jostaberries and green cousa Middle Eastern squash? And what about that white mulberry I planted last year?

Maybe I inherited this compulsion? My grandparents accumulated French fashion dolls until their collection grew to the third largest in the States. This, from a depression era piano teacher with his wheelchair-bound wife. They also collected Victorian dollhouses. Dozens of them. With passion. And a very clever approach to trading up and managing the dollar. Sadly, I didn’t inherit that financial insight.

An analyst might suggest that it stems from those early years when I struck out on my own and struck out. Seriously struck out. I tried to “make it on my own,” when I was far too young and unlucky with work. I planned to support myself and save enough money to put myself through art school. Right. On a minimum wage job, in fact. No problem for a twenty-one-year-old kid.



After I was laid off for the third time in a year during the 1974 recession in the greater Boston area, I was hungry. Literally hungry, with only four bucks a week to buy food.

Well, maybe that’s it. Maybe it’s a deep-seated urge to collect food and fill the pantry until it overflows. I must say, I haven’t actually been hungry since I drove myself to get an engineering degree when the hiring was hot. So I’d have a good salary, a house, a place for my kids to run and play free. And plenty of food in the cupboards.

A more fanciful theory is that I’m Claude Monet, reincarnated.

Monet’s gardens in Giverny, France call to me. I’ve tried to recreate some of his gorgeous live paintings in my own yard. You know, the red poppies mixed with purple iris in masses of riotous hues? The tangerine and saffron nasturtiums that creep into the aisle ways, spreading carpets of color across the ground? Monet maintained six acres of sun-drenched explosions in color and even managed to include a pond dotted with water lilies and Japanese bridges. Sigh. I’m sure he had vegetable gardens, too. Did they have yellow tomatoes in his day?

I can’t totally agree with those who claim I’m unduly possessed by this need. I mean, it is healthy for me, isn’t it? Isn’t it okay to get up at 5:30 on a Saturday in May and spend all day outside, planting and tilling and weeding and … until 8:00 at night? And my little grandsons do spend the whole day, “helping” me. So I’m not isolated. I’m with my best buddies in the world. I do miss my wife, the “garden widow,” but I honestly try to make up for it in the evening when we spend quality time talking and watching movies.

Okay, enough explaining. It’s time to go price those blocks for the new raised bed. And maybe I’ll add another dozen blueberry bushes. I’d really like to have enough to freeze. The Pixwell pink gooseberries tasted great last year, but I only planted two bushes. Maybe just another four. Or six… Ought-oh. Here I go again. ;o)



Marta Stephens said...

What a great article, Aaron. I love reading about your garden.

My mother was the one with the green thumb in our family--she could grow anything any time of the year, so any success I have, I owe it to her.

We’ve lived in our home for 21 years and it's taken us each one of those years to convert our yard into established perennial gardens. I love them. They grow whether I'm there to tend to them or not. Writing deadlines kept me indoors most of the summer last year, but the timing seems to be better this time around.

As the flowering bushes we planted throughout the yard blossom and spring flowers dot our property, I'm looking forward to doing a bit of digging myself this year!

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Thanks, Marta. ;o) Today I was able to spend almost all day outside, planting 120 feet of potatoes, a row of Spanish onions, Blue Lake green beans, lots of types of lettuce, more Cascadia peas, more beets, collards, kale, turnips, radishes, and some zukes and other types of squash. It felt so good to sit in the warm soil and push peas into the earth... what a pleasure. And I got to do it with my little grandsons helping, which made it all the most enjoyable!

Kim Smith said...

Oh Aaron! You make me miss my dad so much! He was the gardener in our family. That man could grow anything in soil that was good for nothing. He taught my kids how to grow watermelons one year and they had the best time. Thank you so much for sharing this, your love of the good earth. What a great tribute you are to the Earth day stuff that has just gone on!

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Oh, Kim. I'm so glad you had a loving gardener dad. My father was the same - pretty much as obsessed as I am, but not into flowers the way I am. I guess I got that from my mother's side! I hope that some day my grandsons will remember our days in the garden the way you and your children remember your father teaching them how to plant watermelons!

Marta Stephens said...

Funny, one of the things I've told (and still do) tell our kids when they're not particularly happy about doing something is that we're making memories. It's true. You may not realize it at the time but it's the seemingly insignificant things that stick with us.

Julie Ann Shapiro said...

Your garden pictures are so beautiful. Those potatoes and beets look wonderful. Now I'm in the mood for beets. I have some from the local organic farm, but they're probaly not half as good as yours.


Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Julie - I'm so glad you enjoyed the photos. And organic is good!I don't add anything to my garden except organic fertilizer and once in a great while I have to use Sevin for my potatoes, or I don't get ANY. But that's it - nothing else goes on them except occasionally I mix in compost or peat moss.

The photo up top is my blue potatoes, freshly dug, in a basket with my nasturtiums. I arranged the shot as a potential cover for ONE POTATO, BLUE POTATO. We'll see what my publisher says! Sometimes she goes for my covers, sometimes she hires an artist. ;o)

Thanks again, and take care!