The Exotic Garden in My Mind

Things Beautiful and Forbidden

Story and Photos by John O’Bryan

The holiday season is over, I’ve killed and eaten the fatted turkey (twenty-two pounds of juicy, golden tryptophan) the tree is down, the party hats and confetti of New Year’s Eve are gone, and bloated and lethargic, I turn my thoughts and mind to spring.

It isn’t here yet and I’ll have piles of snow to push before the long winter of my discontent is over in Moscow, but sweetness is already coming in little packages via my friendly government postal worker.

Catalog after glorious catalog fills my mailbox with tempting garden offerings that make me pine for warm weather and look with longing at the spot where we had the worst garden in our history last year. A veritable potpourri of goodness erupts from the little metal box at the end of our driveway, which makes me believe for a few moments that there will be no weeds this year and by spring the clay will have magically turned to loam.   

These garden people know what they’re doing, stuffing my mailbox full of their magazines at exactly the right moment: just when I’ve come off the frenetic high of Christmas spree spending and still have a bit of the post-New Year’s blues, which, as we all know, can only be cured by more spending. I truly can’t afford to buy more stuff, but this time the presents are all for me and besides, is spending money on plants actual, gratuitous spending?

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Leafy produce from the author's garden in Moscow.
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Tuberous splendor.
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The garden.
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New sprouts.
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Idaho eggplant.
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John with asparagus fronds. Kelly O'Bryan photo.
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Isn’t it necessary spending?  How can it be wrong to spend money on something so beautiful, which gives so much pleasure for such a long time?  How can it be wrong if it feels so right?  I hear a voice telling me not to walk towards the light but all I can reply in a trance-like voice is, “It’s sooo pretty.”   

I guess this is a bit like pornography for the dirt-minded, if you will. The plants are exposed in their full-color photo-edited glory with not a hint of leaf curl or blight on any page. Nothing in real life could ever look like that, without a wrinkle or spot. Still, I study the vitals of the exotic plants in hopes that they fit within my zone. They are smooth beauties, and all the other, more acceptable plants leave me cold.

I trace and retrace the zone lines and try to convince myself that I have my own private microclimate in Moscow, where it is possible to grow quince and citrus in abundance. We’re zone six at best, but I lie and convince myself we’re in zone five. It’s like spinning that small wheel on the edge of the scale to make yourself five pounds lighter. Hey, the scale says it, so it must be true. Sure it’s a lie, but only a tiny one. Besides, who will know if I plant a five in a six?  

My wife is way too practical for any of this tomfoolery. She wants to buy seeds for hearty vegetables like carrots and peas, beans and onions, things we can steam and freeze and store and use throughout the long winter. She is the planner and worker, and I am the one who wants to experience vegetables right away, to store them in me, where they’ll continue to live in memory.

I want things that are beautiful and forbidden and immediate. I want to try the spiral Veronica cauliflower that resembles a beautiful fractal, the Saturn peaches that look like centrifugal force has spun them flat, the giant pumpkins, huge watermelons, giant oxheart, and Mr. Stripey tomatoes.

I want to pick vegetables like I pick cars, for their beauty and impracticality. I don’t want my garden to look like a Dodge Dynasty, I want it to look sexy and quirky, like a Saab Sportcombi.

Alas, I have no such vehicle in my driveway and will probably have no such marvel in my garden again this year. Still, I can dream. Hey, that goji berry on page sixty-three looks mighty tempting. And it remains hardy in zone five.

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John O'Bryan

About John O'Bryan

John O'Bryan was born in southeastern Alaska, moved to Moscow in 1984 to attend the University of Idaho, and never left. He is a husband, dad, granddad, photographer, and fly fisherman—in that order. John can often be found with a camera around his neck, or chasing steelhead on the Clearwater River, or fly fishing Idaho’s blue-ribbon trout streams.

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