Real Estate

Another Dose of Delight From a Writer Who Finds Wonder in His Backyard

Yes, please. I’ll have another dose of delight.

We could all use some, and Ross Gay is as delighted to share as he is grateful for every joy the day serves up, many courtesy of his tenth-of-an-acre garden in Bloomington, Ind.

Mr. Gay, a professor of writing at Indiana University and the author of “The Book of Delights,” a 2019 essay collection that became a New York Times best seller, has a new collection out this month, “The Book of (More) Delights.”

Like his previous offering, it is not exactly a garden book, although the things growing in his backyard are once again among the main characters — providing sustenance, teaching, showing the way forward.

It could have been called “The Book of (More) Thank-Yous,” he says in the acknowledgments, because delights are “sort of like gratitudes, or thank-yous,” each one “a kind of bell reminding us of something for which we’re probably grateful.”

Mr. Gay, a professor of writing at Indiana University in Bloomington, just published “The Book of (More) Delights,” a follow-up to “The Book of Delights,” his best-selling 2019 essay collection.Credit…Natasha Komoda

He expresses appreciation for the physical harvest — including the “luminous purple sweet potatoes,” four or five as big as his forearm one recent year — and for a woodpecker “banging his face into a tree as an accompaniment to the polyphonic choir of birds.”

Underfoot, in the plot he tends with his partner, Stephanie Smith, “the arugula has naturalized and is spreading out into the garden, crawling into the dandelions.” And that, too, delights him.

He even gives thanks to the dandelions, one of which blooms in the cover illustration on the new book.

“What a relief it was to realize that dandelions could be a crop,” Mr. Gay said in a recent interview, and then began to laugh, as that moment of recognition came back to him: “Hey, I’m the best gardener in the world.”

“I mean, when the squash bugs get the squash, and the cabbage moths the collards, and the blight the tomatoes,” he writes, “the dandelions are steady Freddy.”

He throws their leaves into tomato sauce, black-eyed pea fritters and even smoothies.

Carpe diem, the Taraxacum officinale way.

Mr. Gay’s garden has come exuberantly to life where the property’s previous owners parked their cars. Credit…Natasha Komoda

Collaboration, Connection and Collards

Maybe more than anything else, Mr. Gay is grateful for, as he put it, the “incomprehensibly complex collaboration” that allows everything to happen in a garden, from the soil biome on up — the unseen chain of catalysts that enables seeds to germinate and garlic cloves tucked in each fall to eventually pierce the surface. “It’s like there’s this permission or something,” he said.

Of course, he knows what’s coming (or hopes he does), but still.

“Pretty much every time I see this stuff coming up, I get a flutter of, like, Oh, my God, it’s happening,” said Mr. Gay, 49. “I am coming close to 20 years of gardening. After 20 years of playing basketball, if my hands were right on a foul shot, I wouldn’t be surprised that it went in.”

But can we, as gardeners, ever achieve real mastery or certainty?

“I feel like the best gardeners, who have been at it for a long time, still don’t exactly know what’s going to happen,” he said. “When it happens, you are still often having to adjust and having to think, OK, well, this is not how it was last time. That thing of that beautiful, often gentle unknowingness that a garden allows you to get to be inside of — it feels like really good teaching.”

Some of the ample collard crop in Mr. Gay’s garden. One neighbor stops by to pick some, and he will make a visit to her place, taking cuttings from her red currants — all part of the fellowship of gardeners.Credit…Natasha Komoda

In his writing and in conversation, Mr. Gay voices a depth of gratitude for the fellowship of other gardeners, who share the fruits of their labors and their wisdom. One neighbor stops by to partake of the couple’s embarrassment of collards; soon they will visit her place, to take cuttings from her red currants.

Mr. Gay, who has described seed catalogs as “erotic” and admits to being “seduced” into ordering enough seed to sow a farm field, always has plenty that he happily shares. Another gardener friend offers up ripe figs or pawpaws — or maybe just needed advice, which is probably what’s exchanged most of all.

“How many people I did not know who became acquaintances, or friends, just by saying, ‘I have some extra this,’ or ‘Oh, did you ever think of growing it like this?’” Mr. Gay said. “That is such a beautiful aspect of gardening, that so many people are in community. And if it’s not already happening, it’s waiting to happen.”

A word he uses, both for the elements in nature’s equation and the chemistry among those who garden, is “entanglement” — not as in ensnared, but wrapped in connection, puzzle pieces of a pulsing, biodiverse whole.

“Part of the entanglement thing suggests to me that ‘without this, no that,’” he said. “To note the tree that’s giving shade, or to note whoever dropped off the pawpaws, or the pawpaws themselves, or the raccoon that planted the pawpaws: You can get deeply aware of how much or how entirely your life is made by the often just gentle actions of others.”

He stopped a moment, before underscoring the thought: “The idea of the self-made whatever, to me, is just, like, the deepest joke.”

Mr. Gay’s garden is a productive polyculture of vegetables, herbs and flowers.Credit…Natasha Komoda

A Profusion of Relationships

Maybe it’s no surprise that the garden he and Ms. Smith cultivate is a polyculture: multiple things grown intensively, in plant communities. Among the planting beds on ground that was once lifeless, where the property’s previous owners parked their cars, are five tall, 4-by-8-foot wooden-sided boxes.

The contents of those boxes and various beds spill over with so many entangled relationships: The tasty leaves of sweet potato vines form a lush ground cover beneath the okra; the comfrey, mint and squash are intimately intertwined. As soon as it’s warm enough each spring, the couple interplant lettuce between the rows of garlic that went in the previous fall.

“There’s almost never a time in the garden where there’s just a bed of one thing,” Mr. Gay said. “All of those things are just so beautiful and fascinating and soul sustaining to me.”

He relishes getting his hands in the mix — “reaching through the cool soil” in search of a new potato, maybe, and savoring the delicious tactile aspect of it all.

“You’re always touching everything, and you’re watching how everything else is touching everything else,” he said.

And not just people-to-plant or plant-to-plant contact. Various herbs, especially mountain mint (Pycnanthemum) and basil, are alive with beneficial insects when in flower.

“They’re just swarmed with bees and wasps and other stuff I know I can’t see,” Mr. Gay said. “It’s just so much touching going on. It’s really good. I can watch it for a long time.”

Goldfinches are credited with planting sunflowers here and there in Mr. Gay’s garden. The towering castor beans, he said, “just walked in and planted themselves.”Credit…Natasha Komoda

The garden is a landing pad, a place where things simply show up, as if they, too, want in on the action. Goldfinches are credited with planting sunflowers here and there. Towering castor bean plants (Ricinus communis) that are “prehistoric-looking,” Mr. Gay said, “just walked in and planted themselves.” Their star-shaped leaves are now more than two feet across.

“In a little garden like this, when it gets hot, the leaves become little shade sanctuaries,” he said. “We’ll leave some, and that’s a good place to keep the greens so they get a little bit of shade in summer when it gets very hot and often dry.”

He and the greens agree: Thank you, castor beans.

‘I Just Hand Garlic the Bat’

Before long now — “ballpark Halloween, in my book,” Mr. Gay writes — it will be garlic-planting time.

And when it comes to garlic, he and Ms. Smith aren’t kidding. They plant about 200 cloves, some years even more.

Then there is always that holding-your-breath part. Will it grow? Won’t it?

Finally, here come “the garlic sending their little green periscopes up,” he writes in one essay in the new book.

Mr. Gay’s biggest harvest from the little garden may have been in 2021, courtesy of the garlic. By the time he had pulled every bulb, he had piles laid out to cure.Credit…Natasha Komoda

He has never had a garlic fail. “I mean, when it comes to garlic, I am batting 1,000,” he writes in another essay. “I should say, garlic is batting 1,000. I just hand garlic the bat.”

With each crop comes a renewed surge of confidence (and more thank-yous).

“Who knew that in addition to vampires and getting your tomato sauce right, garlic’s your tiny professor of faith, your pungent don of gratitude?” he adds.

“The older I get, the more I realize that I like putting stuff in and just being like, ‘And that will be done in six months, and I’ll come back to it,’” he said. “I love that. I like potatoes for that reason. I like sweet potatoes for that reason. I like garlic for that reason.”

Maybe his biggest harvest ever from the little garden came in 2021, courtesy of the garlic. By the time he had pulled every bulb, piles to cure spread across his screened porch.

He stood back to take it all in, he recounts in “The Book of (More) Delights.”

And then he was overtaken: “I started laughing and laughing and, for some reason I’m not sure of, I kind of can’t stop.”

Margaret Roach is the creator of the website and podcast A Way to Garden, and a book of the same name.

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