Redneck Gardening (Essay by Susan Newark) Humor Country Living
The following piece was previously published in the gardening magazine Green Prints 89, Spring 2012. This is an excerpt from Letters from Valley View, a book-in-progress about Newark's move from a crime-infested Arizona city to the secluded mountains of Northern California. Letters from Valley View is due out in late 2017/early 2018.
Six years ago I moved to a secluded forty-acre property, on the grid but not much else: it’s out of cell tower range, well off the highway, far off the freeway, and if I want to reach the nearest filling station without confrontation from the idiot light, I require at least a gallon of gas in my Honda hybrid or three gallons in my truck. I migrated here to the northern California mountains from a small southern Arizona city under development siege, escaping habitat destruction, noisy neighbors, burgeoning traffic, threatening gangs, rampant drugs, and bad attitudes. I’m interested in self-sufficiency but not to the point of inconvenience; I have propane gas delivery, a 400-foot well, a five-year septic system, a generator for power outages, satellite TV in the guest house, telephone service, and a DSL internet line with a wireless router.
Still, despite my dependence upon the expediency of modern technology, I crave the romance of wild open spaces and the lost values of the pioneer past. So I relocated here with the intention of expanding my bird sanctuary, preserving the natural habitat, and living as much as possible off the land—not to mention teaching my younger son, born when I was almost forty, to understand and appreciate where his food comes from. I school him at home, and in between lessons, he harvests vegetables and raises chickens. With his help, what was once my organic garden is now a small organic farm. We run it with little input from the outside world, except for the yearly online order of organic seed. When I first arrived, however, the supplies needed to get started gave me an opportunity to acquaint myself with the community.
My first order of business was fruit. It was already late winter by the time I’d unpacked and installed fencing for the dog yard, the chicken run, and the kitchen garden. I had to hurry if I wanted to get the trees established in time, so I started digging huge holes before heading to Del’s Nursery, where I complained that the first six inches of ground were easy, but then I struck rocks with every thrust of the shovel. “Rocks are a sign that you have good drainage and lack hardpan,” Del said, “but of course they’re a bitch to dig in. You should dynamite the holes!” I don’t think he was kidding.
Del is a hard-right Republican anarchist with every possible redneck slogan plastered to the walls of his store. He’s got a quote of John Adams about how people are ultimately better off without government, and he loves to brag, “It’s amazing how much interference you can avoid by knowing your Constitution.” He has successfully resisted government nursery inspectors and throws them off his property. He supported Bush all the way and blames the previous Clinton administration for encouraging nursery suppliers to cater to the likes of Wal-Mart (his main competitor). “It’s impossible to get ANY decent plants nowadays,” he complains, “because the supplier quality is dropping to the sonofabitchin level of the mass marketers, since superstores just want to sell cheaply and monopolize the public, who are ignorant of the poor quality they’re getting.” His decals, notices, and posters threaten to shoot solicitors, proclaim that gun control only hurts the innocent while the criminals arm themselves to their eyeballs, and shout that God should grant him the serenity to accept what he can’t change because he’s running out of places to hide the bodies of the people who have pissed him off.
The first time I shopped at Del’s Nursery, I tried to pay for my order with a debit card. “I’m not giving those damn banks all those processing fees,” he stated flatly, his muscled physique pacing like a panther in a cage behind the sales counter. “Just tell me your address and buy whatever you need. I’ll bill you at the end of each month.”
Thinking back to my own business, where I could never have given credit if I expected to collect, I asked him whether people ever failed to pay their bills. “Are you kidding?” he ranted. “Gardening is HARD WORK! Thieves are lazy.” He did, however, later confess to me about one guy who bought an entire orchard’s worth of trees and “forgot” to pay his bill. “I sent him some warnings,” Del admitted as he downed half a Budweiser, “but he ignored them.”
“So what did you do?” I asked curiously, sure he did something because of the smirk on his face.
“Well, forget that legal crap. It costs more than it’s worth. I loaded a chain saw into my truck and took a little trip out to his place about a year later, after all the trees were well-established. Then I planted my feet at the edge of the orchard, chain saw in hand, and said I’d be back the following week to cut down all my trees and take them back to the nursery. The guy sent a check a few days later,” Del gloated, slugging down his second beer in twenty minutes.
Whenever I go to Del’s, I come face to face with a four-foot carved bear sporting a pipe and a real shotgun. The chemical Miracle-Gro sits proudly on a shelf next to the organic Safer Insecticidal spray, both of which are near a camouflage-painted rocket that I doubt is a fake. When I walked in each day that first winter (I was buying up every species of bare-root tree stock a couple at a time so I could stagger their planting and thus my hole-digging—since I decided against the dynamite), I quickly learned that with every purchase, I’m entitled to a hearty dose of anarchist politics or redneck philosophies while on my way to the little field of trees, each of which sits in a moist, thick bed of deep mulch to keep the roots from drying out. “The goddamn marijuana growers hiding out in the hills downriver,” for example, “are unquestionably responsible” for the whole pallet of soil conditioner that someone trucked off one moonless night, and “it’s the government’s fault for not controlling them.” I myself live downriver and have yet to meet any marijuana growers or stumble into their fields while hiking, but I always manage to refrain from saying so.
I also get a hearty dose of the most interesting garden advice I’ve ever heard—and it’s not just because I’m inexperienced with trees. Del says one of the reasons so many fruit tree plantings fail is that you should plant with the graft facing northwest, so that it doesn’t get sun-scalded and crack, which opens it up to infestation. He also says that frequently people go out and buy fruit trees at mass-market stores whose employees know nothing about plants or don’t bother to tell the customers that two different types of related breeds are required for proper pollination. Once when I went to buy two red delicious apples, Del commanded me that, if I wanted any fruit, I should plant one red delicious and one yellow delicious.
Then he told the story of a woman who showed up hunting for the best fertilizer for the blueberry bushes she’d just ordered online. He asked her what she’d bought and she mentioned the variety. Then he asked what else and she said that was all she’d gotten—fifty of them! So Del laughed and told her, “There’s no sense buying fertilizer when you ain’t gonna get no fruit!”
Del’s trees cost $16.50 each and come with a free bag full of moistened mulch to keep them happy on the ride home. He’s up front about which trees from the incoming stock will do well and which ones won’t—and why. His advice is just as free as the political lectures, which last from office door to the tree yard or the pallets of mulch or wherever my destination is. One day I arrived and loitered, reading his walls of slogans and petting his unlicensed dogs while waiting for him to help an old lady who’d brought in some diseased leaves of a favorite plant she’d bought from him two years ago. He spent thirty-five minutes researching symptoms in some dusty old books, confidently gave her advice for cause and cure, and refused to accept any payment, despite a sign indicating the hourly rate and minimum charge for diagnosis of plant illness.
His generosity further extends to parting with what no other nursery will even consider. Once I stopped by hoping to get a stack of small starter plant pots a little bigger than the average leftover six-packs. Nurseries in general always refuse to give up any leftover pots, no matter what size. They won’t even sell them, because they return them to the suppliers for credit. But despite the fact that I wasn’t buying anything that day, Del and his wife Cricket filled up the entire trunk of my car with stacks of great starter pots and then refused to accept any reimbursement.
He also carries bags of organic soil conditioner and potting soil better than any I’ve ever gotten, bags so big I can just barely carry them, each for only $2.99. These were a huge boon for my first-year’s planting, since my own compost wouldn’t be ready for several months. Meanwhile, I schemed on garden plans at night and stopped at Del’s almost every day on my way home from town, knowing I’d never dare to mention the Bowling for Columbine DVD on my shelf, understanding that as much as Del is one of those belligerently adamant anarchists who interviewed so poorly in the movie, he is also grounded in what the soil produces, and—somehow—this keeps him down to earth despite the missile shell planted firmly along the path to the garden grounds.
Del’s closes at three on Saturdays, but sometimes during the busy season he stays late. On one such day, when I sauntered into the little office/display room at 4:30, he was relaxing and drinking beer under his “Redneck Wind Chime,” which consists of three Miller High Life cans on string. As he lounged there grinning engagingly out of his buzz, I realized for the first time that he was actually an attractive man. My momentary insanity passed quickly, of course, the second he began philosophizing again. On his way to the tree bed, he seemed acquiesced by my description of how I planted the previous purchases and was rewarded by my desire to “play in the dirt.” He then pointed out belligerently, “The one thing those environmentalist yuppie idiots don’t understand about farmers and ranchers is how much connection they have to the dirt and how they are mostly the ones who take care of it.”
If those farmers and ranchers are chemical growers, then they are as diametrically opposed to my own philosophy as they can be. But I (outspoken liberal that I am) didn’t say anything. I just smiled and waited patiently as Del stood under his “Doesn’t Play Well With Others” bumper sticker and added my purchase to my monthly account. I had already decided that I didn’t want to spend my time here in the country entering into debates that no one would win; I just wanted to work on the land, live quietly, and try to listen more for a change.
One day, though, Del and his wife Cricket went too far. I had stopped by for an organic liquid concentrate, and as was usual, the purchase came with a lecture. But this time, after perhaps a six-pack more than usual, they didn’t know when to stop. Del regaled me with all the faults of the organics industry and blasted me with criticism about how much money I was wasting by spending extra on organic products when the cheaper chemical ones worked just as well. When he paused for breath ten minutes later, his normally-friendly wife lit into me too. At first I just stood there in shock over the surprise attack, but then I got angry. How much money had I spent there, primarily on organic products? It surely must have been apparent to them how important my lifestyle was to me, yet there they were trashing it—pouring gasoline over it and shrieking in delight as they struck the match.
I drove away that day absurdly hurt. Although I could never be true friends with anyone whose philosophies were such a violent affront to my own, I had nevertheless believed that we were on friendly terms and that I had done right in keeping the peace. In the past I would have shoved the short version of my favorite organic living lecture right back in his face, the way I always did back in the city when some total stranger criticized the “Go Organic” bumper sticker on my car: “If you apply pesticides to your plants, you kill off the beneficial predatory insects as well as the pests. Pest populations recover quickly and build tolerance to the chemicals, resulting in the constant need for more applications of more powerful chemicals. Beneficial populations that would prey on the pests (along with pollinators you depend on) don’t recover quickly and thus disappear from your property. Over time, the land becomes like a Stepford Wife, perfect on the surface but with no soul underneath. The ongoing process of deterioration results in weaker harvests, poisoned food, damaged wildlife habitat, and a fat hole in your pocketbook courtesy of Monsanto, who now owns most of the non-organic farmers in the country.”
Never had I wanted to drive that point smugly home as much as I did every single time I talked to Del, this time most especially, and keeping my mouth shut was a major step for an environmental activist like me. But I didn’t fight him; I simply avoided him, and the next time I needed a tree, I went to Wal-Mart. I began to pick up nursery supplies from sources much farther away, whenever I was traveling to other towns for unrelated reasons. Until that point, I had seldom passed the first of any month without receipt of a bill from Del’s, but following it, the nursery was absent from my life for a year.
During that time, I thought a lot about the lack of logic in his tirades. I remembered a story he once told me about trying to exterminate some red-tailed hawks hanging about the open back storage area. In almost the same breath that he complained about bags of grass seed disappearing a bit at a time, he extolled the virtues of killing predators that were the scourge of ranchers and that were surely after the chickens he used to keep back there. I have chickens and my bird sanctuary attracts red-tailed hawks, which do not generally prey upon their domesticated relatives. I also have fifty-pound bags of organic poultry feed and forty-pound bags of black oil sunflower bird seed, which I have had to conceal in airtight bins inside storage buildings to keep out the primary thieves—the ground squirrels, which are a rodent-like breed that prey birds go after but which are vastly overpopulated and damaging to farmers for lack of adequate predation.
I never tried to reason with Del about this incident (though I might have been tempted if he had not already disposed of both the chickens and the hawks); he is the type of man who will never stop pontificating long enough to listen. Yet even if he is a loudmouthed insult to the causes I care about, he is not all bad. One day long after the Wal-Mart tree had died, I bumped into Cricket at the drug store. Waving enthusiastically to get my attention, she gushed loudly from two lines over, “How arrrre you? It’s so nice to seeee you again. Come and visit us sometime!” I guessed it was an apology, and it was a bit too sincere to leave me suspicious that she missed only my business rather than me. So a couple of weeks later, I stopped back in at Del’s nursery. Cricket rushed over like an affectionate long-lost sister and excitedly invited me to tour the premises, which they had cleaned up right down to the cobwebbed corners once stuffed with decaying inventory.
They had re-paneled, repainted, restocked with new items, including bulk bags of some all-natural mineral supplements favored by organic growers, and added a lovely back patio area for landscaping plants. Del was particularly proud of his display of non-chemical seed from an independent company whose name and logo had not yet been gobbled up by conglomerates such as that “money-grubbing Monsanto,” which was slowly but surely undermining the quality of farm seed. Whether his intention, I don’t know, but—Wal-Mart excepted—it was the first time we were ever on the same side of an argument. Then he sold me a truckload of expensive wine barrel planters I admired at two-thirds the going rate. Not long afterward, I sent my father by for a load of gravel to repair our road. Del’s own rock supply was adequate to service us, but he offered the name and location of his supplier instead, saying we would save a bundle by going straight to him.
On the opposing sides of political fights stand enemies who surround themselves with supporters. In the city I moved from, factions are practically anonymous because the territory in question is populated enough to shield the members of each army from direct after-battle contact with the other. Del and I, naturally, will never really be friends. But the experience of knowing this hard-drinking-and-proud-of-it, right-wing tyrant of a redneck has reminded me that, in a small community, these so-called enemies cannot avoid one another, and like it or not, their inevitable contact forces them to recognize that when they have injured someone, that person will bleed.
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Photograph at top left is of the mountainside Valley View bird garden in early summer 2015. Other photographs are from various Valley View springs and summers.
All photography and texts are copyrighted to Susan Newark and are protected by Digimarc invisible watermarking and online image tracking.
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