By now you’ve probably lost track of the date, like I have. It’s May 19th—we’re almost halfway through our year, fools. It’s horrible. But at least plants are growing.
On April 21, almost a month ago, I planted the first vegetable garden I have ever planted. I did not know how obsessive I would become about growing things. This is partially because, on the day I put the seedlings in the ground, my garden looked like this:
Humble. Diminutive. Floppy. And now, barely four weeks later, my garden looks like this:
Everything that is growing
The herbs at left—basil, chives, dill, cilantro, and parsley—have stayed small because we’ve been eating them. The tomatoes—a Black cherry, and a Sungold cherry—in the black pots in back have become so ginormous that sometimes I sit and watch them and imagine I can see them growing. The Red Russian kale has gone berserk and lost the gorgeous deep purple cast that colder weather gave it; we probably need to eat it before it becomes too bitter in the heat. The pepper in the middle, beset by bugs with little bites taken out of all its leaves, is nonetheless popping out flowers. And the arugula and butterhead lettuce in front were experiments: I got greens with roots in a farm share, cut off their leaves, ate them, and popped the roots in soil. I didn’t hope for much. They turned into lettuce though. This is the lesson growing plants has taught me: They are fabulous endless self-propagation machines, with a talent for regeneration I only wish I had. A leaf without roots can grow more roots; a root without stem will grow more stem; I only wish I could grow new feet or a new head, in case of emergency. It is a sort of cloning, insurance, potentially everlasting life. The mustards that were with the lettuces in the front are gone, by the way, because I ate them.
Sometimes now I sit out on my concrete, unyielding stoop and the tomatoes are almost at my eye level. They’ve grown something like a foot and a half in a scant month. The buckets have begun to remind me of a little forest. The other day, while I was cutting out the mustards for my breakfast, I came away with tiny fang marks on my thumb that reddened and swelled enormously. A spider had bitten me, I thought, in defense of its forest, which I was chopping down.
The tomatoes lived in my house for a time, because I didn’t want them out shivering in the bizarre Arctic cold snap we had this month, and they produced gnats and smelled and were a nuisance. But they’re popping out flowers left and right, and yesterday I found the first teeny tiny tomato, like a little green dewdrop:
Those tomatoes, especially, are an entire ecosystem. Tiny animals will take advantage of any structure they can find on which to live. Birds inhabit trees in a forest; tiny insects inhabit the two 2-foot-high tomato plants in my garden. Wherever there is a place to claim, life will claim it. I have found aphids on the tomatoes and the kale, like fat microscopic green sheep, slowly sucking the leaves dry; cabbage worms on everything, eating beautiful laminated holes out of the greenery; I have found mealybugs, white and fluffy like little clouds or downy feathers; and one long-limbed brown spider, elegant and stretched out as if drawn in two strokes with a sumi-e brush, who might have been the one that bit me the other day. The aphids and the worms I crush without guilt—they are my competitors for food, and as long as I’m not spraying chemicals that will annihilate them all I don’t worry about dispatching them. I look under all the leaves most days to see what fauna is trying to suck my plants dry on any given morning. But today I found a tiny someone, and was glad I knew what it was so that I did not crush him:
It was tiny, probably the half the length of my pinky nail, mere millimeters long. Let’s zoom in:
This is an alligator with horrible jaws.
I’m glad I knew what it was, something I’d only learned the day before, a larva. Little beneficial worm. It is the young form of the painting at the top of this post, a lacewing, but pre-metamorphosis and thus completely something different. Metamorphosis is a wild way to choose to make your body(s), as a living thing: the before body has little or nothing to do with the after body. They behave and eat and live and probably think entirely different bug-lives. If we were metamorphic we would probably crawl into our own spit-formed cocoons and come out looking like octopuses or spaceships, so different would we be. I mean, that’s basically what happens to insects, anyway: They start out armor-plated, heavy, thick-jawed and predatory, then they tuck themselves up in a cocoon and emerge light-bodied, winged, ethereal, with no more appetite for anything except fleeting sex and death. (Insects at this stage of life are said to be in the imaginal stage. They are called imagos. I’m not sure why but I like to think in this winged end-stage that is closest to death it is like they are approaching something unreal, carried on thought and not matter.) It’s an entirely segmented life of defined roles and being and I find it very strange. (Our society would be so different if we were insects, if we had life stages like this. Think puberty is dramatic? It could be so much worse.)
So this is a lacewing, in its larval pre-metamorphic form, that has taken up residence on my tomato plant. I terrified it, I am a giant, as I moved the leaf to get a good look it skittered in all directions. I think that green blotch to the right of its monstrous head, by the way, is the husk (the integument) of an aphid, its exsanguinated drained remains. I interrupted it at a meal. Those absurd jaws—called mandibles, or maxilla, I cannot figure out which—are hollow, and made for seeking (if I know animals they are probably something between needles and whiskers, hollow and made for both piercing and feeling, questing out ahead). They find a prey insect—lacewing larvae love to eat the little green cows that are aphids, and are such voracious predators they are sometimes referred to as aphid lions—pierce it with those horrid needle jaws, and inject it with spit that is corrosive and breaks down all the internal organs into slurpable juice. The aphid lion pre-digests the aphid, then drinks it down.
I turned the leaf back over and let it be. The little lacewing is my friend (though they bite people with those horrid jaws sometimes too). The aphids have been eating my tomatoes and my kale, I’ve found new ones every day, little breeding herds of green cows. The lacewing is the first evidence I’ve seen that I am developing an entire ecosystem in the little forest which is my garden: I situated light-drinking plants in a sunny spot, so herbivores (the aphids) smelled them out and started snacking on them, but now a predator (the lacewings) have arrived to munch upon the aphids. When predators or prey or plant dies, their bodies will fall onto the soil, where their parts will be eaten up by microorganisms, or worms, more bugs and fungi and predators and prey, churning bodies back into nutrients in the soil. As above, so below. (Thank god for the sun. Apart from the sun, everything else on this green earth is recycled. The sun is the only true input.)
People pay good money for lacewing larvae. I know folks who let them loose in their homes, letting their gossamer adult forms emerge and fly about within their houses, because the lion-like larvae are so valuable as predators. They keep plant-munching herbivores under control. I didn’t pay a thing for my little lacewing. It is being paid in aphids. As I sit here typing next to the tomato plants, I can see an adult that has landed on the trunk of one plant, tiny see-through wings motionlessly held above its back. I hope that when it saw this plant it sensed food, the same as I do. I hope it is planning to lay eggs, to deliver me more baby crocodiles that will protect my investments, without even being asked.