How to Start Your Kitchen Garden

Whereas we have three children, and they eat like teenagers, being teenagers, we figured we should take advantage of Oregon, where you can drop a seed by accident and have a crop by noon, so we laid out a garden, and planted tomatoes and beans and garlic, and sat back and waited for noon.

Within minutes jays appeared, dug up most of the seeds and starts, ate them with alacrity, jeered at me in their Tom Waits voices, and gave me the feathery finger when I hammered on the window and told them to go mill grubs or whatever it is they do when unemployed. Then came the starlings, who ate the rest of the seeds, left me vulgar notes, and stole a new rake I had just bought, at startling expense. Then came the squirrels, who appeared to be so upset that there were no seeds left that they used my son’s baseball bat as a battering ram and nearly stove in the garden shed door before the dog, a sort of house wolf, was released to cause havoc and save the gardening implements in their shining ranks, untouched as yet by anyone except the cashier at the store. Then came the slugs and snails, mopping up last shreds, and mammoth raccoons the size of Rick Perry, who used vituperative language and relieved themselves on my gardening gloves, and finally we were visited by two deer, who were so disappointed that we left ten dollars for them in an envelope with a drawing of deer on it.

Things went downhill after that. I tried every seed imaginable. I tried fences. I tried wooden walls. I tried stone walls. I tried walls sprayed with noxious substances. I tried scarecrows. I was going to try sleeping outside in a cot next to the garden with a butter knife and a Metallica tape but was overruled and confined to barracks. I tried leaving the window four inches open and coaxing the house wolf to sleep under the window so that he, with his incredible hearing, might stick his nose out the window at trespassers and utter those terrifying sounds he makes which certainly must mean I will eat you so fast there will be nothing left but your footprints, but he declined. I was going to try to grow Venus flytraps and other violent exotica but was overruled. I did once in a fit of pique plant black locust trees but to my astonishment something ate them one night and was violently sick near the recycling bin. In another fit of pique I was planning to plant bricks and paving stones but was overruled and forbidden to use garden implements for one lunar month.

I tried planting plants that were so close to flowering and fruiting you could smell their perfume and almost hear their yearning for a committed and stable relationship. In yet another fit of pique I planted broccoli and asparagus spears purchased from the grocery produce section, first coating the bottoms of their stalks with growth hormone, and this, I must say, seemed like a promising direction, for what animal could possibly eat a broccoli stalk as thick as my wrist, with a crown the size of a baby’s head? But how wrong I was, for the entire planting was gone in the morning, the garden scattered with little polite “thank you” notes, unsigned.

A man can only take so much disappointment, and there were summers there when my spirits sagged like a teenager’s pants, but then I was vouchsafed a vision—pole beans! My idea for the pole beans was to erect poles twenty times taller than the house, not even eagles were going to get those beans, but I was overruled on that, and the extant poles, and very excellent poles they are, are eight feet high, and covered in season by a dense thicket of pole beans, more than anyone could count. It may be that suburban animals dislike pole beans, or that the beans are able to defend themselves in subtle and telling ways, perhaps with infinitesimal pocketknives or Yoko Ono songs. But this is a matter for serious gardeners, not for amateurs like me.

Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, and the author of ten books, including, most recently, the novel Mink River.

Photo by Neil Palmer.


  1. Shining ranks is the best typo of this waning month. Lovely article. Made me howl.

  2. Ah,yes. Echoes of my own gardening experiences of throwing slippers at woodchucks devouring squash and chasing miniature Godzillas from my Tokyo garden rows. Thanks for one of the best gardening pieces I’ve read in a long time.

  3. Hey, shining ranks is no typo — they shine like the sweat on a candidate’s face when you ask him about his fee from the agency he is attacking in his speech.

  4. Great article. I live in Seattle and my motto has become “if you can’t beat ’em, eat ’em.”

    Squirrels, snails, slugs and weeds are all gooood eatin’ in these hyare parts. My blogs have instructions for how to hunt, gather and cook with them.

    Granny Clampett was really onto something. Thanks to her example, I think we’ve taken this ‘sustainable food’ thing just about as far as we aim to 🙂

  5. Anyone for sampling purslane? Its free and grows well as a noxious weed in Seattle. Reminds me of the hippies trying to grow vegetables in Alaska in Drop City.

  6. Awesome article. Love your vocabulary of uncommon words and your ability to create a visual tableau with just a few well chosen words. The world needs more writers like you!

  7. Purslane is one of the crops of our CSA! If they can get us to eat it, then…..

  8. Have you tried a raised bed to make the degree of difficulty for the four-legged foragers a little harder? Make them have to pole vault to reach the promised land? Our company produces a 100% recycled content panel that is easily fabricated into a raised bed and that has a surface that would be hard for critters to climb. Loved the article.

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