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On the Road Again

I visit a lot of gardens each year, finding something new, something interesting in each one. I see the garden as an expression of the soul of the gardener, just as if it were a painting or a musical composition.

Usually I drive when I visit a garden, allowing me to take in farmer’s markets and roadside stands along the way. I often begin these trips with Willy Nelson’s, “On the Road Again” on my iPod. Sometimes, if it’s going to be a long drive, I’ll stick in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road into the tape player.

Kerouac’s vision, fifty years after publication of his classic novel, still calls out to look around yourself, stay open to new experiences, question the ways that convention pushes us, and to look for a higher meaning in every experience.

It was on just such a trip recently, with Willy Nelson’s mellow voice singing background to my travels, that I encountered an enchanting garden. I’d driven north to Des Moines, an eight hour drive from my Ozarks home, to spend time with Cathy Wilkinson Barash, my edible flower writer friend. She had procured tickets to one of the political debate watch parties, and being a political person myself, could not miss the opportunity to listen to people who might one day be President.

Cathy lives in one of Des Moines many older but turning chic neighborhoods where young families and rising business owners all know each other and visit as they walk their dogs each day. Cathy has become well known, not just because she encourages herb growing in people’s side yards, or shares her recipes, but because she walks the blocks daily with either her neighbor’s dog on a leash, or a parrot on her shoulder, or sometimes both.

Cathy is a cat person, having three, and none of them enjoy being on a leash or going for walks. So Cathy joins her neighbors, two houses down, and takes their pets on her walks.

On the first morning of my visit, my friend suggested I accompany her, “to pick up the parrot.” Unsure what was about to transpire, but remembering Kerouac's advice, I eagerly went along to see what new adventure awaited.

From the sidewalk, looking in, I was astonished at the garden before us. There was a very large house, built on a very small city lot, which meant there had been almost no yard from the very beginning. But in that space, had it been lawn instead of garden, one could have mowed it all in three minutes, the owners had constructed a paradise of plants that towered over us.

The owners, Ton and David, of the famous fifth generation Dutch Stam Chocolaterie family, had built a labyrinth of raised beds, with tiny, narrow brick walkways between. There were little hidden pools with moving water, a scaled down table and chairs for two set amidst the tomato vines, just in the right spot for a bit of morning tea.

What was most remarkable, more than the tiny size of the garden, compared to the amount of plants, was how everything was trained upward. Twig trellises (said to have been inspired by my Bentwood Trellis books gave support for tomatoes that rose upward for eight feet or more. Midlevel of the tomatoes, were cucumbers, sorting their way into sunlight. You could, and we did, reach into the twig arbors and pick tomatoes, and cucumbers, from the same square foot of space.

Around the edges of the beds were bountiful, prolific basils, beans, thymes, rosemaries, all scattered in whatever inches of space the sunlight allowed. This was a garden that rose upward, in many levels, ignoring the actual square footage beneath.

Encountering that delightful garden reminded me of Kerouac’s philosophy, and the coinage of the word “beat” that inspired a generation of my peers, of saturating yourself in an experience to the point of exhaustion, and still wanting more. The tiny garden I encountered was too big to take in, to complex to photograph, and yet the experience was all encompassing.

Kerouac still speaks to us, fifty years after the publication of On the Road, to look at your garden in a new way. If you can’t spread out, then spread up. If you don’t have enough trellises, use hoola hoops. And as he told his friends, “always, always, make it new.”

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