inch by inch


In my city living days, I volunteered at Club Passim, a truly legendary folk club in Harvard Square. In those days, they used volunteers for most everything; I ran sound on the nights I could, sometimes for folks I knew, sometimes for folks I did not know so well. Dave Mallett fell into the latter category for me. Hearing him was a wonderful surprise. His songs were full of heart and hope and his baritone voice warmed the room. Towards the end of the evening, he began singing a song that made me realize I was more familiar with him than I knew:

inch by inch, row by row
gonna make this garden grow

gonna mulch it deep and low

gonna make it fertile ground

inch by inch, row by row

please bless these seeds I sow

please keep them safe below

till the rain comes tumbling down

I first heard “The Garden Song” from Peter, Paul, & Mary, but that night I heard it from the guy who wrote it, which is always best.

I thought about Dave this past week as I was finally able to get my vegetable garden planted. This year took a bit more work because I was trying to do Square Foot Gardening, which meant building the boxes and preparing the garden to produce more than I could have imagined. I have six 6×3 boxes, which gives me room for about eight different kinds of tomatoes (Early Girls, Lemon Boys, Romas, Brandywines, Green Zebras, Grapes, and a couple of others), eggplant, Swiss chard, Brussels sprouts, green beans, zucchini, summer squash, and bunch of different herbs. I’m going to be able to keep the whole neighborhood in fresh produce come August and September.

This is the fifth summer I’ve had a vegetable garden. We’ve got lots of flowers, too, but I get special pleasure from growing food: stuff to eat and share. I’ve also learned a great deal of patience from planting. Digging in the dirt in early June means vegetables in August. In between, all I can do is water, watch, and wait. Growth takes time.

E. B. White, who wrote Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and The Elements of Style, was married to Katherine S. White, who wrote gardening essays for The New Yorker for many years. After she died, White put together a collection of her essays, Onward and Upward Through the Garden, and also wrote an introduction in which he said:

“Armed with a diagram and a clipboard, Katherine would get into a shabby old brooks raincoat much too long for her, put on a little round wool hat, pull on a pair of overshoes and proceed to the director’s chair – a folding canvas thing – that had been placed for her at the edge of the plot. There she would sit, hour after hour, in the wind and the weather, while Henry Allen produced dozens of brown paper packages of new bulbs and a basketful of old ones, ready for the intricate interment. As the years went by and age overtook her, there was something comical yet touching in her bedraggled appearance on this awesome occasion – the small, hunched-over figure, her studied absorption in the implausible notion that there would be yet another spring, oblivious to the ending of her own days, which she knew perfectly well was near at hand, sitting there with her detailed chart under those dark skies in the dying October, calmly plotting the resurrection.”

I’m not planting bulbs in the balmy winds of autumn, but I am plotting the resurrection nonetheless. In a space behind my garage that has been mostly space for waste and weeds, I’m digging in:

pullin’ weeds and pickin’ stones
we are made of dreams and bones

need a place to call my own

’cause the time is close at hand

grain for grain, sun and rain

find my way in nature’s chain

till my body and my brain
tell the music of the land

Several times on our trip to Greece and Turkey, we found flowers growing In the ruins. The huge cut stones were still stacked, as they had been for centuries and out of the cracks came beautiful blooms. Somehow those plants had plotted their own resurrection, ding a way to sink roots in unexpected places. Ivies grew up and around old stones, turning them into living shapes.

It’s true, you know, whether I’m among the ruins at Delphi or standing on my back deck: death doesn’t get the last word — not as long as I keep plotting and planting.



  1. Mom-in-law and my mother made some FINE fried green tomatoes last week from some of our early Better Boys. YUM!

    My son (the Queso King) is eagerly awaiting the salsa making to come.

  2. We plant things we can eat in June. Strawberries, rhubarb, lettuce, beet greens, lettuce, peas…And we have things that last well into November, parsnips, beets, carrots, leeks…I want to try a cold frame this year so we can have green leafies later and earlier. I am closest to God when my hands are in the dirt.

  3. I — long ago — broke up with someone I loved with Dave Mallett singing the soundtrack: “Inches and Miles.” It was a killer. I still can’t listen to that song.

    BUT the garden song is a fine one. I’m glad you are re-inspired.

  4. It’s funny how some songs never unpack their baggage. My seminary roommate had a car accident while the guitar solo of “Free Bird” was playing; I never hear the song without hearing the crash in the background.


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