A SLOW GARDEN BY TYLER WATAMANUK
Introducing 'A Slow Garden', the first essay in a new quarterly column written by Tyler Watamanuk exploring art, design and contemporary lifestyle. Tyler is a New York based writer and producer, he currently contributes at GQ and writes the design newsletter, Sitting Pretty. See more of his work here and read the essay below.
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A Slow Garden
I never knew having a proper garden in the Northeast begins when the days are still short, cold, and deep blue from the bitter winter sky. The time of year when the bare trees still create meandering skeletal shadows on icy, slippery snow. Spring won't arrive for another month. But I've learned this is when to put tomato seeds into little compostable containers made of cow shit, mist them with water, and cover them with plastic wrap. Then, I will move them to my kitchen, where they will bask in the warming morning sun.
It is a peculiar ritual and not one I ever foresaw myself doing.
When I lived in New York City, in tiny apartments with uneven floors and bathrooms without windows, the fire escape could feel like an oasis. I never lived anywhere with a patio or balcony—I only ever had a tiny landing of rusted metal. It was mostly a place for friends to drunkenly smoke cigarettes and where I would people-watch.
It was also where I grew my first-ever garden, although, in hindsight, "garden" now feels like an overly generous word. Each year, I took the subway to the Home Depot by Madison Square Park, buying basil and cherry tomato plants to put in cheap plastic pots. I'd do the awkward dance of weaving through strangers with my hands full on a muggy July day, descending underground, only to emerge twenty minutes later in my neighborhood, covered in sweat and excited to get my hands dirty. Out on my fire escape, I'd submerge the plants in the hot dirt and fill them with water until it dripped down five stories to the glistening pavement below. Then I'd wait. The yield was always smaller than the effort seemed worth, but I'd do this same thing every year.
After enough years to not seem like a poser but not long enough to earn my official "New Yorker" stripes, I moved to a small town two hours north of the city. My outdoor space was no longer limited to the small landing of wrought iron; I suddenly had a backyard. My garden would grow from two small terracotta pots to two raised beds, each the size of my old fire escape. Now, I'd guess I've added upwards of a dozen planters, some large enough that I can barely fit my arms around them. I start my own tomato seeds and count down the days until my local greenhouse opens for the season, where I'll fill a cart with seedlings of everything from basil to tarragon to oak leaf lettuce. (This year, the opening day falls on April 16.)
GARDENING IS AN EXERCISE IN TRIAL AND ERROR. AND PATIENCE AND FAILURE. YOU CAN MAKE SMALL TALK WITH FARMERS AND READ EVERYTHING YOU CAN FIND ONLINE, BUT EACH GARDEN IS ITS OWN BEAST.
Gardening is an exercise in trial and error. And patience and failure. You can make small talk with farmers and read everything you can find online, but each garden is its own beast. The way the surrounding trees and structures cast shadows, the intensity of sunlight deep into the afternoon. There are no shortcuts, and work without shortcuts isn't always fun. The other week, on a particularly dull and dreary March day, I saw a neighbor returning from her run while I was outside getting my mail. "It has to get better eventually," she said, looking listlessly in no particular direction. I wasn't sure if she was referencing the gloomy weather or the gloomier state of the world. "Yes, it has to," I said with a nod.
The slow sprawl of summer will come eventually, and the sun will feel like a relief after a long cold winter. It always does. I wouldn't call myself a proper gardener quite yet, but I can now grow baskets of tomatoes and peppers. Enough of them that I have to give some away to friends. The sweet smell of Genovese basil floats outside of my studio window. I’ve learned that if you cut off nearly half of a baby basil plant, it will grow bushier and yield more of the soft, fragrant leaves. It shocks the plant at first, but it grows back bigger and bigger.
Sometimes, when the pace of life pounds my head, I'll walk out onto my deck and look out at my garden. The plants sway gently in the breeze, and I can sense them slowly stretching towards the warm sky. They drink the water and absorb the sun, and there are no shortcuts. All you can do is live through the long, long summer days and wait until it's time to harvest. The day almost always comes sooner than you expect.
Tyler Watamanuk is a New York-based writer and producer.
He has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, GQ, Vice, and others. He is currently working on his first book, to be published by Simon & Schuster in 2023.