Kazu-chan arrived in my “genkan,” saying, “I am planting sweet potatoes, would you like to come along?”
“Of course,” I lied as I quickly put on my “nagagutsu” (gardening boots) and grabbed a trowel, some gardening gloves and a bucket. This would be one of many gardening lessons with Kazu-chan.
Once we got down to the gardens, she showed me how to bury the sweet potato plants with their stems horizontal, under a few inches of dirt with the leaves sticking out the top, waving. After we finished her garden, we would walk down the path to mine and plant some more.
It’s not surprising Kazu-chan is so carefully instructing me, the “gaijin,” after what happened a few weeks ago. When some high winds came along, my compost bin got taken out and did a bit of a crash and burn as it ping-ponged across the gardens of my neighbors, ricocheting off tomato sticks and watermelon nets and finally landing lidless on the opposite side of the field. I found the lid 100 meters away on top of someone’s parsley. This is obviously not acceptable garden behavior, so perhaps the island “o-baa-chans” took it upon themselves to enforce some gaijin discipline — education!
But it seems no matter what I do, there is always something that makes Japanese people suck through their teeth and say “Dou ka na?” This time, it’s the position of my garden. It is right next to all the other gardens, but mine used to be a rice paddy, so it holds a little more water than the others. Combined with my previous failed efforts to plant a vegetable garden, it’s no wonder people have their doubts about the gaijin gardener. The first year, I was at work on the mainland and couldn’t get home to water the plants on those critical hot and dry days, so most of my plants shriveled up and disappeared. I harvested nine string beans and five beets that year. In my last effort, just after I had planted all the vegetables, I fractured my ankle and the whole garden went neglected, becoming wild beyond recognition after being invaded by a kiwi tree that snarled the entire garden into one big knot.
So from the beginning of this spring there were naysayers. I heard a group of veteran gardening guru o-baa-chans gathered on the corner, discussing whether my garden would grow or not. After all, it was too wet. But I had inherited the garden from Harada-san, who had used it for years. So it must grow something.
Besides, I had a plan to show everyone I was not such a god-awful gaijin gardener. After all, I am from Ohio, an agricultural state prized for its corn. I know secret corn planting techniques passed down through the generations that were originally stolen from the American Indians. So I planted two rows of corn, 18 plants that have already grown about 15 cm tall. But this corn is not normal Japanese corn. I call it “Jane” corn, and it was hand-picked from an Iowa corn field. I brought it back from the U.S. on my last trip home.
As my corn grew, my neighbors seemed pleased and complimented me on it. I received so many compliments, in fact, that I planted another two rows, just to make sure there would be enough to go around when it was harvested.
“Your garden is too wet!” cursed Kazu-chan as we planted the sweet potatoes. She sucked through her teeth. “I wonder if anything will grow here.” I stayed optimistic as I spied the Jane corn plants in their rows, swaying in the breeze. “Why don’t we just plant and see?” I said. We planted just a few, and took the rest back to plant in Kazu-chan’s garden.
“Amy’s garden is too wet,” Kazu-chan announced as we passed an o-baa-chan in a bonnet working in her garden. “I wonder if anything will grow.” The o-baa-chan raised her head. “Honman!” (“Really!”) Then she said, “Amy, take some of these pumpkins. They like wet ground.” She went over, dug up a couple of the pumpkin plants in her row and carefully handed the clumps of dirt to me.
I went back to my garden to plant them. Just then, the newspaper delivery man passed by. “Nani shyoun?” (“What are you doing?”) he said. “Gardening!” I told him with a smile and pointing to my Jane corn. “Honman. Eeh na!” (“Really. Nice corn!”) I finished planting the pumpkins, all the while thinking about the Jane corn and how delicious it was going to taste. Maybe we could even have a neighborhood corn roast!
That’s when it hit me. Iowa — corn — Iowa — cows! I had quite possibly, very likely, most definitely planted feed corn, a low grade of corn fed to cows.