The United States Postal Service is a bunch of filthy liars.
That’s what I thought as I picked up a set of their new “Herbs” postcard stamps. The stamp for sage featured a few green leaves and a glorious shock of bright purple flowers.
Here’s the thing, though: Sage doesn’t flower. We had been growing sage, along with other herbs and vegetables, in our backyard garden for three years now and we know what sage does. It grows a couple of measly green leaves, withers, turns black and gets picked apart by the neighborhood birds for nesting fodder before you ever get to use any of it for yourself. That’s what sage does. Put that on the stamp and mail a postcard to someone who knows better.
Then I came home and walked past the garden. The sage had, within the last week, tripled in size. Instead of a sage plant it was a veritable bush, complete with glorious purple flowers encircled by monarch butterflies.
It would have been more impressive if I could have taken credit for it, but I couldn’t. As I’ve written previously, this past winter we decided that with a baby on the way it would be best to let the garden fend for itself for a season. We knew we wouldn’t have time to tend to it. The perennial herbs responded to my absence by flourishing into obscene levels of health and vigor. It was clear who the weak link was around here: The idiot holding the stamps. I sulked inside and didn’t think about the garden again until the lilac tree mysteriously showed up on our doorstep a month later.
The tree was waiting for us when we came home from the hospital with our infant son, a gift from friends of ours who live far away. It was an enormously generous act that I will never forgive them for. Pro tip: If friends of yours have a baby, do not get them a gift that is essentially an enormous DIY project. New parents don’t have the time or energy to put out a kitchen fire, much less plant a six-foot tree. It took me four days to find the time to look at the card to see who it was from. By the time I dragged the tree off the doorstep for planting, it was three weeks later. I was exhausted and covered in spit, resentful of our stupid friends who had to be so stupidly sweet and send us this stupid tree that I had to plant into the stupid, stupid earth. Then I started digging and saw the worms.
Dozens upon dozens of them, crawling out of each shovelful of dirt. This was significant for two reasons: An abundance of worms is a sign of good soil health, and for years our soil had been anything but healthy. When we bought the house it had been semi-abandoned for ten years. Every few months, one of the guys across the street would dump a few bags of weed killer, pesticides and god knows what else on the lawn to keep it from looking too unruly for his own tastes. As a result, when we were first putting in the garden we found that the soil was a wasteland. No worms, no ladybugs, no soldier beetles, no minute pirate bugs, no life.
I didn’t know what we were doing as we were putting in that garden, but I knew we needed worms. Worms to burrow into the ground and aerate the soil, worms to rise up on cool spring nights to feed on grass clipping and dry leaves, worms to create tunnels for water to penetrate deep underground, worms to poop.” Sweet, sweet nourishing worm poop!” I said to Kristen. “That’s what we need!” “Indeed,” she said, being very careful not to make eye contact with me.
If you happen to find yourself in the market for worms one day, the smart thing to do is order online. Most places will let you order as many or as little as you want, charge you a reasonable bulk rate, offer many different varieties so you can pick the kind that’s best for your needs, and ship them fast so that they reach you in optimal health. But who amongst us ever does the smart thing the first time around? So I went to the sketchy bodega in town that sells nightcrawlers for bait out of a dorm fridge in between the international calling cards and hard-core pornography. “I got some really fat juicy ones in there” the woman behind the counter called out as I rooted around in the fridge. “They don’t need to be fat, ma’am,” I replied. “They just need to be fast enough to make it back underground before a bird eats them.” As I set each one free throughout the yard, I’d whisper, “You’ve been spared the hook. You owe me. Get to work.”
Three years later, the original batch of bodega nightcrawlers had multiplied enough to finally wake the soil back up. I brushed my fingers along the base of the sage bush and three more worms crawled out, depositing fresh loamy soil where before there had only been clay and rocks. Maybe it wasn’t just the fact that I left the garden alone that caused it to flourish. Maybe one slightly smart thing I did three years ago was finally paying off.
Now we go out into the garden in the evening carrying our son, barely a month old, and show him where someday we’ll teach him how to plant zucchinis and tomatoes. We show him his lilac tree, on the verge of death when I put it in the ground, now bursting with life. We show him the herbs we can now use in our cooking. And if the hour is right, we can show him the intrepid nightcrawlers poking up to the surface to munch on the coffee grounds I’ve sprinkled on the soil earlier in the day. I don’t have time to do much this year in the garden, but I can at least do that for the worms. I owe them that much. We watch until the fireflies appear and then head back inside to the lights of the house as the wind rolls down the mountain carrying the scent of sage off into the deep green night.
Brian PJ and Kristen Cronin live in Beacon with their four cats, and new son Cooper James Cronin. Check out their blog A Rotisserie Chicken and 12 Padded Envelopes on this site, and view more of their photos at