THE WORDS joy and delight figure prominently in writer Ross Gay‘s work, and so do moments he spends in his garden and descriptions of his relationship to plants. Now is that a coincidence that the garden is a main character in his books, books with the titles “Inciting Joy” and “The Book of Delights” and the latest, “The Book of (More) Delights”?
As a longtime gardener who finds both joy and delight in my life outdoors, I don’t think so. It’s no surprise to me at all that from garlic-and-sweet-potato harvest times or devouring fresh figs from a friend’s tree, Ross Gay finds himself positively delighted.
I wanted you to meet him and hear about his work and learn what he’s up to in his Indiana garden.
Ross Gay’s four books of poetry and three of essays have won him much praise. He teaches writing at Indiana University in Bloomington, where he also gardens. (Above, self-sown sunflowers and castor bean in his garden.)
Read along as you listen to the Sept. 25, 2023 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
a garden of delights, with ross gay
Margaret Roach: It’s that time of the season, Ross, I don’t know.
Ross Gay: Yeah, yeah.
Margaret: The harvest time; the cleanup still lies ahead and oh, boy. Got to keep going, yeah.
Ross: Yeah, yeah.
Margaret: And we recently did a “New York Times” column together, which was really fun. So I was so glad to get to meet you. And so since I started reading your books and got to talk to you for that story, I keep thinking of the expression, “the garden of earthly delights,” [laughter] that triptych, that painting by Hieronymous Bosch, from like 1500 or something, and I keep thinking of so much delight. And I don’t know what got you started thinking and writing about delight. So tell us, just to set the scene a little bit.
Ross: It’s funny, it’s sort of like a longer answer, but I’ll try to do it short. One is that I have a book called “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude,” and that’s probably the first book that I wrote after I had started gardening in a serious way. And I write about the garden, I write about this orchard project that I’ve been a part of for years, and stuff like that. And then after that book came out, I wasn’t necessarily thinking about it like this, as I recall. But after that book came out, people started talking to me about it as sort of a book of joy, or a book about joy.
And so it made me think and sort of think about maybe I haven’t quite thought of it like this, but like what are the definitions of joy that these people maybe are showing me?
So I started thinking about what is joy, and this and that. And kind of connected to that is this question of delight. And really “The Book of Delights,” it just came about because I was walking, I was kind of having a delightful day [laughter]. And I was writing and thinking, “Oh, I should write a little essay about this delightful day,” this delightful moment actually. And very quickly, and I like to say a bird flew in my head and said it to me or something, but it occurred that I ought to do it: to write about something that delights me every day for a year. And that’s how “The Book of Delights” came to be.
Delight was not a word that I’d used often, but something probably about that it holds the word light inside of it. Anyway, that’s sort of how it-
Margaret: Yeah, O.K Because I think in the preface of “The Book of Delights” and what was that, 2022, is that one? Or-
Margaret: I’m sorry, I had it backwards. But I think in the preface of “The Book of Delights” [affiliate link] you write about how the process of writing those essays, those sort of daily essays that make up the book, “occasioned a kind of delight radar,” you say. And then you say it was like “the development of a delight muscle,” which I love [laughter]. I love that.
Ross: Yes, yes. And again, it’s funny. It’s nice to be talking to you about it, because it’s like I don’t think that radar, that muscle, develops independent actually of—I mean, It very well could, of course—but independent for me of being in the garden, actually. Because I was just out in the garden shortly before we were having this conversation, and I was just like [laughter], “Oh my, oh my God.” It’s an overwhelming place right now; it’s such an overwhelming place right now. And the castor beans, which just showed up, are like, I don’t know, they might be 12 feet tall. It’s like, where am I? This couldn’t be Indiana where I am right now.
Margaret:[Laughter.] Oh my, yeah. So set the scene for us of the garden. What’s it like? Is it a backyard? What part of town is it in? You and your partner, Stephanie, I believe you create this garden together, and how long have you been there? Things like that.
Ross: Yeah, we’ve been here at this place for about six, seven years. And we just live in Bloomington, like a little regular city lot. So our lot, I think is 0.1 acre, so it’s a tight garden. But we plant it densely. We have about five, 4-by-8-foot raised beds on what used to be a parking pad, like a gravel parking pad.
And then more or less, not entirely garden, but we’re pretty damn close, is garden. And we grow all the greens that we’ll eat for pretty much from about April or May until November, December maybe. The okra’s coming in, the potatoes are doing pretty good, big garlic harvest, beans growing. We’re growing a lot of beans for drying. It’s magical.
And then the flowers are doing good. This year, I just decided to throw a bunch of zinnia seeds out, and they’re growing up out of a sweet potato bed. Oh, it’s so beautiful.
Margaret: My sister has, in recent years, made a raised-bed garden adjacent to her house, she and her husband have. And she sends me these pictures, and here I am, the supposedly expert, ha-ha, and I’m supposed to give all this wise advice or whatever. And I look, and she’s got like 500 zinnias in the bed with the sweet potatoes, that kind thing. It’s just so much effusion and so much delight, right?
Margaret: And she’s so excited, they’re both so excited. And that’s really what we need to do, is just go ahead and let it take us there, right?
Margaret: It’s O.K.
Ross: Yes, yeah, yeah. It feels so lucky to get to have that feeling.
Margaret: Yeah. So when we spoke for the Times article, you explained to me that you and Stephanie practice polyculture. You combine different things, and I think you at least roughly follow the biodynamic calendar, the Stella Natura calendar. So tell us a little bit about those practices or whatever, how they relate to your garden.
Ross: Yeah, it’s funny, because I need to dig up some potatoes and I was just looking today, and the root day I think just passed on that-
Margaret: The root day.
Ross: Yeah, I think it just passed, yeah. Stephanie introduced me to that whole biodynamic thing. And so we go by that calendar pretty much, not 100 percent, but pretty close. And to the extent that it’s possible, we always grow in a sort of thick polyculture.
One of these sweet potato beds is sweet potatoes, zinnias, peppers coming out of it, and what else? Oh, a bunch of Thai basil is coming out of it. So the bed is probably—we just put this bed together actually—it’s probably about an 8-by-8-foot bed, but it’s densely packed. It’s packed with stuff.
And I think that, I don’t know, one of the things that maybe you get to learn by having less space in a certain kind of way in a garden is how to put more stuff together. And then for me, what I learn, is that you learn what likes to grow together. And then you learn what grows well and keeps the weeds away. And you learn what grows well and brings the birds nearby and this and that.
Margaret: Yeah, yeah. If you watch, you learn. Yes, yes, yes.
Ross: If you watch, you learn.
Margaret: Yeah. And so with the biodynamic calendar, you said like a root day, and I think they divide the plants up into what, four groups? Like root plants, flower plants, leaf plants, and I forget what other plants [laughter].
Ross: Fruit plants.
Margaret: Fruit plants, sorry. And so you work with a particular one of those plants on the day of, whether it’s planting it or harvesting it or whatever. If it’s a root crop, you work with it on a root day and so forth, having to do with the phases of the moon, I believe, correct?
Ross: Yeah, yeah, that’s right.
Margaret: Yeah. So the planetary forces that would impact the growing of the plants.
Ross: That’s right, that’s right.
Margaret: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s a beautiful thing. So garlic, you mentioned garlic, and the photographs you shared with me for the Times story [laughter], I was like, “Wait a minute, is he a garlic farm? Is he operating a garlic farm there?” Because he’s got a lot of garlic.
Ross: We do a lot of garlic. I know, I know. And you actually, I don’t know if you remember, but you kind of… Because gardening, one of the lovely things about gardening to me also is that you never… You kind of made a joke about your sister thinking you’re the expert, but you’re never done learning, and you’re always sort of in need.
And we grow a lot of garlic, but we’re always trying to get better at storing it. And I don’t know if you remember, but you were giving me tips on how you store your garlic. But yeah, we grow a lot of garlic. I love garlic. I love planting it. I love that you put it in and then you come back to it in seven months or whatever. It’s lovely to me.
Margaret: Yes, it is. It is. And you end up with your own strain, sort of, so that you’re in a way, creating a locally adapted… Because these are living organisms of course, that adapt to the place they’re growing over many generations. So if all goes well, you have the locally adapted selection of that growing. Especially for me, I just love all that, the fact that it’s alive and responding to our time together.
Ross: Totally, totally. Yeah, one of the things that excites me so much, I feel like the longer I garden, the more I try to make things easier. And one of the things that gets easier is certain things volunteer. Certain things like to volunteer [laughter], they like to plant themselves. And I’m like, oh, those are the seeds that they’re not the only seeds I’m going to plant, but those are the seeds that are telling me something about wanting to come back.
Margaret: Yes. I used to tease about, in my writing years ago, I could see the path from where this particular plant called perilla—it’s shiso, and used to pickle ginger, to make the ginger pickled pink, you use a purple shiso leaf. And so I had that growing, and it’s a prodigious self-sower. And I would always tease that you could see my path that I took when I pulled up the perilla or cut back the perilla, the path to the compost heap [laughter], because it was like littered with baby perilla seedlings every year. It was like the way you see where a dog, the path that a dog takes when… You could tell Margaret’s path by the perilla seedlings.
Ross: I love it, that’s great.
Margaret: I was sowing them all the way along the path accidentally.
Margaret: Yeah, yeah. So your books are not about gardening, but they’re loaded with the garden and the garden and its plants and other living organisms infuse the books. And then all kinds of other things that delight you and delighted me, reading about lyrics of your favorite songs, some of which I share, and riding your bicycle and all kinds of other parts of your life.
And I hear a lot in the books about gratitude, too, besides delight and joy. I hear a lot of thank yous. And I think the new book, “The Book of (More) Delights,” and I’ve said this to you before, it’s a little bit like it feels like a gratitude practice in some ways that some thread of it does. Not to get all Buddhist on you or anything [laughter], but you’re often thanking things. The neighbor who has the figs for the delicious fig and the magnolia for its branches that kept you shaded on a hot day. There’s a lot of thanking. So what about that? Is that something that you find yourself conscious of? Because I know in the garden, I definitely do.
Ross: Absolutely, absolutely. I feel like one of the gifts—and it’s a lesson and it’s a gift that the garden gives us, if we allow it—is that we get to submit. We get to submit to the garden, we get to ask questions, we get to wonder about it and with the garden. And we also get to be in profound need, just like sort of bottomless, unfathomable need actually. And that feels like a really important state of being, to understand that we do not exist without, say the sun [laughter]. That’s one of those things that-
Margaret: Yeah, there you go.
Ross: … it’s a big deal. And your plants let you know that. And they let you know like, oh, yeah, water’s a big deal, everyone. Water’s a big deal, and on and on and on. It’s just like being in a garden, for me, lets me practice this thing of witnessing everything that’s provided is provided.
Margaret: Yeah, yeah. In one of the books, there’s a essay about mulberries, picking mulberries and eating mulberries. And what you just said sort of reminded me of it in a sense that the act of doing that reminded you of your connection, almost your animalness, our animalness. So tell us about that, a mulberry tree full of fruit, what that brings up in you.
Ross: Yeah. There’s two things in that little essay. One is that it was a sweet realization that my father, his birthday was June 13th, and that where I’ve lived, which is either outside of Philadelphia or here in Indiana, that’s the same time that mulberries are ripe, which is kind of a nice thing to get some mulberries and be reminded that, oh, yeah, it’s your dad’s birthday. My dad died 18 years ago or so.
But the other thing is that when I recently was picking mulberries, I was sort of thinking, oh, yeah, so many things love mulberries. It’s just like I’ve heard mulberries call it a trap crop. A trap crop, because birds will prefer the mulberries to the blueberries. And like other creatures, so many other creatures, as I was thinking about it in this essay, also love mulberries. So it’s sort of a way of not only noticing that other creatures love these things, but also that, oh, we’re connected by our love for these things.
Margaret: Yes, and everybody’s got to eat.
Ross: Everyone’s got to eat. Everyone’s got to eat, yeah.
Margaret: Yeah. Now that of course, exasperates me sometimes, I will confess because certain creatures decide they want to eat what I don’t want them to eat [laughter].
Ross: I know, I know.
Margaret: Talk about my arrogance, right? Right.
Margaret: I’m in charge, this is my place. That comes up, and that’s not a very delightful thought. So what do you do about, do you have pests? Do you have animal visitors? What about that?
Ross: Yeah, we have a guy named Greg, Greg, the Groundhog [laughter]. And I think he lives under the shed, under the garage. And he might live under there with a cat, actually.
Ross: Yeah. This might be a kid’s book, but I’m pretty sure that’s actually true. And Greg, he’ll show up. He can start to show up in the spring, I think. And then I’ve noticed like for instance, sweet potatoes—I’m going hard on sweet potatoes this year—I’ve noticed that the leaves periodically would be nibbled, and sometimes nibbled hard. And I start thinking, is that Greg or is that the deer who kind of walk around the neighborhood, popping over the fence? So I don’t know. I don’t know.
I try to make it inconvenient for the deer to come in here, meaning I just leave a bunch of brooms and stuff where they might be able to get anywhere. And then for Greg, I’m sort of like, well, I’ve heard that if you eat some of the sweet potato vines, that might actually drive more energy into the roots and make bigger roots. So there’s a lot of sweet potatoes. If there was only one sweet potato plant, I’d probably be a little bit more thinking harder about it. But for now, at this moment, I’m just kind of like, “O.K., Greg, just don’t eat them all.” [Laughter.]
Margaret: Greg, huh? I was going to ask you, do you guys, do you and Stephanie ever harvest any of the sweet potato leaves teed yourselves, like almost like a spinach? Because they’re tasty.
Ross: Oh, they’re delicious, they’re delicious. Just the other day, yeah, I made a little stir-fry with long beans and okra and the Thai basil and some of the sweet potato leaves. It was beautiful. Yeah, really good.
Margaret: Yeah. I had, the other day, I looked out the window and there was a great blue heron standing in my backyard, maybe 8 feet from the porch at the edge, or 10 feet at the edge of my little water garden, eating my friends, the frogs. Just a buffet. And see, and this is where it… Because I’m O.K. with Greg, I get about what you just said about Greg.
But then I go completely crazy. And of course, again: Everybody’s got to eat. So it’s tricky. So the garden brings up for me, the joy and delight that you write so beautifully about. But it also brings up for me, this desire to exert control that’s not in my control. Do you know what I mean?
Ross: Oh, yeah, yeah. Yeah, totally, totally. Yeah, I feel like that’s useful, too, to get to witness that whatever, that impulse or that need. I don’t make a living off of my garden, so I can have a certain kind of relationship to it that if I was making a living off of it, I probably wouldn’t.
Margaret: Right, yeah. I become very attached to certain of the creatures, even more than certain of the plants. And it’s like I love the frogboys, as I call them. And to see one of them in his mouth and this heron’s mouth. I get it, but it made me crazy [laughter].
Ross: Yeah, yeah, yeah, sure.
Margaret: Yeah. So I mentioned figs before, and in one of the essays of the book, figs come up a lot. And I think you confessed having sort of fig envy, and not to get all Adam and Eve about it all, but you love them. I’m not sure that you are growing them yourself, but you really love figs, right?
Margaret: Are you growing any? How’s that going?
Ross: Yeah, I’m growing some. I love them because a friend of mine, one of my best friend’s dad sort of introduced them to me when I was probably 19 years old. And I had not had a fresh fig, and it blew my mind. And so ever since then, I’ve taken cuttings from his trees, and they’re around here, they’re here in Bloomington. And it’s hard in this region to get, you have to have pretty perfect setup for them to grow and make fruit. And my setup isn’t quite perfect for that. And that’s where my fig envy comes from. I do know a handful of people around town who are generous enough to sometimes share their figs with me, who do have a kind of perfect setup.
Their figs are on a south-facing wall and they get light all day and this and that. So anyway, a sweet story is that years ago I was at a reading in New Jersey, and a woman came up to me and she asked me if I thought she could grow figs in a pot. And I said, “Yeah, of course. They’ll make fruit.” And I guess she was under the impression that I was like a fig wizard or something [laughter]. And anyway, she came to a reading about 10 years later, just this last fall, and she showed me a picture of her fig tree in the pot with 100, 200 figs or whatever in it.
Ross: I was like, oh my God. So anyway, after I saw her fig trees, we put a bunch of figs in a pot, so now we’re going with the pot.
Margaret: Yeah, that’s the way we do it here. People I know up here, including myself, that’s how we do it. I might get 25 figs if I’m lucky, on a pretty decent-sized, and they’re huge, the pot’s so big, I have to have a hand cart and another person to move it around. It’s really big, yeah, yeah, yeah. And it goes in the garage all winter. But yeah, and it’s interesting to see us all experimenting because figs, there’s just something so irresistible about them.
Margaret: And they’re so perishable, you really can’t buy them as produce too well. You can, but they just-
Ross: Yeah, they’re meant to be right there. It’s pretty magic.
Margaret: Yeah. I think it’s in earlier book, in “Inciting Joy.” Well, there’s that word inciting, which I always thought was a negative word, like incite a riot, incite something. And then you also, I think it’s in that book, but it may be elsewhere, you use the word entanglement. And entanglements are something else I think of it as like, ooh, claustrophobia, I’m all tied up. I’m in a place I can’t get out of, whatever.
But you turn words into beautiful ideas, and I just wanted to ask about that [laughter]. You’re able to sort of give them a positive spin somehow, like inciting joy. I wouldn’t have put those two words together. How did that happen?
Ross: Well, that word inciting, I choose that obviously intentionally, and partly because when I’m thinking about joy, I’m thinking about our kind of… Well, this is the way I’ve started to think of a definition for joy, is something like the practice of our entanglement with one another, or the practice of our entanglement. Which might mean something like the ways that we attend to a garden, and we witness it, and we acknowledge that we’re beholden to the garden. The garden’s not beholden to us, but we’re beholden, and we’re connected with the garden. Something like that. And I feel like that as an idea, it feels like the equivalent of the way you were talking about incitement.
It feels, in a way, dangerous to maybe a mode of thinking that would suggest that we’re not connected, or a mode of thinking that would suggest that we ought to imagine that we could not depend on one another. Or a mode of thinking that suggests that we could be “independent” or that kind of stuff. The incitement feels like really in a way, I sort of feel like, yeah, if we start to share with one another, or we do share with one another, if we attend to the ways that we share to one another and witness them and sing about them and grow them in our care and our belonging to one another, that’s a danger in a certain kind of way. That feels like an incitement, yeah.
Margaret: O.K. I have to ask you, because you have confessed in at least one of these books to a little issue with seeds, like you like to buy a lot of seeds [laughter]. How have you done this year? Have you used up all the seeds that you’ve bought, or what’s the situation over there?
Ross: Yeah, I’m a little in surplus [laughter].
Margaret: Never happened to me.
Ross: I’m sure, I’m sure. Yeah, someone got me, I don’t know if it was Baker Creek or someone got me. And was like, oh yeah, I got to get a bunch of stuff for the fall. And I got very excited about growing way more stuff than I was going to be able to—more stuff than we have room for. That’s one, I’ve written in an essay before that I seem to get seeds for a garden that’s like 3 acres big [laughter]. But the nice thing about that is that if you garden, you have friends who garden most likely. And if you have friends who garden, they’re going to take your seeds.
Margaret: Yes, yes. Well, Ross Gay, I am always really happy to speak to you. And I’ve been so enjoying the new book, “The Book of (More) Delights” as I did the previous ones. And thanks for making the time today really to talk. I can’t wait to share this with my audience, so thank you.
Ross: Thank you. Your work means so much to me. I just want to-
Margaret: Oh, good.
Ross: … yeah, I just want to thank you so much.
Margaret: Good, thank you. And I’ll talk to you again soon, I hope.
Is there some aspect of your garden that for you is the great delight? Tell us more.
No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but a reply is even better. I’ll select a random winner after entries close Tuesday October 3, 2023 at midnight. Good luck to all.
(Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)
prefer the podcast version of the show?
MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 14th year in March 2023. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Sept. 25, 2023 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).