Thursday, June 19, 2008

Our Garden of Dreams - Part II

This is a shot of the corn, damaged by a bad storm, and is the only picture we have of our huge vegetable garden. Behind the corn, you can see the honeysuckle bushes that made forts, houses, and secret hideaways when it was too hot to work in the garden. We cooked up all sorts of big fun in the cool, dark shade we found when crawling underneath them while exploring the nooks and crannies of our new home.

The photo with Part I of this story is a shot from Mom's garden in a new century. Now a great-grandma, she's still gardening big. She and her husband still grow a humongous vegetable garden every year. In fact they have not one, but two gardens. They grow about everything you can grow in a garden, and preserve the surplus, which lasts them until the next year's garden harvest. If you visit them in garden season, you'll get to enjoy the garden's bounty too, and even bring some wonderful veggies home with you. At Thanksgiving and/or Christmas, you're likely to get a care package of potatoes and life-changing garlic. (Life changing because I promise you've never had such wonderful garlic in your life, the phrase was coined by my dear husband's close friend whom we shared some with.)

I have no doubt a lifetime of healthy eating, including produce grown in her organic garden, and the good exercise she gets tending it all have contributed to her good health. How many 70-somethings do you know who take no prescription medications? Although Mom doesn't have as much energy as she used to and deals with a chronic back problem, she's one strong, healthy woman. I have no doubt her lifelong passion for organic vegetable gardening contributes to her enviable good health. And it all started a long time ago, back at the crooked little ranch with the huge yard where my parents first fulfilled their dream of gardening and home ownership.

We moved in May, and there was no time to waste getting ready for planting. I don't think we were even fully unpacked before work began on the garden. A compost enclosure was built, and the sod removed from the garden became the first contribution to our compost pile. A rototiller was rented, and the cultivation began. Huge piles of compost were spread evenly over the garden and tilled into the soil. After Dad tilled, we five children were charged with walking up and down and back and forth to break up clods of soil and pick up debris to throw into the compost bin. We all took turns with rakes, smoothing and evening the surface of the soil.

Dad built up sections of the garden into hills for certain plants, and raised rows for others. Mom inoculated peas and left them to soak while dozens of seed packages were torn open and planted in the warm, sweet spring soil. It took days to get the soil prepared and our garden planted.

I pretended I was a young pioneer girl living on the prairie, helping my parents plant the crops our family would need to see us through a harsh prairie winter. Our crooked little owner-built ranch was our rustic cabin (during the winter the plumbing worked about as well as a 19th-century log cabin's plumbing might have.)

We planted corn, beans, melons, squash, eggplant, spinach, beets, onions, chives, peas, lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, radishes, turnips, potatoes, strawberries, peppers, carrots, broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower. I learned about staking tomatoes, blanching cauliflower, and how wonderful a radish tasted; spicy, fresh, and crisp from the garden after brushing off the dirt. I learned about crop rotation and the hazards of pitchforks. (Someday I'll tell you about my encounter with the wrong end of a pitchfork.) And I learned to love vegetables that used to make me gag.

What do I remember of those days? I remember working on that garden alongside my parents and siblings, the smell of freshly-turned soil, and the excitement of sitting with Mom on winter Saturday afternoons, looking at catalogues with names like Burpee and Jung, and reading Organic Gardening and Mother Earth News while the other girls in the neighborhood were reading teen heart throb magazines and shopping at those huge new air-conditioned shopping centers they called "Malls."

I remember the excitement and wonder as tiny seedlings emerged from peat pots and flats on shelves lit with florescent bulbs and sunlight from the living room window. I remember corn stalks that grew taller than me, and watermelons and cantaloupes and fresh corn on the cob, and I remember that one year the corn all got ruined by smut. I think I was the first one to find smut, since I was always checking the corn to see if it was ready yet.

I remember how much we looked forward to the first sweet ears of corn, and how disappointed we were to realize our corn would have to come from a farm stand or a grocer that year. I remember thinking smut was a funny name for a corn fungus. I thought smut was those magazines teenage boys hid between their mattresses.

I remember picking heirloom tomatoes from our organic garden decades before and after either were fashionable. I remember with great fondness those days spent with my family in the garden where my mom and I would sometimes stay and keep working into the cool of the evening after everyone else had long since gone on to some more 'exciting' activity.

Since our house was on a corner lot with one side along the main school bus route for our neighborhood, the kids on the bus could see our garden from their seats. I was one of the new kids on the bus and at school, and found myself subject to curiosity and teasing at first. One of the boys on the bus started calling me "Garden Girl," and not in a complimentary way. I dreaded getting on the bus to hear "EEEOOOWWWW, look, there's the garden girl." Soon other boys joined in the teasing, and that was how they 'greeted' me as I boarded the bus for what felt like a very long ride.

Then one day a girl in my fifth-grade class invited me to play jump rope with her group, and later that afternoon, to take a seat with her on the bus. I'd become very shy at school since our move, and while I was happy at home, school became an exercise in enduring stares, curiosity, teasing, and feeling like I didn't fit in. I wanted to move back to our old city neighborhood where all the moms sat out on the front stoops while all the kids played together, fought together, and knew each other almost as well as we knew our own families. The girl who invited me to play became my best friend into high school. Although we don't see each other often enough, I feel a special bond with her and we've remained friends. We had our second babies within weeks of each other, and soon she'll be a grandma for the first time. (I've been one for almost five years.) I've always been grateful to her for being the first to reach out to me in friendship after our move.

The garden became my sanctuary from the first lonely months as the new kid. I've had a number of gardens since then, and to this day the garden remains my favorite retreat and a sanctuary from the often cold, harsh world. It's a place of peace, beauty, and meditation that's sometimes hard to find in the hectic, crazy world we find ourselves.

I was born to play in the dirt. I'm thankful I was born into a family with a long, rich history of playing in the dirt before me. The moms who shopped would not have known quite what to do with this little garden girl geek who would rather stay home and weed the patio flower beds or trim the hedges. I still don't like to shop, and I'd still rather be in the garden than just about anywhere else.


  1. What a nice post and very interesting to hear about how your gardening passion started. It really goes to show how much impact our parents can have on us as we grow up. I'm sure your mom is proud of your efforts and continued interest in Mother Earth

  2. What an enjoyable read! I, too, grew up helping in the garden and eating lots of fresh vegetables during the growing season. Summer was spent not only working in the garden but also preserving all the extras for the winter.
    Thanks for bringing back lots of good memories.

  3. I still don't like to shop, and I'd still rather be in the garden than just about anywhere else.

    Amen to that. Your story was very enjoyable. :)

  4. You write so well and so lovingly about your family and their gardens, Linda - those experiences did leave their mark on you it seems! Your mom's current garden sounds wonderful - and the life changing garlic is making us all crave some of those cloves!

    I grew up in the SW suburbs and my mom had to practically shove me out the door to get me outside. When I read about your honeysuckle grove, the privet hedge and the shady forested area I realized that by the time my parents' yard bore any resemblance to the place your parents bought, I was no longer a child! My memories of being 7-years old are of a treeless, chigger-filled prairie which was purposely burned a few times a year, and of not enough water coming from a well. By the time there were honeysuckles and peonies and trees of any size I was in college. I'll bet my baby sister's memories are more like yours ;-]

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  5. Garden girl thank you so much for your nice words. You have a fantastic background, all this love for nature but also a thorough business experience for a venture you really love doing. I hope it goes well and my best wishes.

  6. Thank you Beth. My parents, especially my mom, have inspired me in many ways. My dad passed away when I was in my mid-twenties, but I know he was proud of me. And my mom and I are also close friends, have enjoyed our own little 'mutual admiration society' since I was a little girl!

    Rose, I'm glad you enjoyed it, and am happy to help trigger some good memories of your own. Working at a nursery, I love to see parents involving their kids in gardening. It's a wonderful way to spend time together.

    Thanks Nancy! I suspect disliking shopping (unless it's garden shopping ;) is something a lot of us gardeners have in common with each other!

    Aw, thank you Annie! I have many fond gardening memories. It's always amazed me how ambitious my mom's gardens have always been! I find it equally amazing the quantity, of course the quality, and variety of what she grows. She and her husband are gardening buddies, and it's very sweet the way they work together to plan, plant, and care for their gardens together.

    Titania, thank you. I see for your family too, gardening is a strong tradition. It's lovely to be sharing it with your grandchildren. I was touched by their beautiful garden paintings.

  7. Hi Linda: What a wonderful story. It seems clear your garden passions come honestly. My earliest memories are of my preference to be outdoors rather than indoors... to be working rather than sitting... to be doing rather than watching. My parents were yard/garden folks not veggie garden folks ...but living in Florida we spent so much time in the great outdoors doing so many wonderful activities all year round. My grandparents were the veggie gardeners and I did whatever I could to get to their house/acreage/cow pasture to just be around that magnificent garden.

    I think it does get in the blood. You come by your love for gardening that way. If you couldn't do it there would be pieces of your soul missing. Great memories for you... great memories conjured up from your writing... thanks. (good genes passed down from your mom too... yeah!)
    Meems @Hoe&Shovel

  8. A garden geek is okay to be... you have lots of company. I so enjoyed reading your story. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  9. Anonymous5:33 PM

    Awesome post! Thank you for taking us back with you into your past and showing us what fuels your passion for gardening.

  10. Linda, this is a wonderful essay you've much love and affection in every sentence. Oh to have had a garden refuge from the cold world when I was a kid, but I managed to find it as an adult! There are kids now who could use a garden to grow in. Thank you for sharing this story,

  11. I always wanted to be a prairie girl too, and have fond memories of playing underneath the bushes :) I loved reading this post!

  12. Your gardening comes from the heart which I've heard from my grandmother...nutures the heart, soul, and body. It makes your spirit sing! I can hear it in your recount of life growing up and in your every day attitude toward your own garden. I think all good nerdy kids get teased. My husband got teased badly, as did I, and my kids got it too. Now we are all like you..healthy and well adjusted. I know some popular kids who didn't fare so well. Good for you and congrats on your success.

  13. What wonderful memories, it brought some of my own back...I too love to garden.

  14. You always have the best stories and history about your plants. I enjoyed this post and so many others you have done. There is something for you at my place.

  15. Meems, I'm glad you enjoyed my story. My mom's always been a big veggie gardener, whereas I've leaned more towards ornamentals. I always did have a veggie garden too though, until moving here 4 years ago. My grandparents and great-grandparents farmed, and like you, I have fond memories of the farm. It's neat to have that heritage, and also all the knowledge that's been shared too.

    I agree with you - it does get in the blood. I can't imagine not gardening. Even if I lived in an apartment, I'd have to at least have a balcony or be able to garden in whatever yard there might be.

    I'm grateful for the genes - all the women on my maternal grandmother's side are long lived and healthy, also my father's family seems to have been long-lived too.

    Beckie, I'm a garden geek, and darned proud of it! It's nice to be in such good company!

    Lisa, thank you! glad you enjoyed it. It was fun to write. I enjoyed thinking about all those memories. Seems like an awfully long time ago, but I still remember how I felt.

    Gail, thank you. I'm glad those feelings came through. I have such affection for those times we spent in the garden. I wouldn't trade those memories for anything!

    I agree that lots of kids would benefit from similar experiences. It's heartening to see parents involve their children in gardening, and schools as well. This spring it's been so nice to see parents and children shopping together at the nursery, and to see children so excited about growing vegetables and flowers. Schools, camps, and day care centers in our area seem to have a major trend going on with planting gardens. It's really cool, and so nice for the kids, who overwhelmingly seem to really enjoy and get excited about their projects.

    Amy, we had lots of fun times 'hiding' under the bushes. It seemed like such a secret, mysterious place, even though our parents knew where to find us.

    Anna, aw, thank you!

    It's always an eye-opener attending a reunion of old classmates. Lives, looks, careers, and fortunes are by no means predicted by popularity (or lack thereof) in school. As for the mean kids, karma has a way of catching up with them.

    Thanks so much for the award! I feel very honored to have received it. Thank you for all the nice things you said!

    It may take me a little bit to post about it, I hope that's ok.

    Kathi, I'm glad my story brought back fond memories of your own. It seems lots of us gardener-types have happy memories of early, formative gardening experiences.


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