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.