The trees are budding and the sprouts are in the windowsill, soon it will be time to plant our garden. Below is a brief history of my “gardening” life. Do you grow things to eat in the summer? What do you grow and why? I’d love to learn from your experiences!
I grew up in the suburbs. We got our food from the grocery store. The closest thing to gardening we had was a strawberry patch, which was a snack bar for our two west highland white terriers more than anything. Suffice it to say, we weren’t living off the land.
I don’t really think of myself, or our family, as real gardeners. I often wish we were. I think how satisfying it would be to grow all our own fresh vegetables. Carrots, broccoli, sugar-snap peas, spinach and lettuce, peppers, zucchini – Oh! The things we could make! And knowing we grew it all ourselves. Sometimes, I even dream about having a greenhouse in the backyard.
The truth is, many years ago we tried our hand at the big, all-inclusive vegetable garden. We planted broccoli, which was overtaken by worms. We planted carrots, which seemed to resist growing downward and we ended up with rather small, somewhat woody, curled up objects that were surely not worth the effort. We planted spinach, with which we made one grand salad, possibly the best salad I’ve ever had. The next day, I came out to the garden to find no spinach and one happy little squirrel wriggling on his back as he ate the last leaf in the patch. We even planted corn. I think it was 8 stalks. It yielded one anemic, slightly edible corn cob.
That year, I learned a few things. First, Jim shared the dream of growing our own vegetables. He enthusiastically turned over the soil in the garden adding manure and peat moss to prepare it for burgeoning inhabitants. He helped me plant an enormous garden that included all of the above, plus tomatoes, basil, peppers, and beans. The second thing I learned? His dream — and enthusiasm — dropped off after that. It was all in the ground, ready to go, all I had to do was water it, right? lndeed.
As the season progressed, with weeds, wormy broccoli, thieving squirrels, sickly corn and many, many more weeds, I became very discouraged. I’d lie in bed at night worrying what creatures may be visiting my patch. My back hurt from squatting to clear weeds. Was I not watering that corn enough? Or too much? What about fertilizer? And pesticides? I didn’t want to use pesticides, but the worms were spreading from the broccoli to other plants. I was downright stressed out. Over the garden. This wasn’t The Good Earth for goodness sakes!
I would not be abandoned to that situation again. The next year, we pared it down to something manageable. We planted only the two things we liked and used the most: tomatoes and basil. With less plants to tend to, I had time to learn about the tomatoes and how to care for them. We planted several varieties and I became skilled at training them to yield the most fruit. The following year we had so many tomatoes, we started making sauce so that they wouldn’t go to waste. Now, we have come full circle and are always trying to grow enough tomatoes to make sauce for the whole winter. We count on having stores of Sicilian Sauce, Smokey Tomato Sauce and even green tomato chutney (coming soon).
We still plant basil, which is essentially a weed, and does not require a lot of tending. (Though we do find it important to keep it from flowering.) The pay-off with basil is incredible. All summer we put it in pastas and on pizza. We make loads of pesto, Madeline’s favorite, and freeze it. Pesto tastes remarkably fresh out of the freezer in January, almost like the day it’s made. Have you ever noticed how much a little bunch of half-wilted fresh basil costs in January?
Over the years we have added to our gardening. We always have an herb garden now. That’s not too difficult. We keep everything in pots on a cornered off spot where we nestle them into some pea gravel. We made the mistake of planting everything in the ground the first year and ended up with an amusing cross-breed plant we called “oregomint.” It didn’t taste bad, and we thought it would be great for Greek dishes, but we really wanted our oregano to taste like oregano as well as our mint like mint.
I still dream of that big garden. I would love to be so self-sufficient. I would love to know where all my veggies came from and exactly how they were grown. Maybe someday I will get there. This year, we are adding onions and potatoes. We’ll see how that goes.
The final thing I have learned, and maybe the more enduring, is that it is enormously satisfying to grow even a little of our own food. That first year we “pared back” I found myself enjoying my time in the garden with my two crops. It was peaceful, not overwhelming like the big garden had been. I also acquired a strong sense of pride in the health, color and dishes I could make with my own tomatoes. For me, life’s sweet spots fall in the places that offer balance. I come back to this idea over and over, but, much like eating meals together, growing food for ourselves is not always practical, but growing a little has actually been more rewarding than trying to do it all. Perhaps there’s a life lesson in there…