DRAGGING THE PLOW: THE LONG HAUL TO GARDENING

Garden BlessingsDraggin’ the Line by Tommy James & The Shondells (click to play)

“Look at the popcorn trees, Momma!” exclaimed my three-year-old as she scrambled out of bed and up the windowsill. The white blossoms popping on the branches peeked into her second-story window like something out of a Dr. Seuss book, reflecting astonishment in her baby blue eyes. “We can eat the trees! Let’s go pick some popcorn!” On that magical spring morning eighteen years ago, the wonder of nature sprang forth and lured me down the ubiquitous garden path that has beckoned throughout my life.

It was predestined, I suppose. My father was raised on a farm, and although he shunned that life as a young adult, gardening is deeply embedded in his heart. It must be a recessive gene in my DNA, however, because I was not naturally drawn to the care and keeping of plants. Nor was I particularly excited about visiting my uncle’s farm during childhood vacations – the pigs were stinking muddy, the chickens were pecking mean, and the fields were sweltering dusty. But I remember how savory the sun-ripened tomatoes tasted, sprinkled with a little salt. And I recollect some lively watermelon seed spitting contests with the cousins, mouthwatering juice dripping down our chins. At home, helping my dad in our backyard garden seemed more of a chore than a delight. My horticulture career died on the vine one hot summer day when I picked a basket of peppers and ran howling to the nearest water hose after rubbing my eyes with fiery chili-stained fingers. I steered clear of the pepper patch after that, and I finagled my way out of most of the yard work with the blessing of a Bermuda grass allergy. But oh, the fruit trees were glorious, and they nudged me down the garden path ever so gently. Playing under the orange tree with its heady scent was intoxicating as we sipped nectar from the little fairy teacup blossoms. And breaking in the middle of kick-the-can games to pluck a few figs fresh off the tree after they had been warmed to juicy perfection in the afternoon sun was pure harvest nirvana.

Unfortunately, my interest in plants shriveled to dormancy after its brief childhood debut.  Teenage life in the 1970’s was consumed with the cultivation of friends, and I was much more inclined to munch on slices of pizza at the local parlor or wolf down burgers at the trendy new McDonalds rather than nibble veggies off the vine. The material 1980’s were spent wining and dining with nary a garden bed in sight. Perhaps it was buying our first house as a young married couple that renewed my appreciation for vegetation. Succulent ice plants proliferated around the pool in our Southern California backyard, and my gardening prowess grew as I trimmed those exuberant vines like a squatter in the rice paddies during my childbearing years. Nurturing patio pots that exploded with flowers was a tranquil respite from juggling three rambunctious babies. The zen of gardening began to whisper in my ears.

Those whispers in transition to becoming a gardener spoke a little more insistently when we moved to Northern California, home to the revolutionary foodie Alice Waters. She planted the seeds of enlightenment in the 1990’s as the organic farm-to-table food movement was taking root in the East Bay’s fertile ground. Yet still I did not embrace the grow-your-own concept like two of my friends who rented plots in a community garden and raised their toddlers alongside their crops. Instead, my husband and I were wrestling with our unruly backyard that needed a hefty dose of nourishment. We yanked out dying plants, lumbered around the sprawling grounds with wheelbarrows of mulch, and attacked the rocky soil with hoes. We shoveled drought-tolerant plants into the hillside only to wake up to the demure deer munching our hard work down to the roots. This went on for eight years until we decided to stop fighting with the flora and fauna by hiring professional landscapers for a complete overhaul of our outdoor hang-out. Suddenly I discovered the true meditative quality of gardening, tapping into a soulful peace as I meandered through the paths and hideaways of our revamped yard. But the most surprising transformation evolved from the vegetable patch we carved out of the back forty behind the cabana. For a decade I dabbled with a variety of veggies, but the only real success came from the Italian section of tomatoes and herbs. My culinary specialty was tomatoes-basil-mozzarella drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar – scrumptious but not much variety.

This caliber of gardening might have continued for the rest of my life if not for my popcorn-tree daughter and farming papa. It is amazing how your children and parents can collectively instigate the most profound evolutions. My daughter moved back home after college with a genuine interest in our back forty at the same time that my folks came to visit last fall, and the sprouts of my gardening life received a rejuvenating blast of fertilizer. We found ourselves making plans for a winter vegetable patch – me, an avowed fair-weather gardener. With my father’s expertise, we planted lettuce, arugula, Swiss chard, beets, celery, carrots, radishes, onions, and snap peas. A farm-to-table milestone was achieved when I harvested the ingredients for a sixteen-person dinner party fresh from my little plot. We have since started composting, the mark of bona fide gardening in my estimation. The final push in this lifelong transition came when the American Association of University Women asked to put our home on the annual spring garden tour, which I have ardently attended for years. Ha! Imagine me dispensing horticulture advice – a true metamorphosis.

The Edible SchoolyardIn solidarity of my transition to a full-fledged gardener, I spent a chilly winter morning touring Alice Water’s Edible Schoolyard that has been seventeen years in the making. Back in 1996 she took it upon herself to transform Berkeley’s blighted Martin Luther King Middle School into a sustainable urban oasis. Alice didn’t set out to revolutionize anything; she was simply trying to make her corner of the world a better place. Her goal was to give the children an understanding of where our food comes from and show them the human connection of growing, preparing, and enjoying food together as a community. By integrating lessons from the garden and kitchen into the curriculum, she designed a program that involves students in the whole cycle, encouraging them to buy into the concepts of healthy eating and sustainable living. Through trials and errors and intermittent successes, this one-acre cement wasteland gradually evolved into a vibrant model of urban school gardening. The best advice from the tour: Take It Slowly. Transitions and victories rarely happen overnight. The process of creating a fertile garden requires bushels of attention, just as the process of becoming a gardener takes many seasons to ripen. I have traipsed far down the garden path, and my green thumb is finally beginning to blossom like those magical popcorn trees.

In this unsettled world we live in full of shootings, nuclear threats, economic woes, and global warming, it’s important for us all to find a little patch of paradise – a place that we can nurture, control, and create solace. There is something so rewarding about growing plants to fruition and enjoying the fruits of that labor. Everyone should try a little gardening, if only for a peaceful distraction from the stresses of life.  Start small. A tomato plant and some basil in a pot by the kitchen door will bring great rewards in summer, and it just may turn into a lifetime of green adventures and victory gardens.

7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Linda Baer
    Apr 05, 2013 @ 00:24:49

    A gardener “after my own heart”…….nothing soothes the soul more than “digging in the dirt”…and producing “something to eat”!!! (It might just be the arugula on top of the pizza, but it always tastes better if it came from the garden.) :~)

    Reply

  2. Jacqi Roueché
    Apr 05, 2013 @ 02:51:54

    Just beautiful Jana! I want to hear more about the 16 person farm-to-table dinner you hosted!

    Reply

  3. Yasmine Austere
    Apr 05, 2013 @ 15:55:31

    Another beautifully written and inspiring story! Thank you! Love you lots 🙂

    Reply

  4. Debb Holub
    Apr 05, 2013 @ 22:29:49

    Ah yes Jana, kindred souls we are! I go to my garden to sooth my soul. It blooms all year long thanks to our subtropical climate her in San Clemente.xoxo

    Reply

  5. Kath Benvenuto
    Apr 18, 2013 @ 04:33:18

    Love it! And you will find yourself becoming more and more addicted, it’s a wonderful hobby ~ rewarding in SO many ways. Enjoy! xoxo

    Reply

  6. brendadit
    Apr 27, 2013 @ 18:57:40

    Jana- I have finally had a quiet time to catch up on my reading. Loved this blog. So timely. And once again you have captured in beautiful prose another shared experience in life. Fabulous! Brenda

    Sent from my iPad

    Reply

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