Up to mischief as always...
Me...up to mischief as always...

Win a set of five of our favorite gardening & rural prose books from HarperCollins. Contest details at bottom of post.


WAR PAINT.

Many people have asked me how someone with such a “colorful” urban history wound up living on a goat farm in rural Sharon Springs. I usually answer: “I took the long road…back home.”

I haven’t written much about my early years, but it just so happens that I was born only about 45 minutes from The Beekman, and spent my early years with my family living in the Catskill foothills at the end of a long gravel road. (We were in a developed part of the region. We had gravel, not just dirt.)

The forests, ravines, and meadows around our house were basically dessert waiting to happen. On Father’s Day we would collect tiny, sweet, wild strawberries from the fields and make strawberry ice cream in our hand-cranked ice cream bucket. Near my mother’s birthday, in late august, we collected elderberries from the swales at the bottom of of our hill. And in mid-summer, we would brave the thorny brambles to collect wild blackcaps to adorn a custard pie that we would drive into town to give to my “Uncle Bud.” (As proprietor of Bud Kearney’s Ford Motors, Bud was called “uncle” by most everyone.)

Nearly everyone in those days had a garden, and everyone also had their special crop. My great grandfather, Poppy, was known for peas that grew right up to the roof of his fastidious 1950’s pink and black mobile home. They were so sweet that I literally thought peas were a type of candy that grew from the earth. Another grandfather, Poopa, tended his tomato patch late into the summer evenings with the Yankees game playing on the portable television connected to an extension cord stretched across the backyard. In the summertime, grocery shopping was limited to meat and paper products, as everyone shared their various harvests with everyone else.

My earliest memory of harvesting food was after a blackcap foraging expedition with my mother. We had a large bowl of the berries, and as we walked my mother explained that at one time Native Americans used berries and other natural dyes to paint their faces for different ceremonies and fighting. When we reached home again, my mother went into the house to begin preparing to make Uncle Bud’s pie, leaving me with the bowl of black caps on the the front yard.  Sure enough, when she was ready for the berries, she emerged to find me in full war paint – my face completely smeared with blackcap juice and seeds.

So maybe my road from our hill in upstate New York, to my New York City nights as a drag queen, and then back to our farm at The Beekman wasn’t all that winding after all.

At least I’ve always tried to put on my best face.

blackcaps

Share your early gardening memories in the comment section below. They don’t have to be long, just heartfelt. On July 1st, we’ll pick our favorite, and the winner will receive five of our favorite books of rural & gardening prose, courtesy of our friends at HarperCollins:

Animal Vegetable Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver; Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Anne Dillard; Cultivating Delight, by Diane Ackerman; Population 485, by Michael Perry; & High Tide in Tuscon, by Barbara Kingsolver. Winner announced on June 15th.

books

by Josh Kilmer-Purcell

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Richard Ottens

It took a year and a half to get the inside of the house together again after the burst pipe upstairs. It was only our second year owning the house. During that time the outside gardens were neglected. After the inside was repaired I started working outside. My boyfriend would laugh at me when I would jump and squeal upon encountering a snake in one of the rock borders. While I was weeding and replanting one of the flower bed areas in the front he asked if he could help. I knew where one of the snakes lived. I directed him to weed in that area of the flower bed. The snake came out and so did his squeal. Weeding a flower bed – sweaty; his squeal – priceless.

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Claudia Sitzman

AnnaLisa,

Your memories brought tears to my eyes remembering my Mom's forays in the dirt (and he wishing she could just sweat 'a little'. Grandma E. had the golden touch with any plant. I often told people who were lamenting about their sick little plants that they should let Dorothy have them for a while, she can plant a broomstick and it will grow.

Thanks for the memories.

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AnnaLisa

Gardening has always been linked to grandparents in my mind. Throughout my growing-up years, I had three living grandparents…and garden-related memories of each of them.

The grounds around Grandma S.’s home were quite formal. The perfectly trimmed, lush green grass was bordered by gracefully sprawling junipers and gently shaded by evergreens. But in the spring and summer, all that disciplined green became a backdrop for lively color. Dark pink
coral bells peeked from among white granite boulders under pine trees. Front and back patios burst with pot upon pot of red geraniums. And Grandma loved roses. An enormous fuchsia multiflora welcomed front-door visitors, and the back gate arches were camouflaged in masses of climbing orange Tropicanas. As much as she surrounded herself with formal plantings, Grandma came from a long line of produce farmers. Summer was simply not complete until a few tomato plants burgeoned near Grandma’s back door.

Grandma E. was without a doubt the most versatile gardener I’ve ever known. There wasn’t a plant, common or exotic, that didn’t thrive under her green thumbs. Grandma’s domain burst with annuals, perennials, bulbs, fruit trees, vine and root produce, a wildflower meadow, indoor
potted plants, and more. She propagated African violets until they overran their pots. There were times when every visible surface of her kitchen, living room, and patio was covered with fuzzy olive leaves and delicate purple blossoms. But Grandma was never happier than when she was “grubbin’ in the earth” outdoors. Grandma didn’t use lots of chemicals to help her green babies thrive, just plenty of daily attention. She pinched back annuals, harvested berries, and eliminated wayward “volunteers” so constantly that the forefinger and thumb of her right hand
were twisted at the knuckle, permanently crabbed. It suited her just fine. The shape was perfect for the job.

Grandpa E. wasn’t much of a gardener himself. In fact, his near-legendary fear of snakes–which I mischievously exploited on at least one occasion–kept him away from many of the fullest beds. But Grandpa’s handiwork was evident in Grandma’s gardens. Grandpa was a master carpenter. His custom footbridge and trellises paired with Grandma’s doting green care transformed a dreary drainage ditch in the front of their property into a colorful, fragrant respite.

Every time I head outside to trim a shrub, sow a seed, or devour a tender sugar pea right off the vine, I am reminded of my genealogy. My humble yard doesn’t get the attention my grandparents’ did. It doesn’t have the elegance of Grandma S.’s grounds or the four-season vibrance of Grandma E.’s. But I like to think one day it might. If gardening is in the genes, I
am well equipped.

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Jill Barth

I walk the grassy path past the dog house, the garden shed and the compost pile. Mom’s working hard this hot summer afternoon, making efforts to pull some potatoes before the cookout this evening. She’s not quite dressed for it, in denim shorts and a pair of turquoise flip-flops. She steps one foot hard on the pitchfork and drives it down into the Earth. Her muscles show under her thin, tan arm as a pocket of brown potatoes pops from the soil. A few summer bugs scatter and a bit of dried Earth lands on my bare foot.

Dad watches from a few yards away, head-to-toe in bee-keeping gear, the white wooden hive silent for the moment. Dad smokes the bees, mom pulls the potatoes.

I smell the Earth and the smoke and wonder what we will do next.

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Jessica A. Bemis

If this is the place to enter the contest about garden memories then I am in the right space. If not, egad.

This is one of my earliest garden memories.

I was a toddler during the years of WW !! – my Father, who worked as an engraver in a Defense Plant – planted a Victory Garden on the east side of our green picket fence. I can almost taste the beefsteak tomatoes he harvested, warm from the sun, sprinkled with salt and gobbled up with the juice running down my chin. The smells are the connectors of memories – tomato plants seem the strongest evokers when it comes to gardens. There were also bright red radishes – fat little hot things from such tiny seeds – and a host of other summer vegetables.

My Mother planted mint which spread like the dickens alongside the cellar door to the garage (the garages then were independent buildings in the back of the houses and were built over foundational cellars) – she also had rhubarb growing on the little bit of soil edging the west side of the back yard. But the rest of her gardening was confined to shrubs and flowers which seemed to take on a life of their own without much help save the occasional pruning. Several hydrangeas of various colors and mammoth size and a glorious forsythia bush stood out in front of the house surrounded by a privet hedge (that did require vigorous trimming – with a hand held clipper). Pride of place was an enormous maple tree – playground for grey squirrels who seemed to delight in tormenting the family dog who would watch the rodential* activity from the front window, barking furiously.

* I know, I know, it is not a real word but it seems to fit

This was in Flushing, New York – in Queens county – on the east side of Flushing Meadow Park – from our front sidewalk we could see the Empire State Bldg. and other tall Manhattan buildings which composed the skyline of the time. Especially stunning at sunset.

The last time I visited New York and drove past the house it was devoid of vegetation, not a garden in sight – the house seemed like a great river boat in an ocean of cement – almost entirely obscured by cars which were parked thick as thieves along either side of the street.

It seemed to me very sad, a wistful little land of the lost.

I am happy to live in Oceanside, in San Diego County now – we have lots of gardens.

-30-

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TeresaO from northwe

My mom and dad grew vegetables and zinnias in the backyard garden. Each year fresh lettuce, radishes, green onions, peas, and green beans graced the round table in the kitchen. As a child, eating vegetables was my least favorite thing, but I found the garden to be an endless fascination.

The zinnias, standing tall in red, pink, yellow, and purple captured my imagination. I saw them as beautiful ladies holding court over the lowly vegetables.

One year, after the frost killed off the last of the flowers, the zinnia heads drooped, looking sad and forlorn. My sister and I pulled the once lovely ladies out of the ground. We each gathered an armful and marched in somber procession around the yard humming a funeral dirge. Finally, with pomp and respect we laid the brown stems on the ground, bid the lost ladies adieu, and walked away.

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Phyllis from Chattan

Okra! You have to have HOT to grow okra, and we did have both. Oh wonderful, itchy okra. My nanny fried it. We did not know about the word cholesterol in the 1940s! The only thing I have not put on a sandwich is fried okra, but am willing to give it a try, along with the potato chips. Here's to dinner!!!

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Mary Nowakowski

My great grandfather was a stowe away on a ship to American. Determined to escape serving in the Prussian War, he traded identities with a sickly neighborhood teenager.He arrived in the United States in the 1860's, a stone cutter by trade. Success followed him, and he bought a large piece of property where he built several summer houses for all of his children to share. His garden at the summer house was a masterpiece, according to my now 88 year old mother. Almost a full acre in size, it included fruit trees, flowers and vegetables. When my mom had scarlet fever as a child and was quarantined in one of the houses, great-grandfather brought her a bouquet of yellow roses…an act of kindness that she still talks about today.

The garden was plowed under and seeded to grass decades ago. But one day, as my mom and I were walking past the old garden, we spotted a miniature iris blooming underneath leaves and twigs. My mom recognized the flower immediately. "Oh, there were many of these deep purple flowers in springtime." Well, it didn't take us long to rescue the lone iris and transplant it into my garden. Now, almost 30 years later, I have many, many purple miniature iris that I've cultivated from that single plant. Great-grandfather's garden lives on, and his memory crosses my mind each and every time I see his iris in bloom.

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Rick Kilmer

Josh,

Did you forget the day in late Fall when you, your brother and I took our ladder and a basket and headed to the apple orchard. On the way down the hill we walked through a nest of bees in the tall grass. We turned and ran right back through the nest. Those angry bees followed us into the house where your mother swatted them with a broom as we stood in the bath tub.

Also, don't forget how your grandfather would soak "horse apples" in water to make fertilizer.

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Karen L

Plonk. Plonk. Plonk. Marigold. Two feet of mulch. Marigold. Two feet of mulch. Marigold…you get the idea. My mom was not a gardener. She put out plants because she was, and still is, house-proud. She liked, and still likes, an ocean of mulch, whether bark or white gravel, around each little island of plant life. As a child, my job was to pull weeds from these mulch seas. I hated it. I was hot, mosquito-bitten, and bored. It was my least favorite chore.

Despite my first introduction to the deadly chore of weeding, as an adult I began to take an interest in playing in the dirt. I began with a window box full of half-dead pansies in my first apartment, then a small, briar-infested vegetable garden at my first home. A struggle with postpartum depression after my second child accelerated the spread of our garden beds. As a grimly conscious effort to return to some kind of happiness, I dug out sod, moved rocks, mulched, watered, and composted. Now I used weeding as therapy, angrily or meditatively removing the green invaders. It was a way of exerting control when I was feeling overwhelmed, and eventually taught me to accept a certain amount of chaos. For every weed you pull, there are three more waiting below the surface. You just dig out what you can, when you can.

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Lynda Hennessy

One of my favorite gardening memories is… well it's not exactly a gardening memory… more a weeding memory. When I was very young visiting my grandparents and when my granfather pulled the dandelions out of the lawn I started crying and ran to Grandma "why does he have to pull those pretty flowers?" They explained they were weeds. I just couldn't understand it. I told them "When I have my own house, I'm gonna have lots of dandelions !!" And so I do 🙂

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Phyllis

I have a photo of me at two years old, wearing a hand-sewn sundress and holding a large green bell pepper just picked from the plant. My mother kneels beside me in red shorts and a red tank top, with a beautiful smile. Beyond us is the bounty of our early eighties Texas backyard – where vegetable growing takes a lot of love because of the extreme heat and little rain. My parents had this love.

I've had this photo with me for years and it's now with me in New York, but on a trip home recently, my dad – who has always been reserved and shy of showing emotion – mentioned this image as his favorite photograph of our earlier years. I didn't think he had remembered it. Now I also grow peppers and other vegetables in my very small Brooklyn backyard facing a highway – where growing vegetables also takes a lot of love – and I talk to my mom and dad often, comparing our gardens' progress across the country. With a garden, there are always small happinesses to share.

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Michelle A.

I grew up the child of Puerto Rican immigrants, who didn't grow a darn thing themselves in the concrete jungle of NYC. With the exception of homemade pasteles and assorted traditional meals made from scratch from produce shipped over from the Carribean, packaged meals were more the norm.

But on my 8th birthday, my abuelo (grandfather) gave me a green pepper plant to grow. I was so excited, I put it in a pot in the sunniest part I could find, watching over the weeks as it produced a single green pepper, bigger than my fist. It was beautiful.

Until this past year, I never gardened again – the pepper was picked, eaten, and the plant withered and died. But this year, having planted a full garden of my own for the first time, I remember the joy that single pepper gave to me – the first time I coaxed something to grow, and it gave something back to me.

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Nicole

Although I grew up in Queens, we always planted a veggie garden in our backyard. Tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, green beans, etc… I always got lots of experience helping out with that.

HOWEVER the most fun for me was during the warm summer months. Connecting the parks on the North Shore of LI was what used to be the Vanderbilt Motor Parkway. A road built by the Vanderbilts to make for easy travel from party to party during the Golden Age. It's been long closed for motor traffic – in some places you can't even walk it. BUT when I was very young, my dad and I would take our bikes for a ride. We would go until the roads were unsafe, many miles from home. On the side of the roads grew wild blackberries and raspberries. We would stop to pick them, swearing we would bring them home and mom could use them to make pancakes… but our buckets were always empty by then. Wild, sun-ripened berries on a hot and humid NYC day. DELIGHTFUL!

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T. Ruby

An early memory of gardening was when my father decided we would have a garden here in Albuquerque, NM. This can be a very dry, cruel climate and not the easiest to cultivate compared to what we experienced in the central valley of California, where you pretty much tossed the seeds about, watered and something always grew.

Our neighbor had a lush, very established well-tended garden that required hours of attention not to mention gallons of water. This man had a the time and the money to take on such an endeavor and the most important part; he loved working in his garden. Of course my father wanted a similar garden and thought we could achieve such a grand display. My father wanted the garden and the many fine spoils but he wanted us-my sister, mother, and myself to do most of the work. My sister and I were in high school and not especially interested since we were being made/ordered to work the garden. He was also cheap and the amount of preparation and soil ammendment was not considered and practically ignored. We grudgingly worked the hard, cracked soil trying to acheive small successes to appease my father. The tomatoes got the blight and cutworms, the corn borers had a feast, and the carrots were stumpy little nubs. We never had great success. The garden was more than a disappointment to my father, us girls learned to hate it.

I myself have had moderate success with my own garden, enjoyed the fruits of my labours and love the many birds my sunflowers bring into the yard.

My father is gone now and I wonder if he realized that to succeed in the garden one must put in the hard work, enjoy and love the process, and be patient.

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Becky

When I was a child, my dad would sometimes recruit me to help him in the garden. I didn't actually enjoy the gardening part, but I have strong warm memories of being with my father, and his special attention. Years later when I bought my first home, a townhouse with a tiny overgrown yard, I found myself suddenly and inexplicably enjoying tearing out all the weeds and vines by hand, and phoning my dad long-distance on how to pretty up the yard. When I went home to visit, he dug up flowers and roots from his own garden for mine, and my first spring in that house saw his peonies, black-eyed susans, and daffodils blooming.

Now married and living in a different house, I and my husband have created our own garden to share, including more flowers from my dad. And now we're trying our hand at vegetables, always making sure to get Dad's advice.

Whenever I am digging in the dirt, that rich smell of the soil instantly transports me, and I am a little girl, kneeling in the dirt while my daddy shows me how to plant a flower.

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Chris

What fun to travel down memory lane. I grew up in a subdivision and my best friends mother always planted a large veggie garden to help feed their family.

I never helped plant or weed but I was able to help eat some of her fine home grown food. This was in the day when you could ride your bike anywhere it would take you as long as you were home for dinner. My friend and I would get up early, sneak into the garden and stuff our pockets with anything that was mature enough to eat. This was our "survival" food. We would proceed to hop on our bikes and ride. Many times we ended up 15-20 miles away from home as we explored our world. The delicious carrots, beans, peas tasted even sweeter while sitting on the ground under a giant oak tree.

When I plant my garden, I do remember these youthful days.

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Amy Greenan

What a great contest!

I have what I think is a funny overall garden history. When I was growing up in the early-mid 70s, we lived in a small farming town 20 miles east of Buffalo, NY. My parents weren't farmers — though my dad grew up on a farm and my mom's sister married a farmer — but they had two very large gardens on their 14-acre property in which they grew just about anything you could think of, from peas to corn, even grapevines. And my mom would can all sorts of things, even making her own homemade ketchup and relish among other things, which I never appreciated at the time — foolish child that I was.

I can't really wager to guess how big these gardens were, but I will try. Maybe 20 x 40 feet for the smaller one, and twice that for the larger? They were BIG. You can imagine how much time was spent in the growing seasons weeding and tending those gardens. And you know what?

I HATED it. Oh sure, I loved being able to eat green beans and peas right off the plants, but I didn't like standing in the hot sun, I didn't like getting all dirty, and I didn't like bugs.

I say my story is funny now because since I've had a house and yard of my own, I LOVE gardening and have become more and more passionate with each day that I see something poking its way out of the soil, or something that I planted the season before bloom for the first time. Now, as an adult, I love being in the sun, I love getting dirty… well, I may still not like bugs, but I love everything else about gardening enough to just deal with them.

I just want to thank my mom and dad for the wonderful memories I have of those fantastic gardens they built and maintained together… thirty-some years later, I finally get it.

Thanks for the chance to tell my story!

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Jenny

My parents planted carrots every year in our backyard, and every year my brother and I would pull them as they grew, rinse them with the hose, and eat them warm from the soil. One day the neighbor boy showed us how to eat them with lemon juice and salt, and after that we would carry out a saltshaker and a bottle of lemon juice in a bowl and tuck it into the rock wall while we played, just in case. We never had any carrots left by fall, but my parents never complained.

Several years later we'd both stopped playing outside, and that fall my parents dug up buckets of long, plump carrots that lasted into the winter. And even though they tasted great, I thought those were the saddest carrots ever.

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barry prince

I never knew that gardening was a specific activity until I was in college. I was raised by my grandmother who spent every moment “outside.” She had clothes to put on the line, clothes to wash in a hand-crank washer outside, and in between she maintained a garden of fruit, vegetables, and flowers sort of all mixed together (like her gray and black hairs rolled tightly in pink plastic curlers). I spent my days following her around “buck naked” most of the summer, sleeping on blankets under a Persimmon tree while she shelled peas, peeled potatoes, or folded laundry. To say I have a memory of gardening is like saying I remember breathing.

Everything had a name, generally made-up based on who gave it to her (“Miss Riley Rose”) or some hill-billy name (“lives forever, sweet bush, fish bait tree”). The garden and house was poor southern working class. It was also alive, real, with a pulse that is hard to feel in most homes and their “plant materials” and “hardscapes.” There was no book that listed the names and had color pictures that told you it was an annual from zone 9 or clay-tolerant. It was raw experience, from one toil-worn hand from picking cotton and Okra to another, like teen-age girls today passing around and iPhone and giggling over a photo of a cute guy.

Janis Joplin had some stupid song lyric that talked about “giving up all my tomorrows for one yesterday…” I think everyday that I would give one more chance to sit my naked butt in the red-clay and listen to her sing “Rock of Age,” and tend the flowers and fruits.

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elisa

though i grew up in the city (Detroit), our backyard was practically a truck farm–lettuce, scallions, tomatoes, zucchini, and more! we kids did all the weeding.

when the tomatoes were ripe, we'd help my mother blanch some and make spaghetti sauce with some, which we'd then freeze. we also froze a zucchini-tomato stew. but we inevitably had so many zucchini that we'd have to pile them in a wagon and try to give them away to all our neighbors!

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Roby

I grew up in the city, but my mother kept a little vegetable patch in our back yard and I have two abiding memories of that produce.

I remember in early summer strolling through the kitchen, scooping up a little handful of salt on the way through to the back door. Once in the garden I'd make a bee-line for the radishes. You got the first bite with the eyes: A little perfect red orb with its crazy hairy root-tail. The second bite was crisp and peppery and every mouthful after that was juicy and fresh-dipped salty. I loved those things. My mother must have been very patient with me, because I especially liked the smallest radishes so I can't imagine that she ever got to enjoy much of her crop.

There is other evidence that my mum was a patient gardener. Every year she planted a glorious row of sunflowers. We'd watch them shoot upwards with pride. The flowers would grow bigger and bigger and we'd tell my mother that this years' were the best of all. Every single year, we watched the seeds swell on those flowers, dreaming of the day we might taste one for ourselves. And every single year, we would wake up one morning to find that the jays had cleaned the flowers of seeds before we opened our eyes. We never beat the jays a that game.

Now I'm a gardener and I have a little vegetable patch and I always plant radishes (but they never taste as good as they did when I was seven) and I never plant sunflowers because I fear that the jays will steal my harvest and I'm nothing like as wonderfully patient as my mother.

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Willi

My fondest gardening memories involve being sneaky. My grandparents lived in a huge 3-story Victorian house in Sheridan, Wyoming. It came complete with a rope swing under an apple tree and a big patch of raspberries growing out of control all along the back fence.

When my Nona was in the kitchen, I’d steal out onto the sun porch, slowly open the creaky screen door, and then skip barefoot down the steps, which were always hot from the afternoon sun.

The best raspberries were at the back of the patch, where my Pappy’s long arms couldn’t reach and my cousins didn’t dare go for fear of being scratched to bits. I was the youngest, the smallest, and the greediest, so with a quick check over my shoulder to make sure no one was watching, I’d drop my scraped knees down into the tall green grass and then scoot along the narrow space between the splintery wooden fence and the brambles. It was worth every snag in my shorts and scrape on my skinny, suntanned arms. The raspberries at the back were big and ripe. All I had to do was tickle their undersides and they would fall into my palms. I’d stuff them into my mouth fast, crunching the seeds between my teeth until I was full.

Sometimes my Nona would catch me out there berry-stained and happy, and she’d scold me for playing where she couldn’t keep her eye on me. But I didn’t care. I’d eaten all the best berries. And I didn’t have to share.

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Blythe

In my early twenties, my husband and I bought 20 forested acres in a tiny town in eastern Washington where we were going to set up a little homestead and “get back to the land.” The area was known for apples and cattle ranches, and local farmers didn’t take too well to “hippies.” I found an open sunny spot down by the road and near a creek from which I could haul water, and proceeded to double-dig several raised beds, which Rodale Press called “French Intensive Gardening.” I had just spent a year as an exchange student in Paris, and the idea made a lot of sense to me, although hardly the norm in the region I was now living, where everyone used tractors and farmed long spread-out rows. I built these beds with architectural precision, and I was extremely proud of them. My old-timer neighbor stopped by one day while I was raking the finishing touches. “How do you like my garden beds?” I asked. He kind of chuckled. “I thought your dogs died,” he said. “I thought these were their graves and I was about to say how sorry I was.” We both had a good laugh and were friends ever more.

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Jodi

Thanks for this contest–reading everyone's stories brought to life many of my own memories. I come from generations of farmers, so we always had a big vegetable garden, and like many folks here, I know what food should taste like!

But the memory I want to share is of friendship. About ten years ago, my best friend and I got introduced to each other at a party. Within thirty seconds, we were talking plants–she had just planted Johnny Walking stick, and I knew what it was! The person between us just got out of the way–she later told us she knew she was out of her league.

My friend and I have seen each other's gardens change–she's moved once–and have seen each other develop as gardeners. We've spent countless hours in each other's company, mooning over our plants, and taking great delight with new additions. I love having someone in my life who is a wonderful, kind person, but also knows what I mean when I talk about Papaver orientalis vs. Papaver spicatum!

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Greenpointer

Chatham, NJ – My sister, Susie, grabbed the half eaten watermelon slice from my hand and jammed it in her mouth, juice and pulp exploding all over the place. My brother, Pete, giggled and spit some seeds over the back deck railing near the oak tree. We were all between the ages of 4 and 7, myself the eldest, Susie in the middle, and Pete "the baby."

It couldn't have been but a few month's later that my father called us all outside with a hint of glee in his voice. Mind you, glee in my father's voice was a rare thing on the occasion that all three of us were summoned but this was special. Susie and I darted down the mossy concrete steps past the dumpster, rounding the oak, hopping over it's roots while Pete was carried out by my mom to peer over the railing.

There my father knelt on the railroad ties bordering the neglected, never-planted flower bed, a wry and resonant smile on his face. Edging out my sister for a look, he held up two small green globes attached by vines, each about the size of a grapefruit. Cracking up as he showed them to us he said, "You guys spit these here!"

Bashing one on the corner of the wooden tie the melon revealed its bright yellow pulp bursting with seeds. My sister and I snatched them away and stuffed them in our face only to find the fruit a mouth-puckering bitter under-ripeness. The sour taste couldn't take away the sweetness of the feeling of our first accidental harvest.

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Jacqueline

I know what the soil in the garden at home tastes like. That rich, black Iowa gold where we grew rows of beans, peas, lettuce, and radishes, hills of cucumbers and melons, tomatoes, peppers, strawberries, and more. Crawling around the garden while my parents planted vegetables is probably my earliest memory. I must have gotten more than a little of it in my mouth as a toddler because I know that taste. I ate the soil.

Perhaps that is why, years later as a college student, I became obsessed with soil for a time. How it shapes everything about the land, how the use of the land shapes the soil, how the soil shapes society. Perhaps that is why, as a twentysomething, I am inextricably tied to my home, the farm where I grew up in Iowa. It is where my heart lives. Due to a variety of circumstances, however, I do not presently live in Iowa.

I do garden, though, and I teach others (kids!) how to garden as well. I teach them about plants, about soil, about growing food. I teach them similarly to how my parents taught me. I do my best to recreate that atmosphere of learning, sensation, and exploration, and somehow, that's almost like being home.

We talk about the soil and how it helps the plants in the garden grow, how it can affect our success in growing food. While I stop short of making them taste the soil, I do everything I can to make sure they dig in it and get dirty. This connection to the soil is basic – and often, missing from our lives. Gardens give us beauty and food and connection.

What else is there?

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Rebecca

Growing up we always had a garden. I don't remember actually growing any food when we were younger, but I do remember pulling up crab grass. We must all have green thumbs though. We had a yard covered in rose bushes. I swear, if we had wanted to, we wouldn't be able to kill these things. They always bloomed the week school got out (end of May). I remember my mother picking big bouquets of them and carefully driving an hour or more to give them to people. I had no idea it was hard to grow roses then.

I also remember visiting my grandmother and being amazed by her field of mint. It was fabulous. Why would people not like mint? It smelled great when you ran through it, you could make a refreshing summer tea with it, and it was always green. What can I say, I was a kid. Though, my love for mint hasn't died.

My grandmother also grew tomatoes by the bushel. I will continue to grow tomato plants, even though I haven't had much success because of her tomatoes. She would bring boxes and boxes of them to us when she visited. I remember eating tomato sandwiches. I still eat them in the summer, nothing compares to a homegrown ripe tomato sandwich.

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Elizabeth Stump

From what I've heard, my mother used to be quite the gardener, but my fondest memories are of my father teaching me to grow corn.

In 1972 when I was only three, my father, a nuclear engineer, lost his job when the nuclear industry collapsed. My parents decided to pull up stakes in San Diego and move up to a rural part of Los Angeles County. My mother decided to pick up the reins of breadwinner and bought a liquor store (giving up gardening in the process) while my father played house-husband years before it became a running joke in sitcoms and movies, or common for that fact.

We moved into a large house at the base of a mountain with a half acre lawn and two and a half acres of wild oak chaparral behind the house, complete with rattlesnakes and coyotes. Sometimes the neighbor's sheep and horse would get loose and be found grazing on our lawn.

Because the property was mostly shaded with large 500 year old oaks, the only patch to grow anything was at the edge of the sun drenched lawn. My father dug out a spot between the lawn and oaks and hoped anything he planted wouldn't be eaten by the deer that sometimes roamed about.

One summer, when I was seven, my father got a packet of novelty seeds. "Baby corn?" He said I should harvest it when it was still young and should eat it, cob and all. Knowing that even at seven, that sounded ridiculous, but having complete faith in my dad, I grew it. I watered it when he instructed me and he told me when it was time to pick. I boiled it and ate baby corn for the first time, that I grew myself. What a treat! It tasted so good, and I grew it, too!

Five years later we were in a different house that allowed no room to grow anything, as it was either all hard scape, in shade, or ivy covered hill. After my father took me fishing at a trout farm, we came back with a huge pile of fish. My dad, being one not to let things go to waste, suggested I grow corn. Industriously, I dug out a 15' by 15' patch from the hillside and buried a fish head well under each corn seed. That summer, my father would get the pot of water boiling while I hiked up through the ivy and picked a few ears for dinner.

My son is now seven and we're growing corn for the very first time. I couldn't get him interested in pulling up ivy from my own hillside, or even planting the seeds, but I know he'll surely be anxious to eat it. Here's hoping next year he'll want to try planting it too.

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Cat

I have amazing garden memories of my materal grandmother, we called MeMe. In her California garden, she had Canna's that lined her driveway and perennial beds that flopped over all possible entries to the house. My fondest memory is that she did all her gardening in her "house dress" and pumps…and always with a cigarette placed between her delicately painted red nails. If,on the off chance she would perspire, she would just dab her forehead with a pretty embroidered hanky, that she kept tucked in her bodice. So how is that I, her charished grand-daughter, must garden in muck boots and overalls. Sweat when it is raining out and have nails that well…

I guess times were just more gentille back then, perhaps there is still hope for me. I think I will start with the hanky and work up to the pumps.

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Lisa

Growing up, my mom dabbled in gardening, but didn't do much until I started helping out. Favorite memory is of Memorial Day weekend each year when it was finally "safe" to plant. I'm certain that's why I'm aways looking for ways to push the season ahead now, waiting was so hard!

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Debbie

When I was growing up I loved to visit my grandmother and see what she had growing in her garden. Although it was small (and her thumb wasn't very green!) she grew two plants I distinctly remember. The first was a incredibly fragrant double deep purple lilac – the only lilacs I'd ever seen were the common ones and I thought that meant my grandmother was so special because that lilac was growing in her garden.

The other plant that thrived in her garden was rhubarb. She would let me cut off a stalk and then she would wash it and hand it back to me with a little paper cup with about an inch of sugar on the bottom. I would sit in the backyard and eat my rhubarb, mindlessly dipping it in the sugar between bites, chatting with my grandmother about anything and everything.

I was always so disappointed when the rhubarb was gone because I couldn't get cups of sugar anymore! Of course that didn't mean my chats with my gradmother ended – she would give me slices of bread with butter instead.

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David in Kansas

My earliest memory of a garden, if it could be called that, is from the time we moved to the city where I grew up in Mexico. The house belonged to my Dad's Aunt and it had a yard that had been paved with cement. One day, I awoke to find that a spot of the cement in the yard had been broken and the soil below exposed. A week or two later, there were tiny plants growing there. Eventually, those tiny plants became bean plants. Later, herbs appeared. I remember the Basil and the Cilantro very well. I never saw anyone working in the vegetable patch other than to harvest stuff. I suspect it was my mother who grew everything. She is 83 years old and doesn't garden much anymore although her tiny house is still surrounded by flowers that she planted.

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Heather Mead

Little to my knowledge, the house I grew up in was owned previously by hugely avid gardeners who gave my parents a 30 page booklet on how to care for each and every fascinating variety of plant they had raised and nurtured in the yard. For all I knew, every house had blueberry and raspberry bushes, pear, apple and crabapple trees, peonies, lilies, roses, forget-me-nots… all flourishing grandly around their homes.

I should have known such grandeur was not accomplished by my parents. The greenhouse attached to the side of the house was almost always empty and neglected, and what minimal yard work was done was merely maintenance. That the hundreds of plants around the place flourished basically on their own is a testament to the dutiful care given them when they were establishing themselves.

I am now 25, and just last year started my very own garden in a community setting. Needless to say, I learned a hell of a lot in a short period of time. I spent the winter months growing seedlings; in the spring, I planted every herb I'd ever heard of, every vegetable I thought I'd eat, several kinds of flowers and shrubs on sheer whim…and went absolutely nuts at the library, book sales and on garden blogs trying to figure out companion planting.

I have never been happier. The love I had for that yard as a child has come back full force, and I will create my own someday. Hopefully it will compare to the one I recall so well.

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Michael Brazell

I remember when I was about 5 or 6, and going out to my aunt's spring time garden. It was filled with so many different vegetables, flowers, and we even had some fruit. I remember following her around, asking about all the differences in all the veggie wonders that were in front of us. Why is a cucumber green? Why are tomatoes considered fruits? Are there snakes? And she gladly entertained each who, what, when, where and why question with a smile. Aside from the outdoor garden she had small potted plants all over the house. Bursts of color would spring forth from each corner of her house. It was my duty to water each of these little beings. I felt so important knowing that with each drop of water, life was being given, and maintained by each of these little plants. Many years later my aunt was diagnosed with cancer. I remember getting the call that her final moments were quickly approaching. I drove from Virginia to South Carolina to be by her side. I remember sitting next to her, holding her hand, and wishing I still had that magic watering pot. She passed on about a month after I had arrived. She was a fighter, and a gardener in the truest sense of the word. Looking back I see now we were her most precious flowers in that garden–though the tomatoes do come in at a close second place.

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Troy

My dad had a great garden in Minnesota back in the pre-rerun Brady Bunch days. This was a big garden (1/8 of an acre?) full of sweet corn, asparagus, rhubarb, carrots, strawberries, gooseberries, radishes…the whole Burpee seed catalog pretty much (able to grow in the tundra zone of Minnesota). And I helped out. I hauled manure. Hoed out the weeds. Sprayed Ortho brand toxins. We didn't have any automated roto-tillers or any of that so my sister and I were essential labor. And we were paid in…um…food. I guess we got an allowance too, but summer meant swatting mosquitos and digging dirt for 3 months in the backyard. And that's the funny part. With few exceptions, I didn't like fruits or vegetables. I could eat a strawberry or two in my ice cream, but for the most part the garden was all work for no reward. Rhubarb? Make me gag. The most knee-bendingly amazing fresh asparagus? "Too stringy" was my reply. Pass the the Hamburger Helper. I had no use for any of the organic stuff we grew, shucked, jarred, canned, or shared with the neighbors.

Our little family couldn't eat it all and my lack of a balanced diet meant our raspberries went by the 5-gallon ice cream bucket to my dad's co-workers.

I was told repeatedly that I was a fool. But I had my taste buds and the Mars Candy and Frito Lay advertising on my side.

When I see myself buying a pint of (relatively) flavorless Chilean-grown berries priced like Tiffany products in my shopping basket, I wish I could do a little time travel and slap my old self upside my towhead.

Eventually, the small amount of fruits and veggies I could tolerate expanded. I started putting more fruit on my ice cream and pushing less away. I'm still no fan of mushrooms but now I can eat raspberries by the gallon.

I have a planter box now outside my window in New York. I'll understand when she turns her nose up at what manages to rise out of the soot covered dirt south of Canal street. We both share a thing for ice cream.

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Patia

Aquadisiac? Wow, sounds like quite the memoir. I'll add it to my "to-read" list. (Three of those prize books are already favorites!)

As a little girl visiting my grandparents on their ranch in French Gulch, California, I enjoyed our summer afternoon ritual of visiting the garden to pick our dinner vegetables. But what I loved most were the corn-on-the-cob-eating races my Grandpa challenged me to. We'd load up the hot cooked corn with butter, salt and pepper, and then mow through the juicy kernels. I had a special typewriter strategy: Munch a straight row to one end of the cob, ding! Twist and repeat.

I also cherish memories of my Grandpa teaching me to eat tomato slices — still warm from the garden sun — with a bit of sugar sprinkled on top. Tomatoes were actually fruit, he explained, not vegetables, so the sugar made sense.

My Grandma kept long slices of cucumber and carrots in glasses of cold water in the refrigerator for hors d'ouevres. And for dessert, there were bowls of wild blackberries we'd picked near the river, served with cream and another dusting of sugar.

What delicious memories!

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CanCan

My mom was a rural girl from Mississippi transplanted to the suburbs by the time I was born. She effortlessly created a decent sized vegetable patch in the back yard of our 1950's ranch style house.

Tomatoes were the most important crop in her garden, and she was continually defending them from those big huge green nasty worms that seemed to come out of nowhere. I was truly afraid of them, especially since they had a single large horn on a what I supposed to be the head.

Mom also came up with a variety of ways to stake and tie the tomato plants using objects from around the house. She was thrifty.

I did admire the garden but despite her efforts, I hated tomatoes.

Now that I am "grown up" however, I love the taste of home grown, red, ripe, heirloom tomatoes in the summer time. I can eat a plate full of slices!

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