Many of the most prominent memories from my childhood revolve around the gardens of my grandparents. Both sets, paternal and maternal, had gardens in their backyards though in entirely different settings. My maternal grandparents lived on a farm in the exceptionally barren (barren to the ill-informed anyway) plains of the Oklahoma panhandle, at least for most of my formative years, let’s say post 1983 and the release of Yes’ album 90125 containing the anthem of said formative years, Owner Of A Lonely Heart. As an aside (if one can have an aside in the very first paragraph of an essay on a completely different topic), that was the first cassette for my first boom box. I blame Yes for penning a song that voiced the ongoing conflict in my later, less interesting teenage years, never completely agreeing with their conclusion that a lonely heart was better than a broken one. I spent most of my twenties empirically testing that hypothesis.
Back to gardening, the garden on the farm was a decent sized patch on the south side of the house. As I recall, it had chicken wire around it to keep both the chickens and rabbits out though the rabbit population typically took a turn for the worse when I spent any time around the farm. Grandma grew tomatoes and corn and okra and beans among other vegetables. I’d like to say I was a big help in the garden but I always preferred to spend my time on the farm hunting or playing GI Joe in the hay barn. However, I remember the jars and jars of pickled and canned vegetables that Grandma had in the cellar. The cellar was actually an old rail car that Granddad had dug a huge hole for in the back yard. It served as a storage area for a variety of canned goods, jellies, jams and other assorted foodstuffs that you made when your closest grocery store was 16 miles away along mostly dirt roads. Granddad, always looking for a chance to break a new or previously broken bone, actually fell into the hole before the boxcar was inserted, breaking either his ribs or his collar bone. (The stories are legend of the broken bones my grandfather had and how little they seemed to affect him. He was exceptionally tough. Jumping out of a plane on June 6th, 1944 over Normandy and landing in an apple orchard, breaking several bones in the process will probably do that for you.)
In that area of Oklahoma, wild plums grow in large thickets along the side of the road. Every summer, when the plums would ripen, Grandma would know the places to find them and we’d set out across the plains to pick wild fruit. Again, my interests rarely tended towards foraging but where there were thickets, there were rabbits and my cousins and I would take our BB guns and stalk the mighty cottontail, almost always returning empty-handed with an occasional, triumphant hunt. Grandma and my great aunts would take the plums and make jelly and preserves, a treat pulled out at Christmas time among other occasions when the snow was on the ground and fresh produce was at a minimum.
Once, I remember my grandmother driving me to the back of the farm near the hay barn. She grabbed two plastic grocery sacks, handed one to me and said we were going to pick lamb’s quarters. Not having any sheep on the farm, I was understandably confused and probably slightly worried, either that my grandmother had gone over the edge or that I was going to have to chase down the neighbor’s sheep and stuff its quarter (whatever that was) into this plastic bag. Imagine my surprise when we wandered out onto the prairie and Grandma began picking what looked for all intent and purposes to be a weed growing randomly. I have my doubts that I was particularly useful in the lamb’s quarter gathering that day or any other but the image sticks with me of gathering food that grew wild on the plains of Oklahoma. I do recall being quite unimpressed with the resulting dish that night, a mess of greens flavored with onions and bacon that tasted incredibly different from pizza, my favorite food. However, you couldn’t walk out the backyard and pick any pizza so lamb’s quarters it was.
To this day, even though she’s long left the farm, my grandmother grows tomatoes in several places in her small yard in Amarillo. Every fall, when the weather turns cold and the first freeze hits, she’ll pick the remaining fruits from the vines and place them in the garage, just in case she needs a green tomato in December. She comes from a time when food might very well be scarce at some point in the future, before buying organic and beyond organic became hip. You harvested what you could from nature, planted as much as you could and made it through the lean times by the hard work of your labors.
My paternal grandparents were decidedly more urban and urbane yet they still had a garden in the backyard. They played bridge, were fantastic dancers at the local social club and played golf in country clubs but every summer, they had fresh corn on the cob, picked straight from the backyard. The plot was much smaller than my Oklahoma grandparents’ but it seemed like there was always fresh corn, tomatoes and asparagus for dinners. Nostalgia always clouds the memory slightly but I definitely remember a time when I had lost my front teeth and Granda Betty had taken the corn from the cob, sliced off the kernels into a bowl and then microwaved them with enough butter to practically make the corn float. Quite possibly the best corn ever.
My grandfather built an arbor in the back yard and planted two grape plants. I was always fascinated by the evolution from spring into late summer when the grapes, initially small green clusters, grew into edible fruit, large purple sugar laden globes best picked straight from the vine and popped into your mouth. You could slide the skin of the grape off in your mouth, releasing the flavor and flesh. I ate them by the handful, squeezing the sugar from the skin and then spitting it as far as I could (I was a boy, after all). They were seeded grapes and to this day, that’s probably where my dislike of all things small-seeded derives. I would swallow the grape whole instead of chewing it and risking getting a seed caught in my teeth. I still gum my blackberries for the very same reason.
I see now how picking the grapes and picking the lamb’s quarters were intertwined parts of my growth as a kid, ingraining the wonder of producing your own food whether by planting, tending and harvesting it or foraging along road ways and in fields for nature’s bounty or hunting for rabbits and quail (My grandmother still tells the story of the rabbit I made her cook at 11 PM one night. I believe she exaggerates the timeframe but there is no doubt that at least once, I brought home game that she was then required to fry up late at night for her intrepid hunter). Today, if I walked out and spoke with any of the kids on my block, I doubt a single one could imagine the thought of walking into the empty field behind our houses to pick greens for supper. There is something magical in producing your own food, a connection to the world around us so frequently lost in the day to day urban existence. I never realized growing up that those habits were forming in my personality until I had a place of my own large enough to produces substantial quantities of home grown fruits and vegetables. Now, I can’t imagine not having a garden.
It’s interesting to watch and observe the locavore and grow your own food movement gain steam in today’s society. Articles are written in Urban Farm about foraging in your neighborhood for greens, an idea that has come full circle from a time when it was required to a time now when it’s hip. More and more people are planting backyard and community gardens as a way to supplement the produce they buy from the grocery store. At a time when one has no idea what chemicals are being used on our large scale agricultural farms, it’s refreshing to know how and where a vegetable or fruit was produced.
So far this year, I’ve planted swiss chard, lettuce, spinach, sugar snap peas, onions and potatoes. They are all months away from harvest. The garlic and fava beans I planted in October still have 3 months before they mature. It’s this separation between the planting and the harvesting that is most instructive, replacing the idea of the easy fix with the concept of work and dedication to produce something worthwhile. Growing a garden connects me to the seasonality of foods, the idea that there is a time and place for everything as Ecclesiastes said. I’m looking forward to another year of harvest, the successes and the struggles that go along with producing your own food.