Thursday, August 5, 2021

The thrill of gardening

The house my dad built - complete with over an acre of garden
According to my dad, the only things of value he learned from his father were hunting and gardening.  They didn't have a close relationship.  His dad was no doubt good on some levels, but he drank  to excess and was abusive, hastening the early death of my grandmother.  When Grandpa died, Dad didn't go out of his way to attend the funeral.  

That's why I chafe at the racist term 'white privilege', as if a family of poor, half starved young men in the Depression with a drunken, abusive father had the privilege, and a black individual raised in wealth and privilege and never having been pulled over in his life is the oppressed.  It's worth noting that of five brothers, not a single one became an alcoholic or was abusive or anything other than good husbands and fathers.  Maybe excuse making is a poor substitute for personal resolve. 

Anyhoo, back to my point.  My dad learned hunting and gardening from his dad because, at that point in the Depression, those weren't quaint hobbies. They were survival.  When it came to hunting, my grandpa and Dad's oldest brother would go out hunting with five bullets between them and come home with five animals ready for cooking.  It was no throw away pastime.

Same with gardening. For all his flaws and failings, and there were no doubt many, my grandpa must have had a heck of a green thumb. It was enough for my dad to respect his abilities - and Dad reserved respect for those who were hard workers and did the best with the jobs with  which they were entrusted.  

When we moved out into the country into the house my dad built when I was a toddler, the property came with twenty acres of land.  This wasn't the huge, sweeping Iowa or Kansas type farming acres.  This was smaller farms, with spots of larger fields, broken by patches of trees, old fences, ruined barns and sheds, and the occasional abandoned farmhouse.  But twenty acres is twenty acres.  It had woods, a small, shallow pond (very shallow), and bordered fields where we still got to see cornstalks and haystacks in the Autumn. 

On the opposite side of the driveway, beyond a line of smaller trees, Dad sought to plow out an entire acre for a garden.  The neighboring farmers he asked to come and till the ground advised him not to, owing to the quality of the soil.  He stood his ground and said that spot will do.  

It certainly did.  I can still remember seeing the endless rows of onions and radishes, beans, peas, cabbages, peppers, tomatoes and of course corn.  One section was set aside for gourds and squash, cucumbers and potatoes, and the juiciest, sweetest cantaloupe you ever ate.  Naturally he planted a couple pumpkin plants, for just enough sincerity to charm even the most demanding Great Pumpkin. 

As we moved - and move we did, for reasons too weird to get into here - Dad would try to recapture the glory of that garden of all gardens.  If there was a plot the size of a sofa, he'd try to set aside some of it for at least some vegetable plants.  The house we lived in throughout most of my junior high and high school years afforded him the best opportunity, and the gardens he had there were large enough, even if they didn't match the one 'out in the country.' 

That's also when I learned to garden, as he would set me to weeding, fertilizing and otherwise tending the garden while he was away on the road (railroad engineer after all).  He taught me to mound the plants and how to space them, how to fertilize, when to harvest, how to prune, and how to stake.  I doubt I ever made it to his, or my grandpa's, level, but I wasn't bad.

When my wife and I and the kids moved into the starter house in which we still live, we claimed a stretch of ground behind out house that should have been a public access strip.  As it was, another housing developing crossed the side and shut off that part of the access strip, leaving it with no purpose.  Since ours was the only house without a privacy fence, and the one where our backyard connected to the whole of the access strip, we made it into our garden.

It wasn't easy.  At some point, it became common for home developers to swoop in and take all topsoil and sell it, replacing it with cheap clay based clods of nothing.  The first few years were actually container gardens.   Each year, when the garden was done for the season, I would empty the potting soil out and till it into the ground - using the same Sears rototiller my dad bought when I was in junior high.  That was definitely when the term Craftsman meant something. 

Over the years, the garden grew.  At its height, the tomato plants soared over my head, and we had squash the size of footballs, mixed with bushels of peppers of all variety, and even a shot at corn and pumpkins.  Those last two never made it to their fullest, however.  The soil just wasn't enough for the pumpkins, and time and again something or someone would help themselves to our ears of corn. 

Eventually, our decision not to have the small trees in our backyard cut down caught up with us.  We now have a canopy of branches overhanging our back deck, which is nice.  But plants are an aggressive brood, and where growing roots were, there was no room for tomatoes or peppers.  Plus, the once open area in the backyard that received almost constant sun is now deep in the shade.  So after a few years of struggling with diminishing harvests and mounting frustrations - plus a host of other developments in life - we closed  up shop and stopped with the  gardens. 

Until this year.  After several years of missing the joy of planting and reaping, we decided to have at it again.  Oh, it's nothing much.  We brought in a professional landscaper to finally fix the amateur job we had done years ago.  He planted shrubs and baby pines, and one golden maple tree, and we added flowers - something we've seldom done.  I don't know if Dad ever messed with flowers, and I know we hadn't.  But we planted some roses, marigolds, pansies, begonias, and impatiens.  

Next to the the garage we also added some tomato and pepper plants, along with another half of the front planter dedicated to our herbs.  Over the years we've kept on with a modest herb garden.  After all, you just can't cook proper without fresh herbs outside your front door.

I know.  Tomato plants in the front of the house?  Isn't that ... tacky?  At my age, I don't care.  Ages ago, a cottage or cabin likely had a plot of vegetables and herbs as one walked up to the door.  If people would prefer to see flourishing floral gardens, they can provide the vittles and space for our veggies. 

I know at this point we will lose money on the things.  Back in the day, we came out ahead by the end.  We had such an abundance that we had shelves of canned peppers, tomatoes and other vegetables - including homemade pickles.  That was in addition to the baskets full we gave away.  

Now we'll just have enough for an addition to our annual harvest feast.    That is, fried green tomatoes, fried squash and peppers, potatoes and all things garden.  We'll have to buy most at a nearby farmer's market.  The meal is primarily a throwback to the days of our garden when I was growing up, when the whole harvest feast came straight from Dad's garden. 

But it's nice.  The money is worth the feeling that comes with planting something that is barely a twig, and watching it grow.  To fertilize, prune, weed and generally tend the plants as they bear fruit.   There's just something about smelling the smell of a fresh tomato plant after you've been working with the vines that can't be beat.  It also tweaks that harvest feel, and is a throwback to days gone by when most of the human race knew the feeling of bringing in a harvest, however small. 

All of this came to my mind because we just gave away that tiller from my days gone by.  We've been blessed by a handyman we were introduced to last year when our sump pump busted right on the night we got drenched with the worst floods to hit this area in decades.  Needless to say, our basement flooded.  The priest at the Orthodox church we had attended knew of him from 4-H, and recommended him.  We call it a perfect case of God bringing good out of the crappy.

He can do it all, and after years of being on the skids in a house built with all the modern standards of quality we've come to expect nowadays, he's had his hands full.  We had been letting that tiller sit for years not quite knowing what to do with it. Even if we plant a little here and there, we'll not need a tiller like that again.  Then it came to me that if Dad was around, giving it to this handyman blessing in our life would be just the kind of thing he would do.  So we gave it to him who will no doubt be able to get it tuned back up and put it to good use. 

I'll admit, it was a bit sad seeing him drive off with something that I've been using off and on since I was in middle school. But I'm glad it's someone like him, a good Christian and heck of a helper.  Anyway, that's where this all came from.  

Like  saying goodbye to an old friend

At almost 3' high, our impatiens have overtaken the front of the house.

Pansies are looking good along the front

Marigolds and some roses round out the front

A part of our herb garden: Parsley, sage, rosemary and, well, you know
It's like having an old friend back

Discount roses for amateurs - but they still look nice

Aside from herbs, the first fruits of our labor - all is right with the world


  1. I live homegrown cherry tomatoes

    1. Yep. Nothing better than fresh from the garden and straight to the dinner plate.

  2. Replies
    1. Heh. We owe it to that wonderful handyman who we discovered a year ago.


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