Sunday, April 25, 2010

My Dad's Garden

A chance comment in FaceBook led me to think about my dad's garden.


My dad was a doctor who, as a young man, had entertained a dream of becoming a "gentleman farmer." My mom's family had been farmers and she convinced him to start with a garden. When I was very small, there were veggies planted against the back fence in our yard. When my second cousins visited one year, we showed them how you could eat peas raw, right out of the pods. The result of that lesson was that we never did get enough peas to the house to have as a vegetable with dinner - we ate them all out in the sunshine, one pod at a time.

When I was a little older, my dad gardened on an otherwise empty lot a block down the street. It was across the street from my sister's best friend's house. Now and then, on a hot summer day, her friend's mother would bring us something cold to drink.

He didn't have that garden long, because he decided to build a new doctor's office there. The garden moved one more block over, on a lot directly across from the county hospital. Like all the town's doctors, he was always on-call for his patients. Whenever we went anywhere he left a message with the hospital's emergency room so they'd know where to find him, should the need arise. The garden was no exception. There were times when we'd see a nurse walking across the parking lot to come get him. If we didn't have our bikes, we'd walk home instead of waiting for him.

It was a sizable lot and we shared the space with another guy who lived in the neighborhood. In the spring, the other man and my dad would rototill the whole plot. After that, my dad pounded in stakes to mark the ends of rows, then he tied string to one end and then the other, so that when we helped him plant the rows would be straight.

Planting was one of the first things we helped with. Radish seeds were very forgiving, but the lettuce seeds were tiny and flew away in the lightest breeze. The corn was easy for our little hands to grip, and we planted it two or three together, about a hand-span apart. Planting corn and peas and green beans seemed like burying food, dried though it was. We planted beets and okra and kohlrabi and spinach and cabbage and zucchini and pumpkins. We planted onions and scallions. Later on, Daddy would transplant bell pepper and tomato plants.

We learned to use a rake and a hoe in that garden, mostly to cover up the seeds (but just a little!). When we started getting weeds in between the rows, we put down handfuls of straw to walk on. If it got really muddy, we put down wide boards between the rows and tried very hard not to slip off them until it dried out.

Lettuce and radishes were the first harvests. Some of the lettuce was a little small, but the rows usually needed thinning out anyway. Radishes were the first things I was allows to use a sharp knife on. I would put the red or white orbs down on a solid surface and then (while being closely supervised) I used the knife to cut off the root and the tops.

Peas also came on early, we'd pick bags or baskets full, trying to keep up with the crop, so that there would be more blossoms and more peas. Once it got too hot, the vines would dry up. We'd take the peas home and share the chore of shelling them, peas in one bowl, pods in another. We'd eat a few as we worked, but most made it to the table, or were frozen in plastic containers of water.

I remember hot, hot, humid summer days, when I'd be sent to the garden to pick green beans. And other days when I'd pedal my bike down the street to pull ripe ears of corn from the tall stalks. I'd bring home a paper bag full. Mom would put them in the pressure cooker and 15 minutes later we'd eat them.

The parts of the plants we didn't eat were left in the garden, to be turned under and feed the ground. The only exception were corn cobs. When the corn stalks came down in the fall, we'll pull off any remaining cobs and eat the handful of raw kernels from them right there in the garden.

As we worked in the garden, people would stop as they passed by. They'd ask how things were, and my dad would usually end up giving them produce. He kept extra sacks and boxes in his car.

Eventually Daddy put in red raspberry canes along one side of the garden. And some years we planted potatoes. One year he tried peanuts; another year he planted fennel for the seeds that Mom put in spaghetti sauce. Some years we'd have turnips. And he was always experimenting with squash: green zucchini, yellow summer squash, little white patty pans. He tried eggplants. I remember cucumbers.

Some experiments worked, some didn't. We learned to cook almost everything that came out of that garden. We learned about patience, and about getting your hands dirty. We learned that sometimes things ripen, and sometimes they rot. We learned about generosity.

I might have complained about working in that garden sometimes, but today I smile when I think about it.


3 comments:

Janet said...

I loved this story, well written and so beautiful :-) Thanks for sharing!

sister AE said...

thanks, Janet.

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