02 March 2009


About a week and a half ago, with two inches of snow on the ground, I made the trek from kitchen to compost bin out by the garden. As I was leaning over the fence, dumping the contents of the compost pitcher into the bin, I looked to the right and saw...


I stepped out on faith last fall. I've never planted garlic before, but everything I read said late fall was the time to plant it. Made sense - it's a bulb, after all. They said it would grow until the ground froze, then go dormant until spring. So I planted a couple of heads, the decent-sized cloves - probably 18 altogether. Covered it with an extra layer of potting soil and a goodly thickness of mulch, crossed my fingers, and walked away.

And there they were, lined up neatly in my little checkerboard rows: garlic sprouts about six inches high, green as they could be against the snow.

This is part of why I garden. It's the hope of green sprouts in the snow. It's the heat coming off the compost in the middle of an ice storm. It's the tiny, delightful flash of smugness as I rinse my eggshells and toss them in the pitcher with the potato peels and apple cores instead of throwing them in the garbage. (Okay, so it's also the laugh I get - in spite of having to clean up the mess - when the dogs turn over the kitchen garbage thinking they'll find goodies and come up with nothing but cans and wrappers. The little rotters.)

The larger reason, the philosophical reason, is that it helps me believe we're going to keep this ball turning one more year. As long as there's garlic sprouting, compost cooking, and a seed catalog in the mailbox, we haven't killed the earth yet. Not completely.

But that's not all of it, either. The historical reason is that my dad was a gardener. He grew up on a farm, and we had a garden from the time I was five, I'm sure. For a few years, it was grape vines in the back yard, but mostly, it was a vegetable garden.

I never turned up my nose at a vegetable on the table, but I hated the garden. I was convinced that weeding was legalized child abuse. I detested being stuck in the heat, pulling weeds and getting blisters on my fingers, digging holes and working up callouses, when my friends were free as birds - no responsibilities all summer long. Their mothers threw them out of the house right after breakfast, and when they came back inside, sent them out again. "Go play," they'd order. "I have things to do." My mother said, "Weed first." And so I would slave under the North Carolina sun, my fingers aching and my back stiff, and feel sorry for myself, at least until supper time, when there were tomato sandwiches with the sweet tea.

My appreciation, the first buds of it, came when we lived in California for a while, three decades ago. I had a small house, a rental, with a jungle of dry weeds for a back yard. No garden for me, thank you! Didn't need one: The produce at the Alpha Beta was cheap and beautiful, and if I couldn't afford meat, I could still get tomatoes and beans and potatoes and corn, and we could eat. But there was talk in the news about the United Farm Workers and a man called Cesar Chavez, and it dawned on me that people - grown-up people - had to do this backbreaking, finger-shredding work day after day for not much more than I made in my dad's garden (nada, in case you're wondering), and then couldn't afford to buy back the tomatoes for those luscious, dripping sandwiches. I still didn't want a garden, but I started to care where the stuff in the supermarket came from.

In the '80s, we had a little house in rural NC, south of Raleigh. It had a big yard, and we did have a garden there. It was the first I'd had as an adult. I can't say I really loved working it, but I didn't hate it like I did when I was a kid. The only thing I remember growing was soybeans - edamame. We loved them; they were like baby lima beans without the mushy element.

When we moved back to my husband's hometown, it was to a house with a tiny yard. He traveled the six blocks to his parents' home to work a shared garden with them, and I grew flowers. I had hydrangeas on the east side of the house, cow-itch vine on the west side, and daylilies in the front yard. I learned to deal with deep shade; this tiny yard had two oak trees, each of them at least 100 years old. I grew periwinkle and crocus and daffodils - so I should've known about garlic. I've had a little bit of experience with bulbs. And I still loved the vegetables, once they were grown. (Kind of like kids between the ages of eight and eleven... It gets better!)

Years of gardening, lots of water under the bridge - and into the hydrangeas - and here I am, in Kentucky. Been here nearly nine years now. The first year and a half, I was on my own - me and the last teenager - in a rented townhouse with a patio. It wasn't like I'd never been away from home. Hell, I'd lived in California and the Republic of By-God Texas and a bunch of other places. I was hardly tied to the Old North State.

But I missed the tomato sandwiches. The Middletown Kroger just didn't have the caliber of tomatoes the Alpha Beta did. Paul's Fruit and Vegetable Market did sometimes, but still... It wasn't just the tomatoes. All of a sudden, the smell of dirt reminded me of home. And I was homesick.

My townhouse had two little patches of dirt, totalling maybe 48 square feet around the edges of the patio. That first summer, I had a couple of tomato plants and a bunch of flowers. The next summer, more tomatoes, not so many flowers. By the time Ed and I had been married a couple of years and we'd moved to a bigger townhouse, I was up to mostly tomatoes. The new townhouse had almost twice as much dirt, and I was able to fit in six tomato plants, plus flowers and herbs. My neighbor used to come over and pick basil leaves to use instead of lettuce on her tomato sandwiches, and I thanked her for the help. After the first year, the basil kind of started a revolution and crowded out the sage. I ended up separating them to stop the fighting. I learned the healing properties of lavender: I had a plant by the back gate, and if I was feeling stressed or anxious, I'd grab a stalk and rub as I went by, then breathe deeply with my fingers to my nose. The scent of lavender is God's own anti-anxiety medication.

We bought this house three years ago come July. It has a big yard, and my daughter and I have a garden. We started last summer - the first full summer, I'd just finished school, and I was finally getting around to unpacking boxes. Last year, we made a plan, and we were ready as soon as the first thaw came.

My daughter, by the way, was born while I was in California. She's beautiful, and in some ways, I think she's the quintessential California girl - just not the Southern California Surfer Chick variety. More the Northern California Tied-to-the-Earth variety. She worships the smell of lavender, memorizes the seed catalogs when it's still too early to order, and cultivates and honors her callouses.

Last year's garden was planned and the seedlings were almost ready to go in the ground on Derby weekend, the local "don't plant before" date. But life happens, you know?

That was the weekend my dad went into a coma. We thought he'd be gone before we got there, that Sunday night. But he rallied, and we had a good few days with him. And then a week later, he died, and we were back in NC for the funeral - and it was nearly three weeks late that we put the seedlings in the ground.

We couldn't keep up with the tomatoes. Daddy said, "Only plant five. No more than five." We had no idea what he was talking about, but he kept insisting, until I finally agreed. When I put the seedlings in the ground, three weeks behind schedule, I told him over my shoulder, "Okay, I'll only put five per row, but I have to have at least three rows." Now I know what he was talking about - there is NO way two people can manage the yield from more than five or six tomato plants.

And we had beans, which ran away with themselves, and zucchini as big as my arm (now I know, you don't want to let it get that big), and corn that did not much of anything, but we had to try. Pumpkins - yes! Broccoli, not so much. Peppers - I've had better, and I've had worse.

And what did we do, after the digging and the weeding and the harvesting and freezing and canning were done? After we'd given away all the tomatoes we could? After my friend Ilona, nine months pregnant, ate about a pound of the sweetest cherry tomatoes on earth, and a couple days later had the easiest labor imaginable and gave birth to the sweetest Lola on earth? (Ilona still says it was the tomatoes that made Lola's arrival so easy.) What did we do?

Well, we doubled our garden space. This year, we're planting garlic, onions, and carrots. I plan to have three varieties of potatoes, just to see if I can. (Never did potatoes before - but then, I never did garlic or onions before, either!) And we're planting beans again, and broccoli - yes, broccoli! - and squash and pumpkins and, of course, tomatoes. Six plants. That's all.

Philosophy and ecology and laughing at the dogs aside, why are we doing it? I can think of two reasons off the top of my head.

The first is history: In spite of myself, I am my father's daughter. He knew that; it's why he left me his Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening. It's why he told Mother and my sister and anyone else who would listen to tell me not to plant more than five tomato plants. He knew I'd get crazy and overdo it. He knew I couldn't stop once I started. He knew once the dirt in my blood got moving and made it to my heart, I'd dig and plant until my arms fell off.

He was right about that. After his funeral - after we planted my dad at the top of one of his beloved North Carolina mountains and went home - I dug until I ached. When I had to stop, I turned to face the sun, and I stretched as high as I could, and I talked to him. Last summer, I gardened because I missed my dad, and in the garden, I could still touch base. I could still touch his heart, and that of his brother, my precious Uncle Paul, and his parents, Yancey and Mary Lela. In the garden, under the hot Kentucky sun, I could still talk to my family.

The other reason is pre-history - and I am the "pre." I am my daughter's mother. In our garden, we are women together. There is no mother, no daughter - we are friends. She knows things I can't even guess; I sense things that are just hints to her. My daughter is an herbal healer, a kitchen witch. I am a gardener and a maker of tomato sandwiches. Together, we make magic of a deeply earthy kind.
She cultivates the seeds, I water them.
I weed, she harvests. We plant, she cans. She digs, we stake. And while we dig and plant and stake and harvest and can, we talk. We're friends. We're sisters.

Someday - if we can keep this ball of earth turning a few more cycles 'round the spoke of the sun - she and her daughter will be friends in the garden. I will feel blessed indeed if I can be there to help them. Maybe, like me, my daughter's daughter will resent the weeding, hate the digging - but maybe, like me, she will grow from resentment to an understanding of hard reality, to a deep love of the smell of dirt and tomatoes and lavender that gets embedded in the skin sometime around August.

Meanwhile, here in February and early March, with the wind chill in single or negative digits, we have the memory of the smell of our hands in August, and the hope of an August just around the corner.

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