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My Childhood Garden

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When I was a kid, summer meant ripe tomatoes, peas straight from the pod, and just-shucked corn-on-the-cob. Dad used to put my younger sister and me in a playpen in the garden while he worked there. When we were old enough to help (but still young enough to think it was fun), we pulled weeds. My dad started his first vegetable garden in 1977, a year that coincided with his marriage to my mom, my birth, and their first home together in small-town western New York.

Over the years, Dad grew tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, cucumbers, carrots, cucumbers, beets, beans, lettuce, spinach, sweet corn, sunflowers, pumpkins, Brussels sprouts, radishes, and peas. He even grew loofah once, which my mom used in the bath.

Everything (except the loofah) ended up on our kitchen table. Tomatoes are what I remember best. It seemed that a side of sliced tomatoes with salt and pepper accompanied every dinner in the summer. My mom canned those we couldn’t eat and we’d have them throughout the winter in stews and sauces.

Working in the garden was always my dad’s thing. He would get philosophical at times (still does) about feeling connected to the land. When we were old enough to be obnoxious, my siblings and I would roll our eyes as he explained the method of “companion” planting that he used, originated by the Iroquois. (Waiting by the radio to press “record” on the cassette player when a Madonna song came on was much more thrilling.) In case you’re more interested than I was then, sweet corn, pole beans, and squash—called The Three Sisters by the Iroquois—are thought to be the first companion plants cultivated by the Native Americans.

Doing things “just like the Iroquois” is big with my dad. Just like the Iroquois, he went snowshoeing in winter, taught his children to call the moon “Grandmother Moon,” and organized a party to celebrate the harvest every year. Granted, our parties included considerably more taco dip, beer, and The Who than those of the Iroquois.

It isn’t only the Iroquois that get my dad misty-eyed. It’s anything done naturally. He loves Shaker furniture because it’s made by hand with simple tools. His light magazine reading is The Old Farmer’s Almanac. Before it was vogue, he composted and preached the dangers of antiperspirant. As long as I can remember, he’s worn only clothing made from natural fibers. He avoids Western medicine, and even brushed his teeth with baking soda for a while.

Using pesticides or other chemicals in the garden was obviously out of the question. Today, my dad proudly tells anyone who will listen that he has been an organic gardener since 1977.

Despite my best efforts, little lessons from my dad’s garden seeped into my consciousness. It only recently occurred to me that this is why I became a self-proclaimed environmentalist as a teenager. I volunteered at a recycling center every Saturday and joined protests when a garbage company wanted to store their incinerator ash in our town’s salt mine. In college, I took courses in ecology and environmental policy. Though I didn’t pursue a conservation-related career, the tenets of “reduce, reuse, and recycle” are still a part of my daily life.

My weed-pulling days ended at the age of five or six and I’ve never had much of a green thumb. But since birth (or so it seems to me), I’ve had an intense respect for the earth, and a sense of pure joy when I’m out in nature—standing still in the woods, listening to birds, or maybe seeing a deer cross my path. That is my dad’s influence: his joy in making things grow, in feeling the earth as it lay cold in spring, and then working with the same soil, warm in August. Simple things.

My dad retired his garden in 2003, when he moved to North Dakota for work. At the time, he had seventy tomato plants. He misses his garden, but there’s no doubt that he’ll get back to western New York and start it again sometime. I’ll be back to visit, to taste those peas straight from the pod. My dad’s garden is at the heart of who I am.


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