“Earth was given as a garden, cradle for humanity;
tree of life and tree of knowledge placed for our discovery.
Here was home for all your creatures born of land and sky and sea;
all created in your image, all to live in harmony.”
The first time I was exposed to this hymn was at a UU music camp a decade or so ago. This paean to our earthly garden echoed a lot of my beliefs about the value of gardens and the importance of caring for our home planet ( hear a rendition of all three verses at YouTube.com/watch?v=hmlV65kdt84). (A later set of words to the same tune also touches some of the same themes: “Blue Boat Home” by Peter Mayer, in later UU hymnal Singing the Journey as #1064, at YouTube.com/watch?v=0XziR3M2wYk).
The first time I gardened was in childhood, I don’t remember exactly when. One season that sticks in my mind is a dry summer in Maryland in the mid-1950’s. I would have been about eight years old. During this drought, it was my job to water the bell pepper plants in our small hillside garden. A couple of times a week, I would haul a bucket of water uphill from the nearest outdoor spigot and carefully surround each pepper plant with water. My dad had dug a saucer-shaped trench around each pepper so the water would have more chances to soak in, rather than run off.
Later, when our family moved nearby to a larger house with a lot more land, we had a bigger garden, too far away from the house to water. Most years, extra water was not needed. I don’t think I contributed much to this garden, aside from eating the produce. I remember we used to grow corn. Somehow, the homegrown ears tasted sweeter than anything we could buy at the grocery store. Despite the predations of area raccoons, there was nearly always enough for a few delicious corn-on-the-cob meals.
We also grew tomatoes. The red fruits were a bone of contention between human eaters and the local turtle population. Nearly every year, we’d find at least a couple of ripe tomatoes with substantial chunks eaten out of them. Actually, we didn’t mind the turtles’ inroads too much. Having turtles in the tomato patch made it easier to find a competitor for that year’s 4th of July turtle race—a neighborhood tradition. For several weeks before the 4th, we kids were busy scouting out turtles and putting them into temporary quarters in cardboard boxes or somewhat more formal animal cages. We’d feed them lettuce and vegetable table scraps and try to “train” them so they’d be in top form for the race.
When the big event came, around noon at the neighborhood picnic, we’d carefully place each turtle under the bushel basket “starting gate” at the center of a roped-off circle. We’d whisper some final words of encouragement, then step back behind the rope circle to cheer our turtle on. Most turtles snoozed through the race, but each year produced a winner—at least one turtle valiantly lumbered toward his/her former remembered home in the tomato patch.
The year my new husband and I moved from a series of urban environments to Vermont in a somewhat misguided attempt to “return to the land,” I became a part-time adult gardener. We purchased a small house on a wedge-shaped lot in the state’s capital city, Montpelier. Because we moved in November, it was a half year or so before I could put seeds into the ground. I did start some tomatoes indoors—local lore suggested beginning seedlings on “town meeting day,” a set date in March when all Vermont’s towns held local meetings. My seedlings were anemic and spindly. Later, once the danger of frost was mostly past, I replaced my homegrown efforts with hardier young plants from the local garden shop.
In Vermont, I was able to grow cool weather crops that did not thrive in Maryland when I was growing up—romaine lettuce, broccoli, and a strange shaped brassica called kohlrabi. When my in-laws paid a visit in late summer, I proudly cooked them some homegrown kohlrabi. Afterwards, I belatedly learned that it was one of my father-in-law’s least favorite vegetables. While living with his mom and siblings on a friend’s Midwestern farm during the waning days of World War I, he’d been fed an overabundance of kohlrabi and had sworn off them for the rest of his life. Kohlrabis look like something out of a sci-fi movie—central orbs with little leafy projections sticking out of them. I was not sorry to have experimented with them. I just needed to remember never to serve them to my father-in-law again.
Our experiment in Vermont living did not last long enough for me to become a very adept northern gardener, but it did whet my appetite for further garden attempts. Our next move, to Richmond, Virginia, included an initial stint of apartment living that did not foster gardening. However, when we purchased a house with a yard, I was off to the races. The first chore was removing the growth of wild clematis that had vined its way across the back yard. Next came turning the hard soil and deciding what to plant. Tomatoes for sure. Maybe some corn. Peas, carrots, lettuce, scallions, onions, beans, eggplant, and one year, potatoes. My early harvests rarely made much of a dent in our grocery bill, but digging and hoeing and weeding the garden helped me let off steam, forestalling the escalation of many a family fight.
Partway through our Richmond stay, I wandered further afield—to sub-Saharan Africa for a two-year stint in a Peace-corps-like program. Our younger son Scott and I lived in half of a small duplex at the edge of the United Nations housing complex in the small city of Bujumbura, Burundi. The climate there was much different from any I’d encountered before. Although day length and temperatures varied only a little during the year, the rainfall changes were stark. From May to September or October, it rarely rained at all. Maybe a brief occasional shower, but basically nothing. People who had vegetable gardens either watered them or arranged for anything to be dormant during this “long dry season.” A smattering of planting began in advance of the “short rainy season” that typically ran from late September until mid-December, when there could be a harvest of sorts. A “short dry season” in late December and January allowed us expats from Europe and North America several storm-free weeks in which to fly home for the winter holidays with our non-expat relatives. Then it was time to plant in earnest—the “long rainy season” was when most foodstuffs were grown. Staples like manioc, corn, and beans, plus fodder for the cattle and other ruminants, enough to last through the long dry season until pasturage again became available with the short rains.
I tried growing beans and peas on trellises outside out kitchen door. They were kind of straggly, but I think we may have gotten a couple of meals’ worth. They certainly did little to replace our need for the town market, where our housekeeper bargained for most of our food. During my two-year stint, I learned a little about the predominantly rural, agrarian economy of Burundi. Population pressures were immense, so a diet based mostly on beans, corn, and manioc made much more sense than the western meat-heavy diet I’d been accustomed to before.
Once back in Richmond, I refined my techniques. Eventually I was able to produce enough vegetables to reduce the carping from other family members about my “less-than-minimum-wage” work.
“Besides,” I told them, “it’s a lot cheaper than psychotherapy.”
Then, about the time the younger generation was ready to fly the nest, we moved to a larger house with a huge yard containing a level, sunny spot just perfect for gardening. Over time, I got better at outwitting the bunnies and squirrels. We eventually had lettuces, onions, tomatoes, squash, broccoli, asparagus, and a little corn. One year I experimented with popcorn—fun, but not all that practical, given the cheaply available store brands.
The year we put the house up for sale, I went all out in spring planting. Maybe the well-ordered rows of lettuce, scallions and spinach encouraged the eventual buyers, who were also avid gardeners. The following year, my empty-nester husband and I lived in a northwestern Chinese desert. I tried windowsill gardening. Basil grew well with some pampering and watering. Our several other jaunts in China were either too brief or too busy to allow for a real garden. However, I reveled in the variety of produce available in the “garden province” of Sichuan, where I spent over a year in total during the course of the next five years.
Now I live in southern California, a climate best described in an earlier environmental book as a “Cadillac desert.” We have long, long dry seasons. If we are lucky, we get enough cool weather rains to green the hills a bit in January and February. I heard recently that some early fall rains this year had been unexpectedly generous, filling some of our parched reservoirs from a third to nearly half full. Still, not enough moisture to break a lingering multi-year drought. I’m studying rainwater harvesting, drip irrigation, mulching, and other water conservation techniques. Learning to live in harmony with this climate will make for an interesting, challenging gardening year.