(written for Creative Nonfiction course)
Two gardening hats hung on a hook by the back door. Outside, a wire basket with green plastic handles hung from a rusty nail under our deck, next to a yellow water can with a long thin spout. In the shed that smelled like mothballs, on a shelf, there were two pairs of gloves stiff with dirt and two shovels, one larger than the other.
Our backyard had a big pool, framed in by a vine-covered fence, and matted by Astroturf. Along one side there were trees that dropped mini pinecones that cracked and popped when thrown in the fireplace. Along the other side there were bright Forsythia bushes that hid us from our peeping neighbor, Dave. In the far corner there was a compost pile, where all our dinner scraps and coffee grounds ended up, and a giant pine tree whose base was a pile of rocks. We had a clothesline that we used for bathing suits in the summer; in the winter, we hung a small wire cage of sinew scraps for the birds. The best part of our yard was the vegetable garden, a rectangular chicken wire enclosed oasis. These are the stories of one garden summer.
Beets are the one vegetable that grew in our garden whenever it wasn’t snowing. This is mostly because beets are roots, not vegetables, and therefore largely protected from bitter frosts. By April, the shaggy beet leaves fountained from the far end of the garden, the stems closest to the earth turned a rich crimson magenta.
Picking beets took a great amount of care because if you tugged too hard on the leaves, they would just rip right off, sending you backwards. And then you would have to dig up the bulb with your hands, and get dirt under your nails, which you had to thoroughly clean before school the next day.
Beets are terribly creepy fresh from the winter ground. They have long tapering rat tails and straggly roots growing from their bulbous cores. They smell like bicycle grease, and sometimes the tails would slip through the wire basket and tickle your legs while you walked.
After you cut off the leaves and tails, you have to scrub them really hard with a bristle brush under the hose before bringing them in the house. Then you boil them until you can push a fork into them, about 20-25 minutes. Run under cold water (this make peeling easy). After thoroughly cooled, use a fork or fingers to push the skin off. Slice and serve plain or with fresh goat cheese on bread rounds.
The leftover water in the saucepan will turn dark reddish purple, like the inside of a beet. Boil this down for an additional ten minutes and use for dying Easter eggs, or as a paint for arts and crafts.
This is the first real spring vegetable to sprout in our garden. At first the little green sprouts are unimpressive, especially when, as a ten year old, you were expecting the sunburst of daffodils, their trumpets heralding spring. They grow quickly, straight up in neat rows, before they meet their fate with gardening shears.
"A hand and a half tall."
(Well, one and a half Grandma-hand measures. Two of mine) That's how tall each stalk should be when you cut them down and place them gently in the wire basket. When we take them in, each stalk is thoroughly rinsed with cold water, rolled in olive oil, sprinkled with just salt and pepper, and layered single-file in a baking dish. Roast at 400 degrees for approximately 10 minutes or until tender. Serve plain or with grated parmesan cheese.
June is the sweetest month of all, finally freed from cramped classrooms and stiff uniforms. Strawberries and wild blackberries grew at the edge of the yard, away from the neat fenced in vegetable garden. We don't use the wire basket for strawberries, because the smallest ones slip through the wire. For berries, we use the berry bag, which is also in the mothball laden shed. This is the one thing in the shed that Little Brother and I could retrieve without supervision. Because it's near the front of the shed, we don't have to step around the steel teeth of the snow blower, the sharp picks of hoes, the razorblades at the end of the rakes, the sharpened beak of the bush shears.
The berry bag is made of a single square of canvas, whip-stitched along the sides with two lengths of rope used as handles. It's stained blue and red and black all over. We romp over to the edge of the yard, near the compost pile, and begin plucking at the most engorged orbs. Patience is paramount in plucking berries. Time will yield darker berries, and the darker the berry, the sweeter the juice. By the end of June, in one trip, Little Brother and I could fill the canvas, requiring each of us to grab a handle to walk it back to the house.
Upon showing our plunder to Grandma, she inspects each one under the running faucet, praising the color, the shape, our berry-finding skills. Each strawberry is halved and plopped into a medium sauce pan with 1/4 cup of orange juice and 1/2 cup sugar. Over medium heat, stir until sugar has dissolved. Bring to a rolling boil and cook until strawberries soften. Take off heat and serve over vanilla icecream, waffles or cheesecake.
Cucumbers didn’t take up that much room in the garden (because they grow up a fence), but even a couple plants produced way more cucumbers than we could possibly eat. Every other day I could fill the wire basket, carefully brushing off the prickles that you don’t see on supermarket cucumbers. Four would go to Grandma, and the rest would go to our neighbors. We had an abundance of cucumbers in July, the Coxes an abundance of plum tomatoes in June, the Wilsons too many apples in the fall, and basil by the bushels came from the Russes.
Nearly every other day Grandma made cucumber salad for dinner. Four cucumbers were cut in rounds, then quartered. Toss with 2 tbsp mayonnaise, and a small amount of diced onion. Add salt and pepper to taste, and a handful of diced cilantro. Serve cold.
Blackbirds are the bane of our existence. They chase the gold finches from the feeder and squawk at the squirrels, but why we detest them the most is because they pick at the corn. Raccoons ruin a fair amount of our garden's yield too, but it's impossible to detest an animal so closely resembling the Hamburgler. Besides, the chicken wire does a decent job of keeping small animals out.
Corn takes up nearly a third of our garden and is visually stunning. There are green stalks so much taller than I am, and not all its ears are reachable. The ears shoot off the main stalk and have Repunzel silk strands spouting from the ends. It's hard to tell when corn is sweetest and ready to be picked, so this is a chore when Pop comes with us. Checking the undressed gold and white flecked kernels, Pop snaps the ears off and places them in the wire basket. We only take as many as we need for dinner, since corner hardly ever over-ripens.
From the garden, Little Brother and I move to the garage, sit on small folding chairs with a bucket between us. Little Brother is brutishly strong for an eight year old and is good at pulling back the green husks. I'm more attentive, even at ten, so I'm good at plucking off all the silk strands, placing them gently back in the wire basket.
From the basket, they go to the grill for 5-7 minutes. After lightly charring, let cool. Remove kernels from the cob and toss with 2tbsp olive oil, juice of 1 lime, 1-4 oz. queso fresco, 1 bunch of green onions (thinly sliced), ¾ c. chopped cilantro, a pinch of salt, and a pinch of pepper.
There is a great debate over watermelon: to sprinkle with salt or sugar. At our house, we ate it plain after dinner while sitting on the deck waiting for the fireflies to come out. Whatever sticky dribbles landed on our legs or chins could be rinsed in the pool, but only if we were out of the water by dark and if we waited 20 minutes after eating.
It took nearly three years to grow our first watermelon. It would have been much sooner if Dad hadn’t run over the vines, twice, with the lawn mower. Watermelon’s curly cues do look like weedy vines, so it’s a common mistake if you don’t first see the yellow blossoms. For Little Sister’s birthday, Grandma spent the entire afternoon cutting watermelon slices an inch thick. It took me half an hour to use cookie cutters to cut stars and hearts. A healthy, but sweet, alternative to cupcakes.
No child likes spinach, and to make sure it didn’t land on our dinner plates often, Little Brother and I would pull the bushes out when not supervised and hide the leaves in the compost pile. We blamed the rabbits.
Spinach used to smell funny fresh from the ground- it smelled musky and mushy, if mushy had a smell. When Grandma got to the garden first to salvage what we had not destroyed, it was chopped roughly and tossed in a medium skillet with two cloves of chopped garlic until wilted. In the meantime, roast one handful of pine nuts at 400 degrees for about 5 minutes or until golden brown and nutty smelling. Toss pine nuts with spinach and top with enough grated parmesan cheese to make appealing to children.
By November the weather turns brisk, which means preparing the garden for winter. We pulled up flower bulbs, and turned the compost. We took stock of canned spaghetti sauce using the plum tomatoes from our neighbors. Apple pies, homemade, with lattice tops were frozen in the big freezer downstairs. The bushels of basil were made into pesto and stored in gallon-sized bags. Quince, pears and cranberries were turned into preserves and canned in small jars that we gave to our friends throughout the winter, so they could taste summer, spread on fresh bread.
I read once that dirt, good dirt, contains bacteria called Mycobacterium vaccae. Exposure to these bacteria in humans boosts serotonin in the brain, the neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of serenity and joy and peace. It is these feelings that flood back when I think of summers and springs working barefoot in the garden with my grandparents and my younger brother. It is that feeling I still get when I pluck the fruits that blossom in my modest urban garden, and when those fruits find their way to my kitchen table to fill the bellies of people I love.
What I learned from that 10' x 14' garden was intimacy- with the smells. touches and colors of food; with stove top and kitchen table; with earth and with my family. When I miss these memories most, I take off my shoes and stand in dirt.