Gardening and the Cycle of Life

I’m sitting in my home office gazing out the window onto a small backyard made lush by raised flower and vegetable beds. Down South, we’d call this converted porch lacking heat and air conditioning a Florida room. Florida rooms aren’t ideal for the winters we get here in New Rochelle, New York, but they are great for displaying the fall harvest still on the vine. I arrived at this window on Eden last December by way of a decade-long stint in Brooklyn. Preceding my big-city experience, I had made a much longer stay among a few of Alabama’s hamlets and small cities, where I accumulated fond memories around college life and raising a child. Before Alabama, there was a rural landscape outside Nashville, Tennessee, where I was the child being raised.

My early life was mid-century, like the furniture. It was a simple life filled with the hard work of being a farmer’s son. We had a hundred-acre farmstead, but I was no Christopher Robin. Yes, there were opportunities to explore the wonders of the woods, but it was mostly a time of hard work. Of fighting for survival. That makes it more wonderful in memory, not less.

Our garden on that farm was huge. It had to be to sustain us. First, it would have to provide ample fresh food throughout the growing season. Then, paired with the miracle of canning, its bounty would need to get us through each barren Tennessee winter. The gated, woven wire fence on the perimeter kept back the competition—wild deer with a taste for tender shoots of all kinds. Those deer were relegated to munch on the more beautiful but less satisfying morning glories, all dripping with daybreak dew and sun dappled in their purples and blues and pinks and whites. Over the course of a summer, they’d weave their way up the wire mesh to stand atop the wooden posts and reach even higher for the sun. Looking back on it now, I see how that animated garden was much like a colorful scene from the Land of Oz.

However, the language we used that dealt with the garden was built on practicality. We didn’t just plant beans. Coming in many varieties, beans were a major staple, substituting for meat, except on Sundays. We first categorized them by characteristics based on their requirements and our needs. We planted stick beans that required tall poles to climb, and also colored half-runners that would sprawl only a limited distance on the ground, and thus not interfere with their neighboring plants’ needs for light and moisture. We sowed long rows of snap beans, string beans, purple-hulled butterbeans, and Crowder peas. We planted Rattlesnake beans, so called because of their curving purple streak in the hull. That’s the only encounter we ever hoped for with that word.

Then we added Russet potatoes and white sweet potatoes, yellow onions and white onions and scallions and radishes. We sowed all sorts of tomato seeds and cucumber seeds, bought in early spring from bulk storage at the Farmer’s Co-op. Seeds that were purchased only after being carefully apportioned by small scoop onto a flat sheet of paper for ritual inspection. After an approving nod of my father’s head, I’d watch as the salesman curled that paper into a funnel for depositing the approved seeds into small, brown packets.

We made room in our garden for straight and crooked yellow squash and flat white squash. We placed seeds in the moist soil at just the right depth and time to grow okra and lettuce and beets and turnips. We favored Hickory Cane sweet corn for the garden, which we purchased anew every year by seed kernel. Field corn, being less important as to quality, was saved on the cob from one year to the next by storing it in the barn’s corncrib. It was not as sweet or tender as the garden variety but it was cheaper and satisfactory for taking to the gristmill to be ground into cornmeal for our bread. And, on the years when the crops were bad—from draught-induced or flooded out low yields, or blight or insect damage—it was still good enough to serve as feed for the cows. Always, the stripped cobs would go to the hogs. Nothing was wasted.

Is it any wonder that with so much work to be done in preparing the ground, planting, hoeing, weeding, picking, processing for canning, storing seeds over winter that I grew tired of the garden? I went off to college and suburbia, never looking back.

Never until now—this fall, in the fall of my life.

Leaving Brooklyn and the co-op lifestyle behind to rediscover the joys of a house in suburbia has meant also rediscovering the luxury of having a backyard. Sitting and enjoying the good weather with friends, sunning and napping on the deck, grilling outdoors, and simply admiring the ever changing view that flower and vegetable gardens provide—all this harkens back to my Tennessee childhood.

It’s a well-established literary concept that, in our youth, we often become restless and leave home in search of … something. Ourselves, maybe. What we learn on our personal odyssey, after many years filled with adventure and danger and boredom, is that we had all we needed back in our youth. Ask Dorothy. Oz was a nice place to visit, but there’s no place like home. I’ve tried it all, from rural to suburban to big city. And what feels like home? Home is where the garden is.

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