Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Gardening with six hands

by June

No doubt I’ll repeat this story now and again since I’m the kind of person who can’t remember from one conversation to the next what she’s said and to whom. No doubt that’s me as a blogger too. And since this is the most famous anecdote from my childhood having to do with a garden, I tend to circle back to it again and again now that I live to muck about and grow things – a fact that makes my family of origin hoot with hilarity. Because it was not always so. Oh, no.

When I was in junior high, my dad finally got his garden spot. I liked to hang on the fence and talk to him while he hoed. But then he made the mistake of asking me to weed. I cried. Okay…since my brother will probably read this, I actually wailed. I was worried about getting dirt under my fingernails. I hated hunkering down there in the row of beans. I hated gardening. I didn’t hate everything about it; I did love the wilted lettuce salad my mother made with cider vinegar and crumbled bacon, but I’m pretty sure that had more to do with the bacon than the growing of the lettuce.

Years later, when I was off bacon and making my way in New York City, something happened. The green markets whispered seductively to me, and I hauled home flats of flowers and plunked them into window boxes. And from there it was just a hop, skip, and a jump (including the biggie from Brooklyn to Maine) until I was the tender of several-hundred-square feet of garden space.

I was determined that I wanted my daughters to grow up with no grudge against gardening. So I swore never to ask them to touch a weed. Or a watering can. And I didn’t. But the first summer we moved onto our four green acres, I planted a garden that was basically a dizzying race between who could grow the fastest (the weeds or the veggies), and who could eat the fastest (us or the groundhogs). The weeds and the groundhogs won.

But before they won, I dragged my night-owl self out of bed early every morning and crawled along the rows of my first real garden. And my darling girls, they got out of their beds too. If I beat them out there, I would hear these joyful whoops, and here they would come, two five-year-olds running through the slanted sunlight in their shorty pajamas. And, be still my heart, they got down on their hands and knees. They scrabbled at those weeds every bit as earnestly as I did. I explained that they didn’t have to; it was almost fun for me but I didn’t expect it would be fun for them. I could do lots of thinking in the garden, I told them. I could have quiet time while I weeded. For me, this was fun.

One morning, as we worked in silence, Blossom piped up and said, “Mommy, when I’m grown up I’m going to have a huge garden.”

“You are, baby? Good. Why's that?”

“I’m gonna need a lot of weeds,” she said. “So I’ll have lots of time to think.”

The three of us have been out there ever since, weeding and thinking and laughing. To be sure, they tire more quickly than I do and decide to watch the tree swallows dart in and out of the nesting boxes or to catch earthworms for the chickens or to sit in the sun and pet the cat. But they think of it as their garden too. And it is. Often, I’ll look out the kitchen window and see Fern’s head bobbing through the tomato boxes, patrolling for hornworms.

This spring we’ve had the pleasure of sharing our passion with an eighth-grade gardener who happens to be a kind of big sister to Fern and Blossom. You can read about her garden here. She came over this weekend along with a gardening Girl Scout friend of ours, and we all planted seeds together. We were like pigs in mud. The kitchen smelled pleasantly of soil, and the seed packets held endless possibilities, and we were all together. Nothing can match it…well, except maybe the moment that came two days later when Blossom spotted the first tiny knuckle of green. “Sprout!” she sang, “Sprout!” And, sure enough, there was baby kale among us.

Hurray! Dirty-fingernail season has come at last!


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