My Secret Garden
My one small change is the same as that of thousands of Americans: I planted a garden. But contrary to most gardens, mine was not borne solely from a greener frame of mind or from a desire for a pesticide-free harvest. Rather, it sprouted up from the ground as an attempt at healing. My one small change has been more about coming full circle and embracing my roots, as opposed to a paradigm shift.
Last summer, I planted my first successful garden as an adult. I had endured a very harsh winter on a personal level, but I also longed for the home-grown veggies and fruit of my childhood. I sought to share that experience with my husband and our 3-year old daughter, as I attempted to forget my loss.
It was a great first garden, healing in so many ways. It produced way too much squash and some very tasty spinach, lettuce, peas and carrots. Our tomato plants made the sweetest fruits, and our daughter would go out to the garden just to pick them and eat them off the vine. This year is my second attempt at gardening and it’s off to a good start.
When I was a kid, my family planted a garden. It was fairly large, coming in at just about a square acre. It was the source of most of our vegetables. Mom would freeze, can, and dry enough to get us through the year, and we sold the rest.
My folks were both children of the Depression—born to poor Hispanic parents with large families. Saving money wasn’t anything new; it was a way of life for them. To call my dad an avid gardener was a bit of a misnomer. You see, he had to work away from home in order to support his family like he wanted to. Gardening was much more than a hobby. It was in his blood, a fact I didn’t understand until now. My mom was a self-proclaimed Domestic Engineer, and the bulk of her life was devoted to holding down the fort while Dad worked. My brothers, sister, nor I had a lot of material things growing up, but we did have what was important.
Through the garden, my folks taught us a lot of life lessons. Among them were humility, solid work ethic, honesty, and self sufficiency. I’m pretty sure my folks never sat down and planned to teach us these lessons through gardening. Rather it all happened spontaneously in the midst of Real Life, and later they both looked back on them and thought, “Huh!”
I remember getting up before the sun on June mornings to help my mom pull weeds, hoe the corn, or pick sweet peas and squash. I despised being up that early when there was no school, and worse, to do such unimportant work! It really irked me that our friends and neighbors would drive by and honk at us on their way to REAL jobs, while we were bent over pulling weeds till our fingers bled, just to beat the heat.
Harvest time usually started in late June. We’d pick sweet peas off the vines, rinse and weigh them, then pack them into pint-sized Ziploc® bags. We’d pick squash--zucchini and calabacitas (Mexican squash)—and rinse them too. And we’d load up that old two-toned GMC and head to town. Mom would park us across from the gas station, where we’d sit in the hot sun until we sold what we brought. There were days when business was slow, and there were days when the planets lined up just right and we’d be sold out in half an hour. I remember how it felt to sit on the tailgate of that old pick-up swinging my legs to and fro, and watching the cars pass, embarrassed when a passing friend waved hello. (As I neared adolescence, our “business” became a source of embarrassment for me. You remember what it was like to be a teenager, when EVERYTHING was awkward!) But I rose above it when I counted the money we’d made. I can still smell those hard-earned dollar bills as I made change for someone.
Through that garden, I learned the value of an education. I developed an early confidence in my work ethic and knew that if my grand plan to be a veterinarian failed, I’d at least be able to find a job as a field worker. That was a thought that propelled me to the top of my high school graduating class, and beyond that into college. (I’m not a veterinarian, but rather a high school teacher who never did have to pick onions to make rent.)
I remember vividly those summer evenings when Dad would get home from work. He’d been gone all week, and I’d come running out of the house to greet him when his car pulled up. I’d hug him close, taking in the smells of his cigarette smoke, sweat, and whatever chemicals he’d been using on the job, and then I’d help unload his things from the car. Mom would be getting supper made. After a short conversation inside, Dad would usually head out to look at his plants. Lots of times, he’d spend the evening out there among the squash or in his carrot bed, unwinding after a long week and an even longer drive. Summer weekends were spent weeding, hoeing, or picking veggies, and I came to resent that Saturdays and Sundays meant work for me.
As a kid, these things didn’t make sense. I couldn’t understand why we didn’t take trips like all my friends’ families did. They’d go camping or drive to visit extended family, but we always stayed home and worked the garden…
I look at my small raised-bed garden now and smile. It is indeed a very small garden, but it’s a powerful one, evoking lots of memories and re-teaching so many lessons. I’m now 30 years old, and Dad has been gone for 8 of those years. Finally everything makes sense to me. I understand his urge to get off the car after his long trip home and head directly into his garden, cold beer in hand. I now understand why we didn’t take those family trips I dreamed about. And I’ve now found the same sanctuary in working the soil and pulling weeds. I realize now why he’d get so ticked off when he’d come home to find the leaves of his precious tomatoes or chile plants wilting. And I’ve finally experienced the trance that accompanies standing in the garden with a water hose, spraying those seedlings gently, coaxing them to grow and be fruitful.
My journey has brought me right back where I started: a garden. Life has dealt me some harsh blows, but it has also handed me seeds and the tools I need to make them flourish. I am lucky to have inherited my Dad’s green thumb, and I flex it proudly now, hoping that I pass it on to both of my girls.
My garden was inspired mostly by his memory and my loss. I smile quietly to myself when people assume that “being green” was my only inspiration. It remains largely my own special secret: Dad has infiltrated it, making it a deeply personal project for me. My hope is that other gardeners are so inspired and strive to make it personal.Stephanie is a stay-at-home-mom of 2 daughters and married to the Most Wonderful Man on Earth. She lives in Edgewood, NM, and up until the birth of her baby in March, she was a high school teacher. Stephanie has a passion for gardening and has started making a more concerted effort to live sustainably. She blogs about her girls, garden and lots of stuff in between: Sugar and Spice...And Everything Nice and Notes from the Garden Girl.