Digging in the Dirt — Gardening Memories to Cherish
“In spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.” —Margaret Atwood.
Did you have a vegetable garden when you were younger? Or do you remember going to your grandparents’ farm for the summer and helping pick luscious berries or tomatoes? I grew up in suburban Chicago, so we didn’t have acres of open land, but we always had a garden. Even when we lived closer to the city by my grandparents, I always remember food growing. My Nani (the true Italian grandmother she was) would always grow several tomato plants. When those fruits were red, ripe and ready to burst, we’d pick them and either put up glistening jars of tomato sauce, or else Nani would spread the crushed tomato sauce across large wooden trays covered in cheesecloth, which Papa would then carry outside to set in the sun for several days. That sun-kissed sauce would become homemade ketchup.
When we moved to a bigger home farther west, my Dad tilled up two large plots in our backyard. We grew tomatoes, of course, but also peppers, green beans, zucchini, carrots, lettuce, cucumbers and more. The tomatoes we picked and canned in the fall. The cucumbers we turned into dill pickles or sweet bread-and-butter pickles. We had a rhubarb plant, which started my lifelong love of rhubarb dishes, and several raspberry bushes (including one that grew golden raspberries which were super sweet). I would often go out and pick a handful of raspberries to just eat for breakfast. A few years later my Dad built an arbor and planted grapevines all along it. For several years we made our own wine. I remember feeling so much excitement when the Burpee seed catalog would come in the mail. We’d browse through the pages choosing which seeds to plant. My dad had built a cold frame so we could start the seeds early and then transplant them when it warmed up.
When we got older and the garden diminished, we still managed to can and put up jars of tomato sauce. Now we just went to a local farm to pick bushels of tomatoes rather than growing them ourselves. I remember all of us walking down the rows of tomato plants trying to avoid the large tomato spiders. Those things were huge! And of course we were splotched with tomato juice and seeds (there might have been a few tomato fights among us kids, but shhh don’t tell my Dad).
Vegetable gardening certainly gave us dirt under our fingernails and mud on our feet, but picking one delicious fruit most certainly meant purple-stained fingers—mulberries! We didn’t have a mulberry tree in our yard, but there was one nearby. We loved to climb the tree, eat the berries and have mulberry fights. I learned to identify a mulberry tree anywhere by the telltale purple stains on the ground underneath. Every once in awhile we attempted to collect enough mulberries to cook a pie or cobbler, but you had to collect an awful lot! And most of the time half of the berries went into our mouth before they even made it into the bucket.
Backyard gardening is again on the rise. People want to grow and cook their own fruits and vegetables, and there’s a trend toward home canning as well. Knowing exactly what is in your food is a strong incentive, but I think part of the upward trend in growing your own fruits and vegetables is the family memories you are building. Our designer Nancy Borsodi remembers her dad always having a garden in which he grew green beans, zucchini, carrots, beets and potatoes. When I asked about her memories of the garden, she laughed and said what she really remembers is her dad walking through the rows with his pants’ legs rolled up, a white T-shirt on and suspenders. “I remember him telling me how to place the seeds, every few inches,” she says. “I always wanted to put in more seeds than you should. You’re supposed to only put in two or three and I always wanted to pour a bunch in!”
Our Copy Editor Jessica Moorman moved to North Carolina a few years ago where she now has just under four acres of land where she grows everything from winter cabbage to tomatoes, eggplants, collard greens, tomatoes and more. She’s been planting heirloom seeds as well including especially satisfying Cherokee Trail of Tears black beans. She also has multitudes of flowers, and last fall also planted a grape vine and blueberry and blackberry bushes. There’s such a growing following for planting heirloom seeds, with each seed having its own story behind it.
This year for Mother’s Day, Swansons Nursery in Seattle posted Memories of Gardening with Mom on their blog. Such wonderful memories, including this one from Aimée: “I remember playing in my grandma’s worm bed whenever I visited her in Seattle and watching her add coffee grounds and vegetable scraps to soil that was so rich, it looked almost black. She grew the best vegetables and flowers in that soil, and all the neighbors would come by to chat and eat snap peas from her vines in the summer. It was my first experience with vegetable gardening and I was hooked.”
Gardening is good for the soul. It nourishes your body, builds family memories and gets you out enjoying Mother Nature. It’s something we all should experience at one point in our lives. What are some of your favorite memories of gardening, either with your own family or with your mom, dad or grandparents?
P.S. If you love gardening, be sure to check out our new special issue, Country Sampler Gardens. It’s filled with beautiful backyard gardens, ideas for creative pathways and water features and DIY garden decorations. Order a copy here. Also, don’t miss out on our next issue of Country Sampler Farmhouse Style. The summer issue is on newsstands now, or get your copy here.