Sunday, February 8, 2009
Gardening in My Blood
February is here, and Spring is just around the corner, at least in my part of the world. And it is at this time of the year that I become excited at the prospect of seeing green leaves and colorful flowers again after a cold, icy winter. Since I already have daffodils, tulips, and narcissus peeking their heads out of the winter ground, the anticipation of having green trees and blooming plants around me again for the next 6-8 months is increasing daily.
This time of the year, especially in the weeks preceeding Easter, I often recall the memories of growing up with parents and grandparents who were true gardeners who learned their skills from families before them who had successfully lived off the land. As one might say in the South, they were born with "gardening in their blood," and it is without a doubt that I inherited my love of gardening from them.
Since every one of my relatives was raised in a rural setting, they were all true gardeners who grew everything "from scratch." They did not buy six-inch plants for the vegetable garden or 4-inch pots of bedding plants from a greenhouse or nursery. Nor were large discount or home improvement stores with "garden centers" available to them. I truly doubt my relatives would have used these resources even if they had been available. They grew most plants from seed. After consulting the "Farmers Almanac" for moon phases that designated the best times to plant, they planted vegetable and flower seeds alike with loving care and careful hands. They also grew plants, more often flowering plants, from cuttings passed between neighbors and relatives. And it was a common practice to split and share flower bulbs in the fall of the year.
My mother, who seemed to have a "handful" of "green thumbs," continued the tradition of growing plants from cuttings and often shared bulbs with family and friends. Even today, her gladiola and iris bulbs, and some of her ivy, are still growing in several states where her children have lived.
Although my Dad helped, my mother was the primary gardener in our suburban household. We lived on the north side of Jackson in a small subdivision built in the 1950s. Our house was a simple "ranch style," with a deep backyard that sloped downhill. The neighborhood was a typical one for that time period, and it contained everything a young family would want. An elementary school, a church, and a small wooded area that was a city park were all within a very short walking distance.
Unlike contemporary surburban developments, there were no strip shopping centers with "big box stores," pizza shops, nail salons, or dry cleaners. Neighborhood children played safely outside their unlocked doors, walked to school and to the park without parents, and the neighbors all knew each other. Kids who were old enough to ride a bicycle, and lucky enough to own one, could safely ride their bikes with their friends to a small family-owned store nearby to buy soft drinks, dreamsicles, bubble gum, and candy. It was a free and easy time, without so many of today's parental worries for the safety of their children.
My mother did most of the garden work, even cutting the front yard with an electric mower. And I was pleased when my friends often told me that we had the prettiest yard on the street. The yard contained lush St. Augustine grass and tall green pines surrounded the house. The needles produced by the tall pines were enough to mulch the mass of azaleas and gardenias that bloomed profusely each year. Climbing roses that covered our fence were heavy with blooms in May of each year. And the fragrant scent from my mother's flowers often filled the evening air that came in through open windows. I can still recall the scent of spring roses and summer gardenias in my bedroom at night. Like so many other 1950s families in the South, we had no air conditioning, and windows were left open all night. We felt safe in our surroundings then.
Our backyard contained fruit trees that my parents lovingly cultivated, and my mother turned the ripe peaches and juicy plums they produced into delicious homemade cobblers, fried pies, and jam. As children, my mother warned us that we should not eat green plums, or the green plum eater would suffer a severe stomach ache. I never liked green plums, so adhering to her rule was easy for me, but my brothers and their friends tested my mother's advice and ended up privately enduring a few stomach aches to keep from hearing her say "I told you so."
One of my favorite gardening stories from those years began with my dad's attempt in the 1950s to stop erosion in our lower backyard. He would never admit it, but his gardening skills were not as finely honed as my mother's, and I believe this story will prove that fact beyond a doubt. As I recall, it was his decision, not my mother's, to use red clover for the backyard erosion control project. She thought a retaining wall was needed, but my Dad thought that option was too expensive. And it was his decision to make a trip to the seed store for red clover seed that is the beginning of the story. Actually, it was not a seed store, but an old-fashioned hardware store where the owner sold everything from nails to appliances. Somewhere in between those two items, he sold seed. The store's seed supply was a "loose" one, kept in large, open bins and sold by the ounce, or more often, by the pound.
Daddy returned home with a large brown bag of seed, where he waited for just the right temperature, wind velocity, and a forecast of no rain for a few days before sowing it. When the right time arrived, he sowed the seed by hand, covering the entire lower backyard, even the ground under the fruit trees there. Next, he waited for green shoots to sprout up that would bloom and turn our lower backyard into the haze of crimson clover that he had envisioned would signal a successful project's end.
But something happened that altered the outcome of my dad's well-planned attempt at erosion control. Apparently, the seed bin at the hardware store was incorrectly marked, or someone, maybe even my Dad, had made a mistake when they filled the bag with seed. The seed was not red clover seed at all. It was "mustard seed." So my dad's dream of a carpet of red clover had now turned into green mustard, and we became the only kids on the block who had a portion of our backyard seeded with mustard greens. The thought of mustard greens for supper was not a pleasant one for my brothers or for me.
Although we grew up on homegrown vegetables, we did not have a vegetable garden in our backyard. There was no need to have one, since we had relatives who lived in rural areas where they had very large gardens and were willing to share the fruits if we were willing to share our labor. But my mother did grow a few tomato and bell pepper plants in the back yard. Along with these plants, she also grew another plant she called a "mirliton," or vegetable pear. She prepared the mirliton by cooking it in a casserole that contained onion, bell pepper, tomatoes, and ground beef. The resulting dish tasted something like an eggplant casserole, only better. I don't recall eating mirliton anywhere else, until I later lived in Louisiana. It was there that I saw mirlitons in the produce section of every grocery store and that I learned they were called "vegetable pears." My mother later explained to me that she first learned about mirlitons from some of her relatives who had moved to Amite County, Louisiana.
It's sad now that my parents can no longer care for their own yard that is home to the many lovely flowers and bulbs they painstakingly planted with love over the last 40 years. My mother has slowly given away most of her hanging baskets and large outside potted plants, because they required maintenance that she no longer can provide. And although the bulbs still come up and flower each spring, and the azaleas still bloom, it is not the same for my parents. I can sense and feel their sadness when they are able only to watch the seasons change.
But this spring, just like every spring, when I care for my own small flower garden, I will remember how my parents instilled in me the love of all living things, including the gardens they grew with so much care.