A lifetime of lessons grew in my dad rsquo s garden

HOME AND GARDEN — When I was a child, it never occurred to me that other people didn’t grow their own vegetables.

Frozen and canned produce were completely foreign concepts to me. I didn’t even know they existed.

My dad has always kept a very large garden in the backyard. He spends countless hours, year-round, working on his garden.

The winter is reserved for planning, and ordering seeds. In the spring, he starts in on his “baby plants.” The sills of the picture windows in my parents’ house fill up with seedlings, lined up on top of heating pads, with lamps hovering over them.

In late spring, there is soil tilling to be done. There is measuring, planting, watering, and protecting the seedlings from frost.

When summer rolls around, it is time to start reaping the benefits of the garden. Even that part is a labor of love, though. We get to eat all the fresh vegetables we want, but there is still picking, weeding, canning, and freezing.

In the fall, some vegetables still grow. But they have to be saved from the frosty nights. Before winter officially sets in, the soil must be turned over again.

There is a running joke in my family; whenever someone asks, “Where’s Dad?” the answer is always, “Probably in the garden.”

It sounds like a lot of work. It is. When I was a kid, garden tasks were definitely on the chore list. Requests from my parents for any of us three kids to pick vegetables, do some weeding, shell peas, dig potatoes, or shuck corn, were met with a lot of whining.

But, having a garden taught us things, too. Responsibility, sure. Lessons in science and nature, of course. The fact that hard work pays off, in tangible ways — we learned that, too.

There was always a certain level of playfulness about the garden when we were kids, even though it was hard work. We played hide and seek in the corn stalks. We picked berries and smashed them up to make “jelly” or use as dye. We fashioned boats out of overgrown zucchinis and floated them on our pond. We put up a roadside stand where we sold raspberries and got to keep the money. We carved jack-o-lanterns in the huge pumpkins. We made decorations out of dried corn stalks and gourds.

We spent seemingly endless summer days stuffing warm strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries into our mouths, and ate the freshest vegetables imaginable at dinner every night.

I have to admit, when I was an adolescent and then a surly teenager, I didn’t want much to do with the garden, nor did I advertise the fact that we had one. At times, I wished my parents could just “be normal” and buy vegetables at the grocery store like everyone else.

Never in a million years would I have admitted to my friends that I spent summer evenings with my hands in a bowl full of peas, the green, slimy material stuck under my fingernails and stinging me.

But, it was fun to have contests to see who could shell the most peas, and to laugh at our old yellow Lab when she became obsessed with stealing and eating pea pods.

Never in a billion years would I have told anyone that my family was militant about composting, with a giant pile of rotting produce sitting behind the house.

But, it was interesting to see the material return to the earth.

Never in a trillion years would I have blurted out the fact that we spread our horse’s manure on the garden as a form of natural fertilizer.

I still think this aspect of gardening is kind of disgusting.

Looking back, though, I realize I just took the garden for granted. Now, however, we’re a family that is totally trendy. We’re so “green.” What once may have been considered weird, or gross, is now considered cool.

It isn’t just about the food, though, at least not for my dad. It isn’t just a means to an end. There’s something therapeutic to it. As a scientist and a professor, he spends all day in an office, a classroom, or a lab. He grew up on a farm in Vermont. I think that big, square patch of earth behind his East Greenbush house is where he gets back to his roots.

I also think that garden has become his safe haven. Over the years, that’s where he would go whenever trouble was brewing. Three kids under the age of 5 screaming and crying? Out to the garden. Three teenage girls bickering constantly? Out to the garden. An empty, lonely nest after three adult girls have flown the coop? Out to the garden.

He is proud of his garden, and he should be. It’s big and bountiful and the produce is out-of-this-world delicious. He’s planted it, nurtured it, and stuck by it through hard times — birds and deer eating the berries, and hail, flooding, and drought destroying the vegetables.

He has perfected his crops and experiments with new ones every season.

He has even managed to grow fresh lettuce to eat all throughout the past two winters, by fashioning a cold frame out of an old picture window, and keeping the plants warm with concrete blocks heated in the fireplace. We ate fresh salad — literally, fresh-picked that day — on Christmas.

Holidays are often made special by his produce. On Easter we ate “Grade A green beans.” My father sorts and labels his produce according to strain and quality.

Today, whenever one of his three daughters mentions eating a vegetable — we’ve all moved out of the house and live independently now — my dad gives her grief for eating something store-bought and insists we can stop by for the “real deal” any time. We often do.

I have to say, I much prefer his vegetables to any others I’ve managed to buy and consume. I’m glad I grew up with a garden. I hope I manage to grow a garden half as good when I own a home and have a family.

I hope to someday instill in my children the idea that food doesn’t just come from the store. I’ll make them weed, and get dirty, and appreciate the earth. They’ll thank me later.

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