The Gardening Gene

I come from a long line of gardeners. In the old country, my German grandparents came from peasant families who farmed outside their village. In the new country, they lived in a two-flat apartment on the north side of Chicago, where my grandmother grew what she could in their small backyard—the garden crammed between the garage and the neighbors’ fence (above, my father and his grandfather barely a corn stalk apart). Eventually, some yearning for the country and more room for planting spurred my grandparents to buy several acres of land 40 miles north of the city in what was then open farmland. There my grandmother planted rows of corn, tomatoes and green beans.

On Sundays aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and great-grandparents would gather together and enjoy fresh tomatoes and corn just picked from the stalk. I can still remember the taste of the corn that grew in that rich Illinois dark soil. And it was here, in her country garden, leaning over to pull carrots from the earth, that my grandmother had a heart attack that killed her at the relatively young age of 68, younger than I am now.

Her son, my father, started gardening at the age of 13 at the family home and didn’t stop until he reached the ripe old age of 92. The photo (top) of him as a teen in the garden next to his grandfather must have been taken in August because the corn is taller than both of them.

When our family moved to the suburbs, my father found a bigger piece of land for his gardening needs, claiming the long strip of property behind the garage for his own. There he planted most everything except corn (he said it took up too much space): asparagus, tomatoes, peas, raspberries, green beans, onions, green peppers, parsley, dill, basil, parsnip. Beyond providing fresh vegetables for his family, the garden was his therapy. At a time when he was struggling with starting a new business while supporting a family of nine, picking raspberries, beans and peas was his relief valve from stress—and his joy.

I remember him coming into the house with a pale carrot-like vegetable and thrusting it toward me. Have you ever tried parsnip, he would ask. Or he would pull together a whole salad from the garden, encouraging his family to enjoy this rare and fine homegrown treat.

And so were sowed the first seeds of my own love for gardening, although my first attempt was a failure. My father gave me a small patch of land next to the driveway, where I stuck pumpkin seeds into the earth next to a young cherry tree. That must have been the summer I was holed up in my room reading six books a week, because I forgot about those seeds until one fall day I noticed a pumpkin hanging from the cherry tree.

Since then, I’ve grown a garden in just about every place I lived, including small patches next to the apartment buildings where I lived. Over the years, I’ve learned, as have many gardeners, that it can be less expensive—and less work—to buy vegetables at the nearby farmers’ markets. But, like my father, I’ve learned that I could work off anger, irritation, depression and sadness by sticking my hands in the dirt and inhaling the cool moist smell of the earth.

That’s probably why last March, soon after we were ordered to stay at home, I started preparing the soil in my garden. I didn’t care what I planted. Like many people in this country who needed to get outside, I was happy to be doing something useful while digging at the clay earth, adding compost and gently inserting seeds into the dirt. I needed something positive, to see new growth emerging.

It was probably a similar impetus that kept my father gardening into his 90s, even after he started losing his physical strength as well as his memory. In his 80s, he and my mother lived in a senior facility, where he was given a plot of land just big enough to grow basil and one or two tomato plants. Every summer when I visited him, he proudly showed me his small but thriving crop. But one year, when he was in his early 90s, I discovered that his small garden was overrun with weeds, the basil had gone to seed, and overripe tomatoes lay on the ground. With his memory getting worse, he admitted that he couldn’t do it anymore.

And yet that urge, that ancestral memory of gardening never left him. A year before he died, at age 95, I was having a phone conversation with him on a cold day in late January. Out of the blue, he reminded me that I could start planting again soon. I was startled, thinking this was another sign of his dementia, but when he repeated it, I realized that he knew I could start planting cold-weather plants in March. Even in his somewhat demented brain, he was tuned into the rhythm of the seasons and the knowledge that the earth had started to turn again toward the sun.

So I stand in solidarity, hoe in hand, with my father and all my ancestors and all the other gardeners out there now, who know that in nurturing the earth, we nurture ourselves. That in times of confusion, the earth can be our bedrock.

—Kathy Kaiser

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