When I was a kid growing up in Rhode Island, my dad had a vegetable garden in our backyard. The most fun thing about that was in the fall after everything was harvested and it was just bare dirt. My brother and I would turn it into a battlefield of trenches, army men, tanks, and planes and use rocks to bomb the enemy. We got to play “Combat” and “The Rat Patrol” right in our own backyard!
Later, we moved to New York and my dad had to start all over with a new garden. He started small – carving out a small 10×10 foot plot out of the lawn behind our 20×40 foot swimming pool. Each year he’d expand it a little bit by covering a swath of grass with black plastic, cutting a few holes for squash plants to grow and let the grass die under the plastic. The next spring, my brother and I had to turn that all over by hand with a spading fork – a chore that neither of us relished. By the time my parents moved from there, the garden was much bigger than the pool. I’d help him plant the seedlings he grew in our basement and I still do it the same way he did to this day. He always planted more tomato plants (up to 21) than we could use. I remember giving away grocery sacks of tomatoes to the neighbors – he was very generous. Summers were filled with fresh produce from the garden.
He also had flowers around the yard and an immaculate lawn kept green and weed-free with chemicals. Our lives were full of rotenone, diazinon and Weed-B-Gon®. I remember one time he had me spray the lawn to kill the dandelions and I got some Weed-B-Gon® on the magnolia tree which was in bloom. True to it’s word, it kills everything except the grass. He was pretty mad but I think I got out of having to do that chore again. We had a small garden by our back patio which was full of cosmos. I always hated that garden because the cosmos would come back every year like weeds and hang over the lawn and get in my way when mowing. I was afraid of getting stung by the bees. Now I have some cosmos in my yard which come back from reseeding (particularly this year) and I just let them grow over my front walkway and let the bees feast away. Times change.
When I went off to college, I did a little bit of gardening when I spent the summers with my grandparents. My grandfather had flower boxes of petunias that were always beautiful and that he carefully tended. I tried to grow some tomatoes, but it’s a pretty short season that far north to get ripe ones before the first frost. My grandfather had a friend who was always bragging about how good his tomatoes were doing. One day, Walter was over to the house and Pop showed him the red tomato that he had – earlier than Walter. Turns out, he had painted it red. He was quite a character.
When I was living in California after college, I had a chance to exchange my gardening skills for cheap rent. One time, my dad came to visit and was helping me remove some ivy and bamboo that had taken over the backyard. We took a break, and my friend Anne asked my dad if he wanted a beer. He said, “Sure!” and I about fell off my chair! I’d never seen my dad drink except some cold duck on New Year’s Eve. Later on in life, he would have an occasional vodka tonic or Coors Light and I’d have something with him. I tried to get him to drink the good Colorado micro-brews, but he said the liked the Coors Light better, much to my chagrin. So, I always bought a 6-pack of Coors Light when he visited. He’d drink a couple and then it would sit in the fridge – sometimes until he came out the next year.
When Diana and I bought our first house back in Vermont, one of the first things I did was expand the little garden there to grow vegetables. Unfortunately, we only lived there a year before moving to Boulder where we had a small kitchen garden at the house we rented. In that neighborhood, there were about as many deer that would traipse through our yard as there were squirrels. Diana came out one day to find a doe with one beet sticking out of one side of her mouth and another sticking out the other. That’s when we decided to put netting over the garden.
When we bought our current house, the lawn was a mess from having some trees removed and there weren’t any real gardens except some old, neglected climbing roses and Rose of Sharon. A couple of years after we moved in, I had a “Sodding and Sotting” party. I invited my friends over to help lay rocks and sod and as a reward, treated them to lots of beer, wine and food. A good time was had by all and I had an instant yard. For a couple of years, I had a pile of weeds and dirt on the corner which was an eyesore to one neighbor in particular. Now it looks like this and he likes it:
I’ve been watching a young couple in a house nearby go through the same process and imagine what their neighbors are thinking. As my old boss said, “Things take time”.
Yesterday, Jane Shellenberger, editor of the Colorado Gardener came over to the house (she and Diana are yoga buddies). Diana said she liked my bee garden and was particularly impressed with the Rose of Sharon which are now in full bloom and covered with bees. She said she’s never seen them that big and that she’s not had good luck growing them. Given her gardening skills, I feel a little giddy at the compliment. This fall, I’m going to use the methods outlined in her book, “Organic Gardener’s Companion“, to turn some of my lawn into gardens. (As the website says, “A great gift for western gardeners!”). I told the neighbor who didn’t like the dirt pile this and he asked, “You’re going to rip up all that sod you bought?”. I said, “Yup!” It’ll be a multi-year project and there will probably be times he doesn’t like the look of this either.
My dad passed away this week. I’m going to miss our weekly phone conversations, particularly not being able to share with him my gardening news of what I’ve planted, what is coming into bloom or ripening at that time and how the bees are doing. He really missed being able to grow tomatoes in Florida – the soil was just too sandy – he loved having a fresh tomato sandwich for breakfast. A few years ago, we had a great crop in Colorado, so I sent him some tomatoes via FedEx. When he called that week, he said that he was glad I had packed them in Ziploc® bags because they had turned to mush in transit. Even though the gift didn’t turn out as expected, he appreciated the thought and made some sauce from them. We got a good laugh out of that.
My dad gave me the wonderful gift of the love of gardening. I’ll think of him when I dig in the earth and harvest the tremendous bounty I’ve been given.