Growing up on the twisting Zone 5 border of upstate New York, my most magical moments of childhood occurred in the garden, during our warm, sunny summers. The backyard, considered large for a small town, was bordered by tall, ancient pines, great oaks, and middle-aged maples that grappled with one another for sky space. This forested area extended down a steep embankment, where I played as a little boy.
Dad had two vegetable gardens then ~ one in the partially-shaded edge of the woods, where he somehow managed to keep us fully stocked with zucchini summer-round, and a raised bed in full sun, which filled the garage window-sill with ripening tomatoes, and also produced beans, peppers, and the occasional eggplant.
I remember sitting on the lawn as he worked the ground – hoeing and tilling and throwing out random rocks. My brother and I were welcomed to break down any big chunks of compacted soil, and I can still feel the way those balls of earth crumbled to a satisfying, feathery powder between my small grinding hands. It was fun to pulverize the dirt like that, unless it was windy – then a surprise gust might throw the falling particles back in my eyes. These were the great inconveniences of the moment; bugs, heat, and boredom would not bother me until years later.
As Dad finished his vegetable planting ~ the last tomato plant buried sideways up to its neck ~ he closed the self-made fencing. This was a five-foot-high wall of metal netting, held up by steel stakes at various intervals and meant to deter rabbits and other herbivores from feasting on our family’s summer crop. Despite its seemingly frail construction (my brother and I bounced against it like it was a vertical trampoline) it worked: we never lost one tomato or bean.
The vegetable plot neatly planted and watered, my attention turned elsewhere when the pool was opened. Splashing the mid-day away as Mom sat by reading a book, I made brief excursions to the cool shady edge of the woodland, where a semi-wild patch of rhubarb and bleeding hearts made an unlikely, yet happy, marriage.
The delicate hearts on drooping stems were little gifts I presented to my Mom with a dramatic bow. Bleeding hearts and rhubarb may sound like an off-match, but it was improbably pleasant ~ the graceful, arching sprays of the quietly-colored bleeding heart and its dainty deeply-cut fern-like foliage was a striking complement to the grand darkly-ruffled umbrella-shaped leaves and thick, deep-maroon stems of the rustic rhubarb.
Mom made rhubarb pie with the harvested stems, and to this day I do not understand how the stems can be edible when the leaves are so poisonous. I didn’t take the chance; rhubarb was never a favorite of mine. I waited until the zucchinis grew long and plump, and Mom made zucchini bread – the shredded squash taking on entirely new meaning as it melted sweetly in my mouth, warm from the oven and completely transformed in its tantalizing mixture of sugars and spices.
After dinners of homegrown vegetables, BLTs, and barbecued burgers, I strolled the path in front of our house. Two rigid, brick-lined borders framed the front entrance, backed by twin euonymous hedges. Rather than conforming to the strict structure suggested by the layout, these beds instead ran riotously free from any proposed order ~ wave upon colorful wave of simply silly annual chaos broke freely onto the brick path.
My favorites were the snapdragons ~ so impossibly sweet of fragrance and so inviting with their velvety tufted lips, that I had to force myself not to eat one. A crazy range of petunias offered another creative outlet ~ I loved dead-heading them, how neatly and easily did they offer spent blooms for clean-up. Marigolds grew freely there as well ~ small bushy clumps of burgundy and orange colliding with tall pom-poms of golden yellow exploding garishly and mimicking the brilliance of the summer sun. As the late-afternoon rays slanted through the colorful bombardment, I walked leisurely along the borders, an ice cream cone melting in one hand and a small haphazard bouquet in the other. These were happy days ~ fleeting days ~ of carefree youth and garden mysticism.
As evening fell, and my childhood dissolved, the gardens seemed to lose their magic. Year after year, the plants seemed less vibrant, less enchanting. I didn’t know then that it wasn’t the garden, it was me. I saw only the dissipating mists of happy illusion, and the dim reality of the world closing in on a little boy’s garden. Insects became an unbearable nuisance, the hot days and beating sun lost their brilliant charm, and the harsh winters killed the vivid annuals and my innocent impressions.
The watering and weeding grew tiresome, the arriving boxes of bulbs became an ugly added chore, put off until the last possible moment when the earth was brutally cold and the first flicker of flurries floated down. I couldn’t see then the imminent arrival of spring, and the new beginning afforded every year.Back to Blog