I remember my mother in the garden. On those hot, heavy east coast summer days, she’d be out in the lilies. Or pulling bittersweet while we capered about, pretending it was some dragon plant trying to capture us. We helped by dumping its hot orange roots over the bluff. Or at home, in Los Angeles, where she grew roses in wooden barrels till they were tall enough to peek into second story windows. We looked at them, red Mr. Lincoln, pale, gloaming colored Peace, with delight. We knew she was building something, but I didn’t see then that its shape was for us. She let us pick out plants and try them – phlox and tulips, African violets and carrots. I remember her warning me about the trials of a certain plant, how I would have to come home and pick the bugs off of it every day (I didn’t get the plant.) She struggled with snails in the strawberries, mildew on the roses. Neighbors chipped in, teaching me how snapdragons spoke, with their scratchy voices, and how poppies wore pajamas before they bloomed. Plants wove our lives together and when we moved, we took cuttings of mint, pots of strawberry begonias and planted them at our new house.
My mother’s own father had a substantial vegetable garden, I remember walking it with him. I imagine all the grandkids were pretty interested in going out there, to stand with him among his plants and to get a better understanding of the inner workings of vegetable soup. I remember the tiny wastebasket my grandmother kept under her sink for refuse that could be composted. I remember her lettuce box in the garden. Now I’m starting to compost myself. I grow lettuce too.
When my daughter was a year old, going into her second summer, we planted tomatoes and carrots as she stood, wobbly over the pots. We let her sink her hands into the dirt, handle the tiny, gritty seeds. I wanted her to know the wonder of how things grow, of how tomato plants shoot up and fill out, what your hands smell like after you’ve been working in them, and how a tomato tastes, with that little prickle on your tongue fresh off the vine. Of course, my daughter doesn’t like tomatoes. And last year, our tomatoes didn’t taste at all.
This year she is three. She is in love with flowers, specifically blue morning glories. We’re already on our second round, growing them in a pot among the vegetables on our front patio – they were too tender to plant near the fence in the back. Any that came up were immediately eaten. I am planting picking flowers – daisies, geraniums, and pansies– among the roses. There’s nothing she likes better than giving a bouquet.
This year the vegetable garden has more of a design. Deliberate attempts to plant things for her to try. We have lettuce and cucumbers (challenges!) and carrots and sugar snap peas (for sure!) and I repotted all the volunteer tomatoes that grew from seeds that fell last year. We’ll have squash, and spices too. My daughter eats mint like a salad, straight off the plant. I’ve planted edible flowers too, violets and nasturtiums, but I’m going to wait to tell her about them until she’s a little more discerning. Already, we rub rosemary and lavender between fingers and smell them.
In Southern California, our forbears gloried in the sunshine and good weather; there is hardly a garden without fruit trees. We have apple and lemon, orange and nectarine, even a very old avocado. The nectarine and the avocado are nearing the end of their lives, but I’m trying to work on them to give fruit. I’m trying to bring in some elements of my east coast summers. Now we have two blueberry bushes in the back, and by summer’s end, I hope to have raspberries too. I am deciding where to put a flame colored honeysuckle vine, to summon all that I can from those east coast summers, where I ran barefoot in the grass and ate raspberries right off the bushes. (They were smaller than store bought, but softer and sweeter.)
When you have children, you suddenly have to pull your head out of the internet, stop thinking about work and get down on the ground . Your children reteach you to look at the world and to enjoy it, in all its slimy, wiggly wonder. They remind us of what’s rich and timeless in life. And it’s our job to make sense of it for them. We name things, we show things, we connect the dots. I am teaching my daughter the names of the plants. I am teaching her the secrets of how to get the honey out of honeysuckles, how before it rains, the leaves of trees turn over and show their silver backs, that worms are good and snails are bad. Just like my mom did for me.