It’s getting green out there, thankyoubabyJesus. And I don’t mean drive-a-Prius-and-recycle-gum-wrappers green. You’ve probably noticed that spring weather is finally starting to transform the browns and grays of winter into emerald hues and colorful blooms.
It’s about friggin’ time.
I may have mentioned once or twice how much I loathe the cold. So right now, I seriously feel like a grumpy bear coming out of hibernation. This ol’ bear is hongray — for the sun on my shoulders, the warm pavement beneath my bare feet and the scent of peonies wafting under my nose. I’m SO ready to dig out my straw pool bag, fluff the beach towels and inspect my raft for leaks.
Some of my happiest memories from childhood are set against the backdrop of sunbeams and sticky summer weather, so I always get a little nostalgic at the first chance the temps allow me to hang up my winter coat. Perhaps even a little over-eager, but what the hell.
I’ve alluded to some trying times I’ve had in my life in this space before, but most of those were created of my own making and occurred long into my adult years. My childhood, by and large, was wonderful.
My parents are really good people who worked hard and loved the hell out of their kids. They weren’t perfect, but they did their best. I hope my son will someday say the same about me.
My mom and dad got divorced when I was 16, but aside from a couple tense years of healing on both their parts, we all came out better for it. Today, the whole family — including my sweet peach of a stepmom — celebrates holidays together. For that, I am grateful.
Mother, Daddy, my younger brother and I lived a modest, middle-class existence. I grew up in suburbia in the East End of Louisville. We had two cars and a dog. Our house was nestled on a circle, so our yard backed up to neighbors that faced the other side of the circle. I cannot tell you how many nicks and scratches I got from jumping the damn chain link fence that separated our yards. Do kids still jump fences these days, or has that gone the way of riding bikes without helmets? (I did that, too, and got 12 stitches to prove it.)
I was a shy, bookworm of a kid, but I always had a few close friends to knock around with, both at school and in my neighborhood. I could write several blog posts on all our summer adventures. Those were the days before cell phones — we took off on our bikes early in the morning and didn’t trudge home until dark, all the while playing games we made up. Outside. All day. Unsupervised. Often with no shoes or sunscreen on. And nobody died.
But I digress.
Anyhoo, with all of the flora bursting around me, plus my recent attempts to eat healthier, I’ve been thinking a lot about the garden my parents planted and maintained for the majority of my youth.
We lived on a half-acre lot. The front yard was just a regular plot of grass adorned with various ornamental shrubbery. It was in the back where the magic happened. From as early as I can remember, my mom and dad farmed that little patch of land and fed the family through the winter with its bounty. We barely had room left to play, although in early spring and late fall, I recall my brother turning the residual barren patch of dirt into a baseball diamond.
We grew white potatoes, sweet potatoes, kale (before it was trendy), green beans, pole beans, lima beans, peas, cucumbers (“burpless” is what the seed packet said, which always cracked me up) broccoli, corn, peppers, squash, carrots, beets, turnips, radishes, three different kinds of lettuce, okra, cabbage and tomatoes. Hundreds and hundreds of tomatoes.
We also had an asparagus bed (which is the weirdest looking plant when it goes to seed), strawberries, raspberries and a bona fide wild blackberry patch. My neighbors to the left of us — who had both grown up on a rural farm and taught my parents everything they knew about gardening — supplemented our crop with Jonathan apples (oh, the stories I could tell about that amazing tree), rhubarb, herbs, a gooseberry bush and two rows of concord grapes. FYI, those are the kind of grapes that are used to make wine, people. Who friggin’ grows random shit like that in the middle of a subdivision? Right??
My mom loves to the tell the story of 3-year-old Amy toddling out to the garden, picking a huge green pepper, sitting down right there in the dirt and eating the whole thing. I don’t remember that, but I do remember using tomato cages as an obstacle course, and painstakingly (no pun intended) trimming blackberry briars to create a hideout for me and my friends.
I also remember following a safe distance behind my dad as he pushed an old red tiller through the soil to prepare the ground for planting. There is nothing in the world quite like tromping barefoot through warm, soft, freshly tilled earth. That right there is a little slice of heaven.
My parents would rotate some of their crops year to year, so whatever we didn’t grow we would buy by the bushel from farms just outside the city. Mom made homemade strawberry preserves and raspberry jelly, pear honey and sweet pickles.
She also canned and froze all the vegetables she could, and I was usually happy to help. We shelled, shucked, peeled and snapped until our fingers were sore. Only now do I realize how lucky I was to taste sweet summer corn in the winter. And I was living on my own before I ever ate store-bought green beans or tomato sauce.
Yep, I was eating organic long before organic was cool.
My mom still sets out a few tomato plants. My dad is a little more ambitious and plants a few rows of corn, his famous cucumbers, okra, lettuce and peas. He’s also forgone blackberries for blueberries. When I go visit him at his house in Southern Indiana in spring or summer, he always takes me out back to check out his garden. It’s practically mandatory.
Unfortunately, the yard at my own house is the size of an elongated postage stamp (the only disadvantage to living in the Highlands that I can see), so I don’t have the space to do much more than cultivate a couple tomato plants and a few herbs along my fence line. I have made it a point over the years to take my son up to Huber’s Orchard & Winery to pick strawberries, apples, pumpkins and corn so he can experience some of what I did as a kid, but I know it’s not the same as walking out your back door to harvest dinner.
My dad may have to have shoulder surgery in the next couple of months, which will mean he can’t take care of a garden this year. That makes me sad, for a couple of reasons. I’ve offered to help, but I don’t think he is taking me seriously. Maybe it’s not realistic of me to offer, with him living across the river and me busy as hell with work and life in general. Keeping up with a garden of any substance is a big job — till, plant, weed, prune, harvest. Not to mention the war on bugs, parasites and furry and feathered predators.
I hope this will just be a break in my family’s gardening action, and not the end of an era. I don’t know what I’ll do if and when that happens. In any case, I am so, so thankful that the crops of my childhood will always thrive in my memory.
Hell, who knows? Maybe it will inspire me to get ambitious, buy a tiller, plow up my entire little yard and turn it into the next generation of an urban garden.
Grass is overrated anyway.
About Amy Higgs
A former newspaper columnist, Amy takes her random, slice-of-life stories to the web. After nine years, she's still just saying.