A Gardener’s Roots

From Iowa to North Carolina to Missouri to New Orleans, gardening is a constant source of comfort and nourishment.

JANE SANDERS ILLUSTRATION

I remember it as though it were yesterday. My family had been through some very challenging times. I was standing in a dusty field surrounded by a ramshackle fence. A fiery orange and velvety mauve sunset silhouetted my shapely figure as I held in my clenched fist a handful of dirt. I looked to the heavens and cried, “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!”

OK, that wasn’t me. It was Scarlett O’Hara, but it’s the only scene in Gone With the Wind that ever resonated with me. You can keep your Scarlett in her green velvet curtain gown or your Scarlett with a leer on her face the morning after Rhett toted her up that marble staircase. It is the Scarlett who knows that her survival will only be found in Tara’s rich soil that brings a smile to my face.

I love the feel of silk and cool crisp cotton sheets, but more than those things, I love the feel of warm friable soil crumbling through my fingers. I know I should wear gloves when working in the garden, but there is something deeply rooted, pun intended, in my DNA that makes it almost impossible to do so.

I often joke that I am French-Iowan. It’s partly my small effort to make fun of those people who boast about their foreign ancestry. Now if your grandparents actually speak a different language, you’ve got a legitimate claim, but after generations of mixing and marrying, it seems to me we are all just Americans. But another reason I proclaim my Iowan roots is that I’m proud to be a descendant of a farming family.

My fondest childhood memories are of the summers I spent on that farm in Osceola, Iowa. I remember eating freshly picked tomatoes sprinkled with a little sugar. My grandmother would make me close my eyes, and she’d say, “Don’t it taste just like strawberries?” Chasing baby pigs, gathering warm eggs, fishing in the small spring-fed pond: Life was sweet. But best of all was riding with Grandpa Alvin on the old 8N Ford tractor. I’d nuzzle next to his faded blue overalls and be enveloped in the finest scent in the world – honest sweat and WD-40, a smell I unashamedly admit still can buckle my knees.

I think it is one of the reasons I fell in love with my ex-husband. He often wore that “cologne.” For a time we lived in North Carolina in a house we built ourselves. We also bought an old tractor, plowed the land and planted a quarter-acre garden. When I was pregnant with my daughter, I ate most of my meals from that garden.

I’d wake as the sun rose and go out to the garden to munch my breakfast. I’d walk the rows, shelling and devouring English peas, nibbling on dew-covered lettuce and dusting the dirt off a carrot and savoring its earthy sweetness.
 
I later bought a house in Missouri because of its landscape and splendid garden potential. Don’t get me wrong; it was a fine house with a solid foundation and a brand-new roof, but it was the yard that I coveted.

The previous owner had lovingly planted tulips; hyacinths; daffodils; jonquils; several varieties of irises; day lilies; hollyhocks that were taller than Yao Ming; peonies with blooms larger than cabbages; and lovely, lovely lilacs. I adore the fragrance of sweet olive blossoms, but it runs a distant second to the delicious scent of lilacs.

While I anxiously waited for the inspection and the loan to be approved, I would visit my soon-to-be yard and watch where the sun hit to strategize about the best place for my tomatoes. On a glorious spring day, I signed the papers, proudly clipped the keys onto my key chain and borrowed a tiller from a friend. It was spring, after all, and I needed to put in my garden.

There’s a reason Easter is in the spring. The story of Christ’s resurrection resonates with the glory and the wonder that is spring. In the North, it’s a thrill to see the jonquils’ buttery yellow break through the white snow. In New Orleans, it’s the shock of vibrant green breaking through the dead beige leaves that lets us know we’ve survived another season of cold.

It’s primal. Our gardens affirm our resiliency.  If we put viable seeds into rich soil and nurture their growth, we will be fed. We will survive.

So I shall now wander out to my seven-container garden in my tiny New Orleans backyard and gather dinner. Tonight I might steam broccoli and drizzle it with lemony butter. Or I could smother Swiss chard and collard greens or build a crisp lettuce salad dressed with herb-infused olive oil. 

Or … if I don’t feel like channeling Scarlett, because I live in New Orleans, I can have dinner at Antoine’s, order takeout from Lebanon’s Café or get Robért Fresh Market’s delectable chicken salad. Fiddle dee dee, it’s good to be me.
 

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