Memories in the Garden
I’m a child of the eighties. I spent my formative years watching MTV, playing Nintendo, and eating TV dinners with the Golden Girls, Moonlighting, and Airwolf.
I also have vivid memories of outdoor activities: delivering newspapers on my Huffy, listening to Bon Jovi on my Walkman, and taking exhausting climbs. You’d think I’d be in better shape.
I recall skipping smooth, flat rocks across the creek nearby while encountering my first snake (I screamed like Newt in Aliens and ran away) and travelling to vacation spots once a year with the family—from the mountains of central Pennsylvania to the beaches of New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland.
I still have a few pebbles tumbled smooth by ocean waves, looking like they came straight from Romancing the Stone. My partner will confirm that I never throw anything away.
But perhaps my fondest memories are in the garden.
It’s strange how certain scents, tastes, and other sensory markers can put you in total recall mode. For me, the sense of smell is sometimes overwhelming. I love the smell of rain coming, freshly cut grass, and peonies. Marigolds do it, too.
My mother had gardens all around the house, filling every nook and cranny. The south side was dedicated space for vegetables and fruits. A raised bed, 4-feet wide, extended the length of the house. Here, I found a menagerie of plants. Lilies, iris, clematis, and mums were interspersed with peppers, cucumbers, zucchini, and tomatoes.
We often tried new things to see how they would do—broccoli (which my mom hates more than mayonnaise), watermelon, and cantaloupe. We even tried corn one year, a single row under my bedroom window. When the tassels reached the window glass and I could see them over my family of teddy bears and Transformers lined up like soldiers under the sill, I imagined we lived on a farm.
I don’t know if it was from Heloise’s Hints or the local paper, but we read that marigolds deter garden pests, so we planted some among the vegetables. They transferred their distinct aroma to our hands as we gently planted each one and tamped the soil around them. Now, I plant marigolds in my flower boxes to remind me of such pleasures.
Taste does it, too. I attended a private tour of Chanticleer Garden near Philadelphia, with my partner as my “plus one.” At the end of the tour, we walked through their testing gardens near the greenhouses. They had recently harvested asparagus, and a few spears had been overlooked. The tour guide said to help ourselves and my partner turned to me and asked, “You can eat them right out of the ground?”
That wasn’t the best line of the day. After he bit into one spear, he said, quite astonished, “That’s what asparagus tastes like?”
The first time you eat straight from the garden can be a transformative moment. I remember when I worked for a market with fresh daily deliveries from Lancaster County. I used to go to the refrigerator truck to get fresh stock and I would inevitably sneak an ear of corn from the giant wooden bins. They’d been picked the day before and I’d rip that husk off and devour the entire cob in minutes. “Tastes like candy,” my boss would say as he sold it by the dozens. It sure did, even in its raw glory.
The point I’m trying to make from these memories in the garden is that even—maybe especially—in our busy, tumultuous, 21st century lives, with a phone in every human hand, a traffic accident daily on our heavily travelled roads, and news bombarding us 24/7 giving us “greesha” (mom’s Serbian slur for heartburn—roll your “R” when you say it), we should turn back to our gardens.
Get your kids, nieces and nephews, grandkids, and great-grandkids involved, even for a couple hours a week. Show them how to grow things; that seeds as tiny as pinheads can become flowers for mom’s kitchen window. Show them that cutting the grass is not a chore, but maintains a wondrous landscape any father would be proud of (“Now get off my lawn!”).
Explain that eating vegetables and fruits planted months ago tastes better than anything from the store. Peppers for $3 per pound? No, thank you. Do you know how many peppers, cucumbers, and squash grow on one plant? We could have our own Farm Aid concert right here in Rehoboth!
I don’t know if I can work any more 1980s references into this column. I’ve been trying to figure out how to weave Tron into the mix, but it’s not working.
Maybe, after harvesting a bunch of produce from your own backyard, you can invite your friends to a dinner-and-a-movie party in the garden. Watch Tron, or Pretty in Pink, or Clue, and make your own memories in the garden.
Gertrude Jekyll, a horticulturalist and landscape artist from the late 1800s, said it best: “The love of gardening is a seed that once sown never dies.” ▼
Eric W. Wahl, RLA is a landscape architect at Element Design Group and president of the Delaware Native Plant Society.