Thursday, August 3, 2017

And When They are Old They will not Depart from It

I began gardening as a young child, hoeing weeds in my parents' garden, picking peas in my maternal grandmother's garden, and working in the flower beds of my paternal grandmother's garden. As a child, I wandered the fence rows of the eight acres we lived on in Old River, Texas, picking blackberries and nibbling on the seeds of peppergrass. Those eight acres were once a part of a much larger portion of land owned by some of my ancestors, the remaining of which my grandparents and an uncle owned, across the gravel-topped road of Woodland Lane from our house on a hill.

When I was a teenager, one of my first cousins became interested in gathering wild food; I think Karen had read a book by Euell Gibbons, the natural foods guy whom I remember from his claim that many parts of a pine tree are edible. Several of us tested that claim by brewing up some pine needle tea. It tasted terrible, even with added sugar. Then we crawled under a barbed wire fence to gather purslane (Portulaca oleracea) in a pasture next to my cousin's house. Karen had directions on how to cook this prolific plant native to India and Persia; though it's grown as food elsewhere, it's primarily considered a weed in the U.S., except for its cousin, the moss rose (Portulaca grandiflora), which is grown for its colorful flowers.

We boiled the purslane in a pot on my aunt's stove and added butter and salt. I remember having a chance to taste it--a flavor I compared to boiled okra--before my uncle "cottoned on" to what we were doing. He grabbed the pot and flung its contents out into the backyard. "You're going to poison yourselves!" he yelled, thus cutting short our culinary adventure. He was afraid that we hadn't identified the plant accurately.

I haven't eaten purslane since though I have often pulled it up as a weed.

However, those early gardening and foraging experiences have remained with me as I have long been an avid gardener. As college students in the early 1980s, Tom and I gardened in a small plot on land owned by Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. The university would hire someone to disk up the land and then divide the land into plots. Those of us who lived in married student housing were then invited to choose a plot on which to raise vegetables. We did this for two or three years and grew such a good garden that students toiling in neighboring plots were envious of our success. They were convinced that we had somehow managed to procure a naturally better plot than they--though our trucking in chicken manure from the Poultry Science department and my getting on my hands and knees to pull weeds were the true causes of our success.

So one year, someone rushed to choose the plot we had had the previous year, and, coming in later to the choosing process, we ended up with a corner plot that hadn't been improved. Not daunted, we improved that plot as well, and somewhere I have a faded photo of my twenty-something self standing among flourishing green corn stalks.

Tom and I have gardened together ever since those early days of our marriage as poor college students, from Texas to Louisiana, to Minnesota, to Georgia, and back again in those three states before our latest gardening experiences here below the White Mountains in eastern Arizona. Over the years we've tried new plants, such as mesclun mixes and arugula, some of my now-favorites for green salads, which I first began growing in central Texas. In the late 1990s in Georgia, we began experimenting with heirloom tomatoes, such as Green ZebraYellow Pear, and Cherokee Purple. I would slice up a colorful collection of heirloom tomatoes, season the slices with a little salt and arrange them on a white platter--a dish I called "tomato snacks" to encourage my young children to eat their vegetables. The colorful palette worked.

For almost 40 years, Tom and I have planned our spring gardens together, reviewing the stock of seed we have saved from previous years, poring over seed catalogs, drawing up ideas for new garden arrangements. I imagine that as long as we have a plot of land somewhere, we'll be gardening until we are unable to hold a hoe in our hands or press seeds into soil. 

our Arizona garden, early August 2017
the kitchen garden in mid-July
This is the first time I have grown hollyhocks successfully--and these came up volunteer.

This is one of several different pepper plants--getting big!
from Fall/Winter 2008, Atlanta Review

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