I remember exactly when I first was bitten by the gardening bug. I was in eighth grade and my older brother was attempting to sprout pea seeds for a biology assignment. Something to do with some guy named Mendel. My brother had no enthusiasm for the project (and no green thumb, either, it would turn out), but my curiosity was piqued. So I cut a milk carton in half, punched some holes in the bottom, filled it with potting mix and planted popcorn I found in the pantry. I can't overstate the thrill I experienced when several days later I saw little tiny green spears breaking through the soil.
Soon my bedroom windowsills were lined with tiny tomato and bean and eggplant seedlings, and when spring came I begged my dad to let me dig up a square of the backyard to plant them in. He raised his eyebrow skeptically, assuming this would be another of my impetuous schemes I would soon lose interest in. But he relented, and I would prove him wrong. I planted that little plot through four years of high school and another four of college. When I left for my first job after graduation, I took my spading fork with me.
It was at that first job where I met Jenny who would become my wife. Life took us away from our home state of Michigan to the sunny beaches of South Florida. With the confidence of the young, I dug up a plot behind our little house on Churchill Road and, just like in the temperate north, planted my lettuce and cucumbers and peas in May. Within weeks they were all seared to a crisp. In the sub-tropics, I would learn, gardeners plant in November to take advantage of the gentle winter temperatures.
It was while trying to figure out gardening in Florida that my mother-in-law, Dorothy Vogt, gave me a subscription to Organic Gardening magazine. At the time, I had no idea how profoundly that simple gift would change our lives. Who could have guessed that eight years later, we would be loading our possessions into a van and moving with three young children to Emmaus, Pennsylvania so I could take the helm of that very same Organic Gardening magazine. Life can be strange and wonderful indeed.
My colleagues thought I was crazy to leave vibrant Florida and a good job as a newspaper columnist for the hinterlands. But Jenny and I wanted to raise our kids with four seasons and hills and streams and open land. And I wanted more dirt to dig in. It didn't take me long to grow restless as editor of a special-interest magazine, and three years later I returned to my first love, daily journalism, as a columnist at The Philadelphia Inquirer. But I never stopped gardening.
In The Longest Trip Home, I write about helping my elderly father plant a flower garden where a mighty maple tree had once stood. My mother by this time was physically in decline and her memory slipping, and my father had just received a diagnosis of leukemia, and yet the garden was his vote of confidence in the future. I wrote: "The garden would rise and flower and stand as a modest testament to nature's exquisite exuberance and sweeping rhythms, and to its unsentimental resilience."
Yes, for me the garden is more than a place to coax food and flowers from the earth. It's a spiritual place, one that reminds us of life's continuity. As I put it in my book, "Seasons change, trees fall, seeds sprout. From death and decay spring new wonders. Life moves irrevocably forward."
Like all gardeners, I can't resist showing off the bounty of my harvest. As the photos below can attest, we eat pretty dang well in the summertime.