Monday, January 10, 2011

Making it Home: How Does Your Garden Grow?

It runs counter to my Midwestern intuitions to reflect on gardening during the “dead” of winter, but I live in Texas now, and last week's enormous harvest of collard greens reminded me that I have been planning a post on gardens for several months.  
In 2010, I learned that home is a place we plant gardens. Although the daughter of a man who revels in dirt and seed and harvest,  I had done little more than tend houseplants (and poorly, at that) until last year.  My church began a Community Garden in February, and later in the spring, some friends and I began our own plot in a spare corner of our apartment complex’s property. 
These earth-experiments attracted me for several reasons: I thought participating in a garden would support my efforts to eat only in-season produce; I needed a  reason to spend more time outside; and I looked forward to working with others on a shared project.  A less conscious but more powerful reason, however, is that I cannot remember a time when my childhood home did not have a flourishing garden in the summer. Ironically, for most of my childhood I disliked tomatoes, squash, and many other good things that grew in the garden, but my pickiness did not undermine my association of “home” with a place where things grew and were eaten, where summer nights were spent seeking ripe tomatoes, and where my father would often walk a wheelbarrow full of vegetables to our church so friends could take as much as they pleased.
Those Indiana gardens manifested some of the best things about my father--his love of growing things (both botanical and human), his delight in nature, his generosity--and as I reflect on my novice dirt-dabbling, I find that many of my experiences finding a home in Waco have parallels in the garden. 
With my father in the garden, circa 1987
Both gardens have reminded me how thankful I am that my home is also the home of others--definitely-kindred, remarkably-unlike-me others.  The day we broke ground for the community garden, I enjoyed a perfect balance of solitude and community, sometimes concentrating all my energy on clots of wet soil I was breaking up, and at other times discussing everything from theology to television with the person working next to me. The apartment garden was a joint project between me and two couples--Jon and Steph, Taylor and Rachel.  Working with Jon and Taylor on the garden was a study in personality differences--had I been making the garden on my own, I would have planned for months, fretted over asking permission to use our complex’s property, and probably never would have planted anything at all. Taylor and Jon, however, wasted no time, and they were tilling the soil long before I had finished debating whether it would be better to call or write our apartment manager for permission.  We planted our first rows on an unusually cool day in May, and as I made mounds for squash and Jon prepared rows for corn, with Taylor hacking away at the tall grasses that obstructed an inlet of the river, I was both proud and thankful to have such friends. 
The gardens have also reminded me that being really at home in a place involves constant care--housekeeping, if I may use the word broadly. Until we realized there was a hose and spigot within reach of the garden, we watered our plants with buckets of water drawn from the Brazos river.  The river is about thirty or forty yards from our plot, and it usually took me three buckets-full to water everything. I would lean out from a concrete pier, toss my bright pink bucket four to six feet down into the water, and then haul it up with a rope. It seemed to be an absurd amount of work for a few rows of parched vegetables, but as I labored with those heavy, sloshing buckets, I realized that I was experiencing something very ordinary for most women throughout history--the difficult and even dangerous work of collecting the water needed to sustain a home and family. My great-grandmother, a teenage bride on the Mississippi delta, had to walk for miles to gather water from a reliable well, and all over the world today, many girls and women spend hours of their days carrying water.  Although even I am not Luddite enough to prefer buckets to hoses, I appreciate learning from my sore muscles and unsteady bones that home, like any other garden, must be tended consistently and carefully. Furthermore, in order to tend it, one must often defy distance, impatience, and even gravity.
These gardens have also taught me that the harvest is not always what we expect, any more than the homes we build as adults will resemble the pictures we carried or created from childhood. For most of the summer and fall, our apartment garden disappointed dreams of lavish salads and salsas: we gathered pitiful tomatoes, scanty bell peppers, and a pittance of purple-hull peas. The only thing we had in abundance was okra, the titan of our little world, overshadowing everything else. Far more satisfying was the harvest of neighbors our project brought.  We live in a quiet apartment complex, and, as in many such places, the residents do not go out of their way to meet one another. However, the garden provided a wonderful way to meet our neighbors. Sheila, a grandmother who lives on the first floor, joined with us and contributed several squash plants. Several times while weeding, I was hailed by Sophilia, a law student reading on her balcony.  She had noticed the plot and knew Taylor and Rachel, and when I explained what we were doing, she exclaimed, “Oh my gosh! You guys are such hippies!” For the rest of the fall, I would look forward to talking with Sophilia and her roommate on my way to the garden. Daniel, who was using the hose to wash his kayak when we first met, now brings the hose down to me when I am among the peppers and greens, making suggestions for our spring planting. Les and Katie, who have four children and coach youth baseball, ask how the peas are doing when we meet at the mailbox. From these small but precious encounters, I am reminded that people are more at home with one another when they have some common thing--whether a tiny garden or a book or an ideal--to consider, to protect, or to love. 
And now I am enjoying a winter harvest--something I never experienced from my father’s northern garden. In spite of the dislocation and uncertainty that have shadowed my efforts to build a home in Texas and in my twenties, suddenly I am faced with a marvel: in a season I once thought dead, food flourishes in the dirt.  I never thought collard greens could be so profound.
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. (Jeremiah 29.4-5 ESV)
Do you keep a garden? What do you grow? 

P.S. In honor of these gardens (and of National Soup Month), I am sharing the recipe I invented to use the greens I now have in abundance.  This was a use-what-I-have-on-hand experiment, so feel free to adjust according to your pantries. If you don’t have wheat berries, you might try using barley or pinto beans. 
Collard and Potato Soup
1 T olive oil
5 cloves minced garlic
6 cups vegetable stock 
5 small potatoes, peeled and sliced
1 cup wheat berries 
6-8 large collard and/or chard leaves, coarsely chopped (about 2-3 cups)
1/2 - 1 T Worcestershire sauce (adjust to taste)
1/8 t cayenne pepper
1-2 t sea salt or kosher  
fresh ground pepper

Heat the olive oil in a large (4-5 qt) saucepan or dutch oven. Add garlic and saute until golden. Add broth and bring to a boil.  Add potatoes and wheat berries. Reduce heat and simmer until wheat berries are tender (about 45 minutes). Add Worcestershire, cayenne, and salt. Adjust seasonings to taste. Add greens, cook until wilted (about 10 minutes). Garnish with pepper. 


  1. Bethany,

    I am so glad your Dad posted part of this on his FB page -- it caught my attention immediately, which brought me here. Thereafter I eagerly read through your entire blog, identifying with every word -- not only in this particular entry, but in the very title as well. As a young woman in her early 30's, I have contemplated this idea of "home" for many years. Traveling the world -- rooting, then up-rooting, then rooting myself again -- has not only revealed the various aspects of a "home" and what it means, but also proved to me that I will never have just one "home". As I continue to seek Him throughout this most recent transition of my life, I pray you will find your solace and answers as well. You write beautifully, and I look forward to reading many more of your thoughts on here... Blessings!

  2. Thanks, Amy! I hope you will stop in and contribute your thoughts often.

  3. I loved meeting your dad outside in the garden. I always came away with veggies or a goofy joke.

  4. Midwinter spring IS its own season, as T. S. Eliot says.

    I also grew up with a large garden, though it was mainly my dad's project, and I did more weeding some years than eating from the produce. I had to re-learn how to garden when I went from dabbling in the garden in Illinois to actually trying to grow my own vegetables in Texas. The lessons we learned there about improving the soil, using succession planting, and paying attention to local weather patterns have served us well now that we are in Alabama. We have grown vegetables like tomatoes, romaine, spinach, bell peppers, and lots of green beans and snap peas, as well as herbs like parsley, cilantro, oregano, and basil. (Obviously we're also growing a few children now.) Each year's garden is a little different, as we regularly reevaluate how to most effectively use our very small garden space. Another of our challenges is re-adjusting our meal patterns based on what we're currently harvesting in the garden. Thanks for the recipe!

  5. Bethany,

    What a wonderful post! I've been enjoying watching your blog grow and develop and treasuring (selfishly) the moments where i feel I can connect with my friend even though so much distance now separates us! I'm excited to include this post as one of our Transpositions Tidbits links this weekend and hope lots of people find your wonderful writing as a result.

    I too grew up with gardens (that's probably why i chose to write about preserves this week) and I can associate with what you've written here. So glad you are continuing to enjoy the experience as well as the fruits. It's something that makes me a little sad in Scotland that I don't have a large garden, but i may at least try to plant some greens and some strawberries when i get back there!