My wife and I are octogenarians – the last of a generation of children of immigrants who came to America from Italy in the early 1900s.
They taught us so much, but one universal practice, no matter what part of Italy you were from, was growing a vegetable garden. In their day, the garden was a necessity. The backyard was full of vegetables, not marigolds. I can still see the women with their shovels picking up the deposits left by the Hall’s Bakery horses as they clopped down Harriet Street on Buffalo’s East Side. It was often a contest for who got there first for this valuable fertilizer. All vegetable waste went into the garden, not the garbage cans.
As married adults and new homeowners in the 1950s, it was not a question of whether we wanted a garden, but of how big it should be. Our original garden took up half of the backyard and our objective was to grow as much as we could to can and freeze. At that time we had 36 tomato plants, beans, peppers, some corn, swiss chard, parsley and a number of herbs. The garden was dug by hand with a pitchfork and watered daily. God, we were strong!
At present (about 55 years later) our garden is about one quarter of the original size and annually growing smaller as we speculate on how much we can do and how much we should plant in half barrels. Six tomato plants, six pepper plants, swiss chard, arugula, Italian lettuce, garlic, basil, parsley, rhubarb. And fig trees, which I never knew about until a few years ago. We put the trees in the garage in winter, and in the late summer and fall we get enough to eat and sometimes freeze.
The one constant in all of this is the pleasure of planting, nurturing and watching the growth of all this wonderful organic food. I still count as one of life’s great pleasures picking that first red ripe tomato off the vine and eating it, still warm, with the juice running down my chin. It is special, delicious and a preview of what we could expect on our dinner table for the rest of the summer and fall. All of the growth is fresh and tender, and knowing we grow it ourselves makes it extra delicious.
Is a garden today less expensive than the food from the supermarket? Absolutely not. Especially if you include the time spent watering, weeding and nurturing. But the trade-off is well worth it.
Every morning, first thing, I go out the back door and do a tour of our garden, fig trees and flowers. It’s a special way to start the day. My wife looks out the back window and sometimes we greet each other good morning this way. Deer, rabbits and squirrels present the usual problems. But that’s OK, it’s something to complain about.
Growing and tending our garden has benefited us emotionally, aesthetically and physically. It has a calming effect on us. On summer evenings, we sit in the yard and enjoy the colors and the abundance. Like all of us “octos,” my wife has many aches and pains. After two hours, she returns to the house, tired but smiling and content. She is the real gardener.
We have passed on to one son the love of gardening. The other lives in Brooklyn with no yard.
When we or our son have visitors, the first thing we show them is our garden. It’s a requirement. Some express interest and some do not. That’s OK because even if no one saw our garden, it would still bring us the gift of joy and pride and beauty that was given to us by our forebears.