The faded newspaper clipping shows a small girl with a wide smile, holding a gigantic head of lettuce. The girl is me, in 1964. The lettuce was a prize-winning product of my first elementary school garden.
That ancient photo — emailed to me this spring by an old classmate and gardening partner — is the reason my hands are stiff from pulling weeds and my kitchen counter stacked with home-grown zucchini right now.
That photo sparked memories that rekindled an old passion. So I cleared out a spot in my yard this spring for a modest vegetable garden. This one is not headed for blue-ribbon success. My cucumbers are crooked, my okra seedlings are skimpy and one of my tomato plants is on life support.
But the process — from hauling home giant bags of dirt to pulling a loaf of fresh zucchini bread out of my oven — has reminded me why I love gardening so much:
The lessons it offers are as abundant as the produce it provides.
The food I grew in my school garden was foreign to my family: Swiss chard, eggplant, wax beans, kohlrabi, vegetables we'd never eaten or even knew how to pronounce.
But my mother figured out how to prepare whatever I brought home in my basket. That was no small task pre-Internet. She didn't own a cookbook, and no one she knew had ever heard of kohlrabi.
Her effort taught me that my effort mattered. I don't remember now what kohlrabi tastes like, but I do recall how good it felt to see my produce on our family's dinner table.
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Back then, gardening was more like boot camp than fun. There were rules for everything, from how to safely carry a sharp-edged hoe to how to properly thin a row of carrots. We had to lug our own heavy water buckets and spend hours on our knees in the sun.
But I enjoyed the camaraderie, and seven years of school gardens taught this unruly, impatient child about teamwork, steadiness and compliance. You can't slack off or your plants will die. You learn to treat nature as a partner.
When I got married, the first thing I did was plant a garden in my new backyard. Three years later, when we moved to Los Angeles, I cultivated tomatoes in pots on the balcony of our apartment. And when we bought our first house in Van Nuys, my garden was embarrassingly robust. You could see the tassels of my corn over the fence from the sidewalk, giving a "Beverly Hillbillies" feel to our suburban yard.
I kept at it when our three kids were small, luring them to help with strawberry seedlings and child-size trowels. But I gave up on gardening after my husband died. There was too much to do and never enough time.
And I didn't realize how much I missed it until I glimpsed in that wrinkled newspaper photo the glee in my eyes and pride in my smile.
My youngest child is a grown-up now; I'm sure that has something to do with my timing. I planted my garden on Mother's Day, just weeks before that third daughter graduated from college.
I suppose this is a way of moving forward by reconnecting with my past. I'm reclaiming a part of me that was buried for too long by backpacks, soccer shoes, carpool schedules and peanut butter sandwiches.
I want to tend something that responds predictably to my caretaking, something I can control and nurture in a world where my professional life seems to revolve around death and mayhem and scandal.
So I'm practicing now on a small scale what I hope I've done right as a mom: I've fortified the soil so my plants' roots will be sturdy and deep. I try to water and feed them just enough so they don't starve or drown. I pluck the weeds that might stunt their growth and don't leave fruit on the vines too long.
The lessons I learned as a kid in the garden seem even more meaningful now. A garden is, after all, a metaphor for life. It requires good planning, proper nourishment and mindful cultivation to thrive.
In the backyard, I'm forced to slow down as I study my tomato plants and carefully pinch off the tiny green suckers that sprout between branch and stem. Suckers, we were taught, drain the plant of energy it could use to make fruit-bearing flowers.
My garden is supposed to provide reassurance that if I do everything by the book, my crops will turn out fine. But it's also a reminder of my limitations. I have to accept that my best efforts may not be enough to protect my plants and or produce the perfect outcome.
I don't understand why one of my four tomato plants simply refuses to thrive. I can't stop whatever's nibbling holes in my okra seedlings or browning the leaves of my basil. And the little fence I put up to mark the garden's boundary hasn't kept my dogs from digging up the oregano or trampling my scallions.