Gardening is in My Blood.

To my father, food was love. Dad was a “Great Depression” baby and spent his childhood during a time when food and resources were scarce. When he was a child, there was no school lunch program. The SNAP program didn’t exist. Families grew much of their own food in their yards and, as World War II approached, lived on ration coupons. Owning urban chickens may seem like a trendy thing to do in 2014, but during my father’s childhood, it was a necessity.

Dad’s mother, Louise, was a single, working mother during a time when being a single mother or working mother was not nearly as common as it is today. “Grandma Weezee”, as we called her, was a passionate gardener and a fabulous cook. Her pies are legendary in the family lore and vivid in my memory. One bite of strawberry-rhubarb pie with vanilla ice cream and I am six years old again, sitting on the top platform of a step-stool, eating with my family at her Sunday dinner table.

Dad inherited his mom’s gene for gardening. Dad worked in an office, but the garden was in his blood. For almost four decades, he had a 12’ x 12’ plot in the neighborhood community garden at the bottom of the hill. While the other dads in my neighborhood were playing tennis and golf or having a cocktail with their buddies after work, my dad was in the garden. The community garden had its own social network, but the real reason my dad was there was to feel the dirt in his hands, work the soil and watch nature take over after everything was planted.

From late spring until the hard frost of fall, dad would be getting his hands dirty after work and most of our meals contained what he grew. The idea of not eating your vegetables was insane! “Dad grew that.” was a sentence I heard over and over. From the fresh peas of early spring, to the lettuces of early summer, the tomatoes of August and winter squash of autumn and everything in between, we feasted.

Looking back, it is amazing to me the sheer amount and variety of vegetables my dad grew on 144 square feet of Earth. We shared our bounty with our neighbors and friends, often overwhelming them with produce. To this day, my mom can make zucchini in about 426 different ways, including five variations on zucchini bread alone!

But I never liked being in the garden. There were bugs. It was dirty and smelled of compost and soil. I HATED weeding, so I avoided working in the garden for much of my childhood. When I graduate college and moved to the desert southwest, I bought my vegetables and fruits in the grocery store like civilized people do. My love for produce (and pie!) is deeply ingrained, but store-bought vegetables and fruit just don’t taste the same. Produce from the farmer’s market is an upgrade and those from a CSA (community supported agriculture) are better still, but they are still not the same. There is something ethereal about eating lettuce (or anything else) that was in the ground, breathing, just minutes before it hit my plate.

The autumn after Dad died, I was hit with the urge to put in a vegetable garden. Truthfully, what I felt was more than an urge, it was a compulsion. It was a herculean task to remove a 50 year-old prickly pear cactus that occupied the perfect corner of our yard for growing vegetables, so I enlisted my husband and his brothers to make it happen. Desert soil is nothing like mid-western soil so we had to amend and amend the sandy clay to give the seeds a fighting chance. It didn’t matter: I was driven like never before.

My first vegetable garden was a success in more ways than one. I was able to feed my husband, son and neighbors the fruits (and vegetables) of my labors but, more importantly, I felt closer to my dad and his mother than I ever had in the past. I discovered that I, too, have the gene for gardening. It was long dormant but I share it.

This year marks my fifth year vegetable gardening which means that it’s been five years since we lost Dad. My 2014 garden is shaping-up nicely. This year, I planted Tuscan kale, heirloom rainbow beets, red carrots, mixed lettuces, scallions, tomatoes, and a variety of herbs. Dad never grew Tuscan kale, but I know he’d love it in the minestrone I’ll make when my husband has declared that he is tired of eating kale salad and kale chips.

Working in the garden helps me remember my dad in his best, most vital time, not in his final years when dementia overtook him. Now, if I could just make a pie like Grandma Weezee’s…

tillerman tomato jungle

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