GARDENING TO CONNECT by Rowan and Oak

Rowan and Oak

I garden to connect. To connect to the earth and the seasons and the plants. To connect to the process of nourishing bodies directly from dirt to table. But also to connect to the people around me. When I was growing up, my grandparents gardened and their neighbor was a master gardener. I remember my Grandma chatting with him when he brought over extra zucchini and kohlrabi to share with us. I spent many happy hours in my Grandma’s kitchen watching and helping her prepare berries and fruit and then sitting around their long table talking and eating and laughing with my family.

Later, when I met my husband, he and a friend had a huge garden (or small farm really) and they’d sell produce at the local farmer’s market as well as at restaurants around town. I’d go over and hang out, pulling weeds or helping them harvest. We’d have a big tomato canning party at the end of the year. Friends would come over to help chop tomatoes, eat snacks and, most importantly, share their company.

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My husband had also created a beautiful garden carved out of a north-facing hillside where the soil was about 70% rocks. He’d hand dug all the rocks out and used them to create beautiful raised rock garden beds. We’d sit out there drinking coffee (him) and tea (me) and talking and he’d poke around, checking out the plants and lovingly hand watering them. Somewhere in the midst of all that gardening I fell deeply in love with him.

 

Now with kids we continue to connect to through gardening. To each other and also to our kids. Helping them plant, dig, water and, of course, harvest. Much of this is learning patience on our end. And perspective. Reminding ourselves that little feet running through the beds and trampling plants or little hands picking most of a crop before it is ripe are passing irritations, fleeting like young childhood. Reminding ourselves that all too soon they’ll grow before our eyes and we’ll laugh and remember the ‘escapades’ as more funny than frustrating.

 

And connecting to friends. Many people we met as new parents either gardened or have begun to learn to garden. One such couple started a garden in their side lot a few years ago and offered us space to plant there in return for a little garden know-how and the shared experience of community. We primarily plant tomatoes, squash and melons over there. The deer-proof garden space at our house is north-facing and shaded and doesn’t get enough sun to adequately grow these crops. The kids play with each other while we chat and work and harvest.

 

Gardening invites connection through sharing with others. Sharing the extra produce sure, but also seeds and extra starts and cuttings, bits of advice or tales of past disasters and triumphs. Sharing meals outside, admiring the flowers and the ‘oh so fresh’ food pulled straight from the ground. It’s a rare gardener who doesn’t want to share their experience of gardening. A rare gardener who doesn’t try and bring others into the fold. So indulge me while I share our garden with you, at least in photos. Because I’d like nothing better than to swap stories and tips with you, share some fresh made pesto and send you home with a baby herb cutting or some strawberry runners. But…photos are good too.

We live in Napa, a Mediterranean climate, which means we can easily garden year round, everything from stone fruit to citrus. It’s hard not to garden in such a growing climate. But only in the summer is it hot enough to grow tomatoes outside of a green house. I adore tomatoes. The sweet-tart cherries, popped directly into the mouth or tossed into just about everything. The thick, meaty canning varieties slow roasted with olive oil and herbs and pureed into a sauce. And the heirloom beefsteaks. Ah the beefsteaks! Knobby, striped, cracking apart at the stem with their deep, rich flavors. I could eat sliced beefsteaks with buffalo mozzarella constantly for months and not grow tired.

 

My immediate family does not share my adoration of raw tomatoes. Crazy, right? So this year we only planted a few Brandywines for me. The rest are canning tomatoes. Lucky for me, our friends planted about a dozen different heirlooms so I’ll get to indulge my obsession. My canning tomatoes are already ripe (unlike the beefsteaks) so in return, our friends have been sharing those with us.

 

The garden also has a huge patch of corn and sunflowers planted by our friends. My daughter’s favorite vegetable, besides fresh peas, is corn on the cob so she’s in bliss. And I’ve been taking every chance to photograph the sunflowers with their gorgeous colors.

In our home garden, the panache figs are growing nicely. We should get quite a few this year. This fig tree was once a tiny cutting given to my husband years ago by his first gardening instructor. It resides in a wine barrel and has grown to be a rather large tree over the years. The kids (and the ants) keep a sharp lookout for any ripe figs so I’ll have to be extra vigilant if I want to get some for myself…

Kids and gardens. It can be enough to make my heart melt watching them play amongst all the plants. My daughter’s pride in the plants she grew herself. My son’s self-assigned watering duties he takes so very seriously. I love having them tag along to help me pull our garlic crop from the dirt. Or harvest herbs to dry.

 

It can also be enough to make me want to pull out my hair or just sit down and throw up my hands and laugh. Like when they’ve learned to climb up into the pear tree and pick most of the tiny, green baby pears. At least a few escaped that fate. I’m guarding them and admiring their stunning beauty as they slowly ripen. This tree was here when we moved in but rather neglected. Composting, fertilizing and regular watering have encouraged it to produce large crops of incredibly good pears. I was never really a fan of pears before but this tree has totally changed my mind.

And of course, living in Napa, we have grapes. We grow several varieties of table grapes (nope, no wine grapes). Grapes love it here. They swarm along the fence and reach up into the tree tops. Only vigorous pruning keeps them from overtaking the surrounding areas. If you do any hiking around Napa, you’ll notice abundant California wild grape vines in amongst the trees almost everywhere.

 

The only catch to picking an abundant harvest come late summer is making sure the birds don’t devour all of them first. Ok, and the kids. I expect they’ll give the birds some stiff competition. I see a few bunches up out of little hands reach so there is hope that I might, just might, get a few to enjoy myself. But, after all, gardening is just as much about sharing as it is about receiving.

 

I hope you too are finding some time this summer to connect through gardening, perhaps with little hands eagerly working and playing alongside you. It’s been a pleasure showing you around.

About Amber: Amber Nelsen is an herbalist and mother to two who enjoys teaching others how to grow, identify, and wild-harvest plants for food and medicine. Amber and her family maintain a large permaculture garden full of herbs, fruit, vegetables, and medicinal mushrooms.