The Garden of my Youth

My favorite harbinger of spring, the Park Ridge Farmer’s Market, opened a couple weeks ago.

Because it’s so early in the season, the majority of the vendors were selling seedlings, potted plants and garden starter kits. I wistfully remembered the vegetable and herb garden I had planted in my parents’ backyard some 20 years ago.  I originally planted basil to feed my pesto addiction, and then beefsteak tomatoes because I simply could not stand the perfect-looking but flavorless imposters found in the supermarkets. That successful five-foot by five-foot plot  in the first year led to a five by ten plot the second year, adding plum and cherry tomatoes as well as parsley to the basil and beefsteaks. Somehow by the third year, my little garden grew to 5 by 20 with all the usual suspects, plus cucumbers, bell peppers, zucchini and strawberries.

I learned a lot during those years. Rabbits love strawberries. Clay is very difficult to rototill. A single zucchini can quadruple in size overnight while its plant grows to invade the next block. That porous black fabric really does prevent weeds. Cucumbers have nasty barbs on them that will draw blood. Cilantro and bell peppers will NOT grow for me, no matter how much loving care I provide. Making sauce with real homegrown tomatoes is a labor of love, with a strong emphasis on labor. Pesto will freeze very well provided all you use is basil, garlic and olive oil, adding the pinenuts and cheese right before serving.

With my father’s help watering, weeding and rototilling, I had quite the little victory garden. When my mother asked why I didn’t grow flowers, I told her that if I am going to do all of this work in the dirt, I wanted to be able to eat the rewards. While flowers are pretty, they’re not as tasty as a homegrown tomato topped with fresh pesto sauce.

In autumn, 1994, I bought a condo. Two of the selling points were the extra-large kitchen and large west-facing balcony. The following spring, I decided to do some container gardening on my 25 by 8 foot balcony. A few herbs and some grape and plum tomatoes were the extent of my motivation. But, due to my corporate job, I traveled too much to really tend to those pots properly. Eventually I gave up, leaving a tangle of dried out stems and leaves. The gardener in me died in 1995. The corporate job ended in 2000.

Since then, I have the time to plant and raise herbs and vegetables, but those pots sit unused in the corner of my balcony, filled with 12-year-old potting soil and the remains of the roots of my last container garden. Each Saturday morning, I stare wistfully at the tomato seedlings at the market and think, “maybe next year.”

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