A recent Saturday morning found me padding about the kitchen, coffee cup in hand, when I spied two beady eyes, surrounded by a vibrating orb of iridescence, peering in at me through the French doors.
“Hank the Hummingbird is back,” I called to my husband. “He’s been checking out the petunias in the window box again.”
Hank (yes, I name all of our feathered and furry visitors) is also fond of the honeysuckle vines twining around the air conditioning unit on the south side of our suburban split level. Sometimes I see him perched, in a rare moment of stillness, in our locust tree. Other times, he zooms across the deck on his way to a neighbor’s flower patch. Along with the hawk moths and swallowtails, the blue jays and the woodpeckers, the raccoons that raid the compost, and even the skunks that — for reasons all their own — keep trying to excavate my Japanese maple tree, Hank is a welcome presence on my property.
Or more correctly, he makes me feel like a welcomed guest on his.
When it comes to hobbies, I’m not known for my stick-to-it-iveness. Stacks of forgotten quilt squares, dusty boxes jammed with scrapbooking supplies, even guitars and dulcimers now tucked beneath beds or hanging on walls, all testify to the fact that my avocational interests are as fickle as a politician’s stand.
And yet I’ve been a constant gardener for more than half a century.
Why, I wondered, has this one activity become a part of my identity, when so many other hobbies and interests have fallen away?
It’s not like my family needs the food. Sure, back in the day — in the 1970s, when I became really serious about playing in the dirt — the chances of finding a Brandywine tomato, fresh-dug spud, or dew-kissed berry in your friendly neighborhood Fazio’s was nil. Nada. Not happening.
I distinctly recall standing in a field of basil, circa 1977, and presciently wondering aloud to my husband if there wasn’t a chef somewhere in Northeast Ohio who would like to buy some of our bounty. “Why would a chef want to buy locally grown herbs?” he asked incredulously. “Dream on.”
But with today’s easy exchange between farmer and fork-wielder, it is a simple thing to score a couple pounds of heirloom toms when you need them; far easier, in fact, than going through the trouble of planting and pampering your own. Add up the cost of seeds, plants, gardening soil, mulch, and fertilizer, and buying at the farmers market is probably cheaper too.
But healthier? The link between gardening and wellness is well documented. There’s a healthful impetus toward sinking one’s hands in the soil. Whether it’s the sunshine, the exposure to soil microbes, the physical exertion, or some ineffable chemical compound that exists only in a freshly picked pepper, scientific studies have demonstrated repeatedly that gardening can measurably reduce stress levels, boost brain function, build self-esteem, and rev up the production of serotonin.
Psychology Today, for one, reported on a 2007 study by University of Colorado neuroscientist Christopher Lowry, then working at Bristol University in England. Lowry found that certain strains of soil-borne mycobacteria sharply stimulated the human immune system. The same bacteria also boosted serotonin levels in the brains of mice.
But there is a telling caveat to this story, and it’s one based on our contemporary culture’s obsession with “hygiene.” As author Daniel A. Marano points out in the article:
Accumulating evidence suggests that lack of exposure to … common dirt-borne pathogens early in life — resulting from deliberate attempts to sanitize our environments — might explain the sharp rise in chronic inflammatory, allergic, and immune disorders (such as asthma and inflammatory bowel disease) in the industrialized world.
The hygiene hypothesis suggests that there are real costs to displacement from the natural world. It disrupts a deep and direct connection we have to the soil and its resident organisms, a connection that our own immune and nervous systems have relied on for well-being all along.
Getting out in the garden plants us back in what now appears to be our optimal habitat. Eating fruits and vegetables — even antioxidant-rich tomatoes, melons, beets, cabbage, and berries — turns out to be only half of a newly evolving story of health. Our bodies and brains depend on the whole experience of growing our own. Our mental and physical health seem to be deeply rooted in the dirt.
Amen to that.
I grew up the daughter and granddaughter of Italian gardeners.
Much of my toddlerhood was spent on the back of a tractor, learning from my grandfather the names of all the trees and shrubs he grew in his nursery. In the winter, I visited him in his greenhouse, where he grew fig trees and lemons (and stashed cases of POC beneath his workbench). To this day, the aroma of a coal-burning fire evokes the warmest of recollections.
My father oversaw an enormous vegetable garden, bordered on one side by grape arbors, on another by a mountainous compost pile, and on a third by a towering row of garlic plants. Beans, corn, blueberries, zucchini, peppers, and tomatoes: I took them all for granted when they showed up on our dinner plates night after night, fresh when in season or frozen or canned the rest of the year.
Mostly I was assigned to weeding, a task that, as a girly girl with a horror of spiders, I both hated and feared. In retrospect, those hours spent crawling between the rows in the company of my taciturn dad were irreplaceable, both as a learning and a bonding experience.
Despite the predictable distractions of the 1960s and ’70s, I never gave up on gardening. I dug up the soil around a rented shanty in Akron and put in tomato plants and marigolds. In Kent, I foraged for herbs among the overgrowth surrounding our tiny apartment. And when my granddad’s former three-and-a-half-acre evergreen nursery became available, I jumped at the chance to buy it.
You can grow a lot of things on three-and-a-half acres, and we did. Asparagus and zucchini. Beans, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts. Cabbages and kohlrabi. Kale and chard. Parsnips, carrots, and potatoes. And did somebody say “peppers?” Oh yes: California Wonder, sweet banana, cayenne, and jalapeño. We had a grape arbor, a raspberry patch, and an old, weary apple orchard out of which I nonetheless managed to coax a few batches of applesauce each year. I cooked, canned, dehydrated, froze, fermented, and even packed a few things in sawdust and stashed them in a root cellar. I was the wonder of the neighborhood, the envy of our friends, and arguably the most accomplished cook in my family. Still, one of my proudest moments came when my bemused father, a son of the Depression who no doubt wondered why we children of plenty still strove so mightily to harvest our own food, looked at my bearded, hoe-wielding husband and declared, “I can’t believe you actually turned that boy into a farmer.”
Children change everything.
As our family grew, it became apparent that maintaining the country homestead wasn’t going to cut it. My husband wanted our kids to have sidewalks to skate and ride bikes. I wanted them to have neighborhood playmates. We both wanted to stop spending every spare minute laboring over our back-to-the-land lifestyle.
Even in suburbia, the gardening continued, albeit on a much smaller scale. As a covenant of our ongoing faith, we installed a bed of asparagus; the slender stalks require three years of growth before the first harvest. There was no room for corn, but plenty of room for beans. No raspberries, perhaps, but radishes proved a hit with the younger generation. As a result, these suburban children grew up planting, harvesting and eating what they had helped grow. At 2, our youngest developed a jones for homemade pesto; our oldest, a solemn and thoughtful child, would declare gravely before most dinners, “This is what a farmer eats.”
Over the years, our backyard garden — along with our energy and ambition — grew smaller. Pole beans still rappelled down bamboo teepees in the garden plot, but we pulled up our tomatoes relocated them to pots on the deck. Why break our backs growing carrots, my husband and I began to wonder, when we can buy them for a song at the farmers market? And with our nest empty, even our youngest pesto fiend out of the house, does it really make sense to grow all that basil?
The year the perennial asparagus bed finally ran out of steam — after a nearly 30-year run — we had to admit that our era of backyard gardening was over.
Which is not to say I no longer garden.
This year, I’ve reimagined my deck as a garden plot, with edibles replacing most of my usual ornamentals. Parsley and tarragon grow predictably well in one window box; an experimental zucchini stretches out in another, its expanding length lashed loosely to the deck railing for support. Potted rosemary sits on the coffee table in place of the usual petunias. A mix of leaf lettuces — enough to keep us in daily salads for months — wink from a whiskey barrel. And as the piece de resistance, this spring I splurged on a massive trug-style planter. Capacious enough to hold five heirloom tomato plants, three pepper plants and two basils, not to mention the oregano and thyme, the trug is a waist-high back saver, and weeding it takes all of two minutes.
What I don’t grow, I secure from friends, trips to farmers markets and roadside stands. Fresh, local produce still stars at nearly every meal in summer, the freezer still overflows with pesto and zucchini bread, and I can still while away a sunny afternoon with my hands stuck deep in the soil. It’s just easier than it used to be, as befitting my age and abilities.
I garden because it’s an invitation to commune with hummingbirds and eavesdrop on the conversations of goldfinches. To put down my phone and feel the sun on my skin. To rejoice in the luxury of a just-picked tomato.
Gardening gives me a reason to love the rain. It reminds me that winter does not last forever. It’s a promise that the world will go on.
I garden for health, happiness, and a sense of well-being. It’s a reflection of my heritage, a thread to my past, and my gift to the future.
I garden because it’s part of Life. And it’s a reminder that, especially when I’m in my garden, I am part of Life too.
I garden for all those reasons and more.
Now where did I put those lettuce seeds?