I struggle over whether I should make my daughters, 11 and 13, work in the garden. In general, they don’t seem to have an opinion about the garden—it’s just one of the places I go when I’m not in the house. I’m not entirely sure they’re impressed when Lisa and I announce how much of each meal comes from our gardens, but we take care to point it out anyway. They sort of smile politely and get about the business of eating, I guess thinking that food has to come from somewhere, so it doesn’t matter if it’s Kroger or our backyard. Occasionally, one of them will help me weed or plant, but once the Arkansas summer heat kicks in, or the mosquitoes come out, neither girl wants any part of the garden. I know that heat and sweat and dirt builds character. They need to earn their way. Gardening is a valuable skill that will help them survive the impending downfall of American society. Their mother had to do it, after all, when she was a girl. Gardening chores were a regular feature of visits to her grandmother’s house. Although my father grew up farming, he never really kept a garden. I grew up pushing a lawn mower a good part of each summer, and when he started his own business, I fetched tools to him underneath floors on plumbing and air conditioning jobs, finished concrete foundations, and learned to wire electrical switches and plugs and run heating and air conditioning duct in 140 degree attic crawl spaces. It was work I didn’t mind.
But I also remember hating gardening. My mother took me and my brother to a pick-your-own strawberry field a couple of times, where we spent hours crawling along endless rows in the heat and sun, filling metal buckets (and our stomachs) with strawberries that, now that I know better, had probably been sprayed with DDT since it hadn’t been banned by the EPA yet. After we had filled our buckets, we would emerge from the field, sunburned and a little sick, only to have to cart the whole load home and begin preparing them for canning (with my mother doing all the work). One time I visited my grandmother during the potato harvest. My uncle hooked an old-fashioned plow—the kind that’s supposed to be pulled by a mule—to his tractor, told me to grab ahold of the handles, and dragged me along the rows. I tried to hold the plow steady and dig a straight furrow and turn the Irish potatoes out of the red Alabama dirt, but holding onto a plow pulled by a tractor felt like trying to stop a runaway horse by grabbing the tail. After turning the field, we crawled the rows and dug the potatoes out of the earth and pushed them into a gunny sack we drug behind us, until it was too full for a ten year old boy to move. Then we’d start on a fresh bag.
So I don’t make my daughters work the garden, but it’s mainly because I’d rather it be something they find for themselves one day, or not, but I don’t want to drive them away from it.
Spring Garden III
Kale is a leafy green plant that grows easily and is bursting with nutrients, but it’s an acquired taste for most people. Too strong for a salad, and if you’re not a “greens and fatback” southerner, then you have to be creative. Our favorites usually revolve around olive oil: kale added to soups; kale stir fried with Italian sausage and feta cheese; and kale chips, a healthy, significantly lighter, alternative to potato chips. Simply tear the mature leaves off the plant (like lettuce, it will keep growing), wash, remove the center vein, tear into chip size pieces, mix lightly with olive oil, lay out flat on a baking pan, and sprinkle with the seasoning of choice. I tried a little of everything we had in the cupboard: Sea salt, Tony Chachere’s Creole seasoning, Seasoning Salt, and various combinations of salts and peppers from the cabinet. Bake at a low heat, about 200 degrees, until crispy. The result is a very light chip—much lighter than a potato chip, tasty, with a slight aftertaste that you probably wouldn’t notice if you’d pulled the bag off the grocery shelf and ripped open the hermetically sealed metallic/paper bag. They keep in the freezer, too, retaining their crisp and flavor for months.
I like to walk down and look at my garden in the evenings. On days when I work, it’s a pleasant way to transition from job to home, and it helps erase the effects of living a largely sedentary life, with working days spent partly in the classroom, but mostly in an office, usually seated before a computer screen. It feels good to be outside in the evenings, to get my hands dirty, to sweat a little, to see things grow and multiply. I like to hear the afternoon sounds. Kids playing down the hill. A lawnmower somewhere. Rush hour traffic down on the bypass, a mile away. I don’t always think about anything in particular, but I’m often surprised where my mind goes. I get caught up in the repetitive and soothing act of weeding, which acts almost like a zen koan, to lead to surprising insights.