I have loved gardening since the time I was a little girl. I was born in a small Ohio town where everyone, including our family, had a garden. My grandmother, who lived across the street from us, had the most beautiful flower gardens. Our own garden consisted of a small plot of land across the alley, where we grew primarily corn, beans, tomatoes and peppers. I was quite young at the time, but still I liked to go out with my Dad to plant the garden, take care of it, and then sit on the backyard swing and snap beans when it was time to put vegetables up for the winter.
By the time I started school, we moved. My parents bought three and a half acres of land and built a house. My dad bought a tractor, and we tilled up a much bigger garden. Although my mom and brother helped with the garden, it was primarily an activity enjoyed by me and my Dad. Every year in early spring, we would spend hours looking through the seed catalogs, planning what we would grow that year. In May, we’d drive all over town looking for the best tomato and pepper plants. We’d still grow primarily corn, beans, tomatoes and peppers, but we’d also experiment with things like kohlrabi, melons, radishes, potatoes and carrots. We also had an asparagus patch and rhubarb bed, which were Mom’s domain. I remember when it was time to harvest, we’d pick paper grocery bags of yellow and green beans, snapping them on the porch as my mom blanched and froze them for winter. Corn was husked, cooked and cut off the cob for the same purpose. Mom’s goal was always 52 pints of corn and 52 quarts of beans in the freezer every year for winter.
Eventually I grew up, got married and moved away. For years I didn’t live where I could have a garden, but I’d still come over and help Dad with his. When we finally moved to where we had enough yard for a garden, I tried the “square foot gardening” method. I found a man to till up a garden space, then my Dad came over and we carefully measured everything out, laying down newspapers and straw to make the rows. My little garden was a big success, and by the following year, I was starting my own tomato and pepper plants from seed under lights in the basement. My Dad was a machinist his whole life, and could build anything out of anything. To support my seed starting efforts, he built me a greenhouse box, complete with a hinge that would open and close the lid based on the temperature inside the structure. Instead of buying plants at the local greenhouses, I was now growing tomatoes and peppers in every color of the rainbow, which Dad got a big kick out of.
Over time, my gardening efforts had to take a back seat to building a career. I was in the midst of a bad marriage, and was the sole support for my two children. I’d still help my Dad with his garden, but my time had become too precious to do anything more involved than having a few tomato plants in my own backyard. Eventually my marriage ended, which was actually a relief. About a year later, as I was driving down to visit my parents with my two kids, we passed the house that sat directly in front of my parent’s property line. There was a sign in the front yard stating the date that the house would be up for auction. On a whim, I said to my kids “Hey, look at that! I should buy that house so that we could live right by Grandma and Grandpa.” I immediately dismissed the idea as impossible but my son encouraged me to pursue it.
In the end, I had to be out of town on a business trip on the day of the auction, but I sent my son and brother in my place. I listened through my cell phone, three states away, as my son bid on the house at the auction for me. In the end, I won the auction and the house was ours. I wasn’t there to see it, but my son said my Dad gleefully ran across the back yard to tell the good news to my Mom. I was now the owner of the three and a half acres directly in front of my parent’s property, the same yard I had taken a shortcut across almost every day of my childhood on my way to school.
Sadly, my Mom never got to enjoy the fact that we were next-door neighbors. Within months after moving in, she fell and was subsequently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Although Dad tried to keep her at home, in the end she had to go to a nursing home. I’d come home from work every night to find my Dad’s driveway empty, as he religiously went to visit her almost every evening. My Dad had stopped gardening almost completely at that point, practically consumed with sadness from missing my Mom, his time taken up visiting her. Still, in the spring we’d have to go hunt down at least a few tomato and pepper plants for the backyard.
The second year after moving into the house, I had a big garden plowed up in my own backyard. This perked my Dad up a bit, and every time he’d see me out in the garden, he’d come over to help. I had a big garden for a couple of years then scaled it back due to career time constraints, concentrating primarily on a few raised growing beds. Still, it was enough that my Dad and I could go on our yearly hunt for prime tomato and pepper plants.
A little over two years ago, my Mom passed away. My Dad was absolutely lost without her, and simply didn’t know what to do with himself. One day that spring, I was in a tractor supply store, buying a bag of chicken feed, when I saw these bags for growing tomatoes upside-down. I came home and told my Dad about them, and the next thing I knew, I had a sturdy rack in the backyard with four orange buckets hanging from it, just ready for planting tomatoes. He had made a rack for himself as well in his own backyard. We grew upside-down tomatoes that summer, much to the amusement of my Dad.
Dad never got over missing my Mom. Even though I tried my best to keep him interested in things, I could tell that it was just never quite enough. During the year after my Mom passed away, he became increasingly despondent. We worked on other things together throughout that last winter, such as cleaning out his basement workshop. By late winter, I had decided that in the spring I was going to try to grow a big garden again, but never had a chance to share this thought with my Dad. One evening in late March, the sheriff’s department came to the door to tell us that my Dad had driven over to a secluded spot and shot himself. It seemed so out of character for my Dad that we just could not believe it. In fact, in a lot of ways it still doesn’t seem real. I guess in the end he just could not live without my Mom.
As April turned to May, I kept looking at my backyard, uncertain as to what to do about my plans to have a garden that year. The thought of working in the garden, knowing that my Dad was not going to come running over to help after spotting me from his window, seemed too sad to bear. I had gotten remarried the previous year, so I talked it over with my husband, who had never gardened to any extent before. Eventually we came to the decision to go ahead with my plans to have a big garden that year. In a way, it seemed like the only right thing to do.
In late May, I had a man come till the garden even larger than it had previously been. As the tractor and tiller worked its way back and forth across the yard, turning over the soil, all I could think about was how much my Dad would have enjoyed watching. When I cut the rhubarb in the backyard, the starts of which had come from my Mom’s patch decades earlier when she had given them to her neighbor, I couldn’t make stewed rhubarb for my Dad to enjoy. When I found the perfect big tomato plants at a clearance price of only a dollar at an area nursery, it just didn’t seem right that I couldn’t run over to show my prized find to my Dad. When the groundhogs nibbled off my beans and sunflowers, it seemed unreal that all I could do was simply put some fencing around them, instead of whatever elaborate contraption my Dad would have dreamed up to take care of the problem. And when we had a bumper crop of corn and had a picnic and corn roast to celebrate, there wasn’t a place at the table for my Dad. All in all, it was a very bittersweet gardening season, but it was something I think I needed to do.
One year later, I am once again planning for my gardening season. I’m planning to have an even bigger garden this year, so that I can grow some new things. I want to experiment with more sunflowers, now that I know I have to fence them off from the groundhogs. Although I couldn’t bring myself last year to use the upside-down tomato planters that my Dad had made for me, this year I’m going to plant tomatoes in them again. It’s not the same gardening without Dad, but somehow the memories of him complaining about the darn groundhogs, and wondering if the corn is coming into tassel too soon are all too real; in a good way. Because of my Dad, gardening is and always will be a part of my life. My Grandma and Grandpa had passed their love of gardening on to my Dad, who passed it on to me. I’m not sure if my own children will carry on the tradition. But as for me, my garden is a place full of memories where I’m never quite alone.