Having lived in many places over the years in and outside the United States, I've always had a garden. It's been interesting to see how different each garden grew, due to soil, weather and whatnot.
I was born in Maine, yards from the ocean. My father had (and still has) a large garden out back. I would watch him as he laboriously sowed the seeds, weeded as the seeds sprouted, watered when they were thirsty, trimmed them as needed, then finally picked them. We still delight in the variety he grows - lettuce, squash, corn, beets, carrots, green beans, bell peppers, tomatoes, whatever he felt like growing that year. I would sometimes help, digging my tiny fingers in the soil. That's when the soil and I literally became one. I became so obsessed with soil and dirt that when I made mud pies, I ate them. My mother was not amused. My father was.
When I was seven, my parents separated and my mother took my sister and me to California.
While growing up in Oxnard (about an hour north of Los Angeles), we again lived yards from the ocean. Our garden consisted mainly of hardy palms in the front yard, flowering shrubs in the back, what grass that would grow (mostly weeds and crabgrass) and iceplant. For those who don't know, iceplant is a ground-covering plant. It creeps along as it grows, its green frost-colored fingers thirstily seeking room for its roots in the soil. Lavender, orange and pink blossoms would open during the day, then shut tight for the night. If you picked off one of the "fingers," a clear liquid, like water would seep out. I was forever fascinated by that.
After high school, I moved back to New England, switching between Massachusetts and New Hampshire for the next 10 years. I was too busy working, meeting people, and having fun to even think of a garden - until I met my husband, Chris, a U.S. Marine. We moved to a duplex in New Hampshire, and I began growing small herb plants in a small garden that sat on the kitchen windowsill. Basil, rosemary, mint and parsley. Tiny pots, not much work, but it was a garden. I still love the way fresh herbs feel, smell and taste.
We were off to California not long after - the Marines stationed Chris in El Toro (near Los Angeles). Back to my roots - no pun intended. We lived in an apartment, about a half hour from the ocean, and I kept my windowsill garden, just to give me some soil to dig my fingers into. I always seemed to find peace and less stress as I trimmed leaves, spread out roots or plucked herbs for our dinner.
Two years later, Okinawa, Japan gave me the chance to have my first full-fledged garden. The tropical atmosphere, with humidity, ocean air all around, and good, red soil that seemed to grow anything, made my garden a joy. I soon found myself with far too many green bell peppers, hot chili peppers, cherry tomatoes and flowers galore - snapdragons, daisies, poppies, orchids and sweet pea. I would spend hours in the backyard, weeding, planting, picking, trimming. My dogs would "help" me weed or sit and watch with great interest. I'm sure they never understood what in the world I was doing, although they knew I certainly wasn't burying bones. I'll always remember Okinawa as one of the happiest times of my life.
The move back to the states three years later was culture shock enough, but when we moved to Maryland, I was dismayed at the soil and weather. The soil was so different from Okinawa - dark brown, resistant to growing certain things (I soon found out), and the cold winters meant my garden had to be smaller, with fewer choices. The first year was good - plenty of green bell peppers and small chili peppers. Irises bloomed in the spring, but my pansies and chrysanthemums did not. The second year, nothing grew - the spring and summer were especially dry. But I still spent my time outside, thinking and humming as I worked the soil with my fingers (no gloves for this gal), my bare feet on the grass, my soul at peace. If I was under any stress and my husband couldn't find me inside, he knew he'd find me in the backyard, my hands in the dirt and a dreamy smile on my face.
Another three years passed and Chris left the Marines. We moved to New England, my real roots - my "born" roots. We're close to the ocean again, just like my childhood and Okinawa. I can't live without the ocean. . .or my garden. Yes, the winters are hard and cold, but I know the spring and summer are bountiful. I eagerly put my hands in this new soil, planted the seeds of green beans, tomatoes, green leaf lettuce and zucchini and watched them grow and grow and grow. The cherry tomato plants grew over seven feet tall, the green beans were the largest I'd ever seen, the lettuce leaves were plentiful and the zucchini were gigantic - even the neighbors were amazed.
I used no mulch, no pesticides, no plant food. I just planted the seeds, watered them, weeded and talked while I worked, mostly to the dogs, but also to the plants. I feel that helped them grow as big as they did. There was more than enough to go around and the neighbors and my family got used to weekly baskets of vegetables from me. Chris and I became experts at making dinner with a variety of delicious vegetable side dishes, all fresh from my garden.
As winter approached, the cherry tomatoes continued to bloom and grow, right up to the first snowfall. I'd go out, poke around, pick the ones that were beginning to ripen and let them finish turning red inside. As the plants finally began to turn brown and die, I cut them down and turned the soil, eager for spring to return so that I could plant another bountiful harvest.
The smell of the salt air as I tend my garden, the feel of the rich, dark soil between my fingers, letting my imagination run free, it all puts my spirit at peace, and it's all right here, in my heart.
I'm finally home.
J.A. Hitchcock is a regular contributor to Compute Me. Visit her web site at jahitchcock.com.