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Now consider the joy of knowing that eighty years ago, Great-grandmother worked the soil to grow those same varieties and lovingly stirred them into soups and stews that fed the family and nurtured the collective soul as they were handed down as favorite family recipes. Perhaps the best part about growing heirlooms (besides the great taste) is the glimpse they offer into the past -- the connection with those who have gone before us.
Whether you save seeds and grow heirlooms or buy plants from the local nursery, gardening is about connections -- to the earth, to deep parts within yourself, to the past and the future. You may be an old pro from a long line of gardeners who passed on their wisdom or a neophyte just tentatively starting your first little plot. It doesn't matter. You're now connected, embraced. You are benefiting from what some family member or gardener did in the past. Treasure that connection, that link with the past. Remember it. Live worthy of those who have prepared the ground before you. And take care to pass along to another generation that special sense of relationship and interdependence that reminds us we belong to something bigger than ourselves.
Five-year-old Kate awoke with anticipation shortly after the sun came up, as she did each Saturday morning, and lay very still, listening for her father's stirrings downstairs. If she held her breath and listened hard, she would just be able to hear the coffeemaker gurgling its cheery preparations. And that's when Daddy would be sitting at the kitchen table, reading the morning paper.
Beeeep! The coffeemaker sounded. That was Kate's cue. She scrambled out of bed with excitement and raced to put on her special "garden clothes." She stuffed her mass of curly red locks through the neck hole of her dirt-stained, favorite shirt. It was the pale yellow one with terra-cotta pots and bright gerbera daisies in red, pink, and orange on the front. Then she'd pull on the denim jeans worn thin at the knees and reinforced with patches of heavy material her mother had cut in the shapes of garden tools.
Appropriately attired, Kate slipped downstairs as quietly as possible so Mom wouldn't hear. Kate didn't want to waste any of her special time on things like brushing her teeth or having her hair put in pigtails.
Carefully avoiding all the creaky spots on the stairs as only a wispy little girl could do, Kate finally reached the bottom and peered around the corner.
There sat Daddy, just as he did every Saturday morning. And just like every Saturday morning, he looked up from his coffee and paper and gave his little girl a smile that made her giggle and run over for her morning hug.
"Good morning, Katie-girl," he always said as he pulled her into his lap. "Let's go see what's growing in the garden today."
The two headed outside, stopping by the storage shed to get the proper equipment: man-size gloves and garden tools for him, child-size gloves and tools for Kate.
In the spring they would work together to plant the garden. Everything had been started from seed months earlier. Her dad prepared the starter pots in his workshop in the basement. Kate would drop in the seeds and help water and care for them as they sprouted and grew. But she never could bring herself to do the thinning -- pulling out the smaller plants so the larger ones would grow big and tall. Sensitive to his little girl's gentle nature, her dad never discarded the little sprouts. He always replanted them in their own soil so they could thrive as well.
Kate thought the little seedlings looked so small and lonely in their bigger pots instead of all together, but Dad had patiently explained that the separation was necessary for the plants to have enough room to grow to be strong and healthy.
Planting the garden was Kate's favorite time because her dad would recite the stories that went with each item.
With the planting of the tomatoes, onions, and peppers, Dad would tell of when he was a little boy growing up on a small farm and working side by side with his father in their large garden. He still used the same heirloom varieties his dad had used all those years ago. In fact, he had started the garden from seeds his father passed on to him when he married Momma and started his first garden.
The summer squash and zucchini were descended from Grandpa's garden too, and Dad would tell stories of how he would harvest and sell them at his little roadside stand to earn money for a bike when he was not much older than Kate.
The back row of the garden was always reserved for a very special crop -- Grandma's hollyhocks. Grandma had come to America from Denmark when she was a young girl, and her mother had brought hollyhock seeds with her as a reminder of her homeland. Grandma always took great pride in the hollyhocks and would get misty-eyed telling stories of when she was a little girl in a faraway land.
After she was gone, Dad (who had never bothered much with flowers) took special interest and pride in planting hollyhocks in his garden. The first year after Grandma died, he and Kate had held a special, ceremonial planting. He knew how much she missed her grandma, and he took extra time that day to tell her all the stories he could remember about his mother and her life.
Kate's favorite part of the garden, however, were the bright red dahlias that lined the front. She especially liked the dahlias because of a picture she had seen of her dad. About six years old and with a mass of curls she could tell were red even in the black-and-white photo, young Bill was squatting down tending dahlias whose blooms were nearly as big as his freckled face. It was a tangible evidence of the connection she felt with her dad in the garden.
Those years seemed long ago and yet so close to Kate's heart that she ached. Her husband, Jerry, had been transferred to an office in Indiana, far from her Virginia roots, and they were just settling into their new home. They had chosen the house and property largely because Kate fell in love with it the moment she saw it. The large, restored, two-story farmhouse sat on five acres of gently rolling land. With its cheery kitchen and quaint style, it seemed to Kate to embody the sentiment of her family history. There was even a large garden in the backyard.
Kate had waited with eager anticipation for the spring thaw so she could plant. She'd gone to a local greenhouse and picked out several healthy plants, purchased some sturdy tools, and prepared the ground.
But now, as she stood looking out her kitchen window at the empty garden and waiting for the coffee to brew and the sun to warm the dew-covered ground, she felt so sad she could barely swallow the lump in her throat. Her eyes welled up and then overflowed with tears as she gave in to the loneliness she felt being so far away from everything she knew. She didn't know if she could bear planting a garden without her dad by her side.
A creak behind her made her choke back her tears, and she struggled to regain her composure. Wiping her wet cheeks as discreetly as she could, Kate turned around to see a mass of curly red locks coming down the stairs. Her little boy rounded the corner and gleefully ran to the kitchen, throwing his chubby little arms around Kate's legs.
"Mommy, are we going to plant the garden today? It's Saturday, and you promised."
Kate couldn't resist his boyish enthusiasm. "Yes," she said, smiling in spite of her heartache. "Come on, Billy, let's get started."
Mother and son were retrieving their tools from the storage shed when Kate thought she heard the doorbell. Oh well, she thought. Surely Jerry will be up by now and will see who it is. She and Billy put on their work gloves. She loved watching him struggle to get them on, dressed in his ragged jeans and the new shirt she had bought him with a hoe, rake, and shovel on the front.
"Kate!" she heard from a distance. "Kate, a package just arrived for you." Jerry was walking toward her from the house.
"What is it?" she asked, curious. "I'm not expecting anything."
"I don't know," Jerry said with a shrug. "Let's open it and see."
Using one blade of her garden shears, Kate cut through the packing tape and pulled back the flaps of the box -- and then she couldn't breathe. Tears flooded back to her eyes, and she had to bite her lip to stifle the sob that nearly escaped. Inside the carefully packed box was an assortment of vegetable plants and some envelopes of seeds. She knew immediately who must have sent them. Oh, Daddy, she cried silently.
Included in each envelope of bulbs and seeds was a sheet of paper. Her father had written down the stories that went with each kind -- except for one. In the envelope with dahlia bulbs, there was no note -- only a black-and-white photo of a little boy tending big, red dahlias.
"There's a note," Jerry said, handing Kate another envelope. Kate opened it and read.
I know it's difficult for you to be so far away, and I will miss your company in the garden. But I've sent you some special plants so you'll always feel close in heart and always have a reminder of our special times together.
Remember when you were a little girl and thought the seedlings looked lonely all by themselves in a big pot and how I explained that it was necessary for them to grow healthy and strong? Sometimes life is like that, Katie. I know you feel lonely being separated from everything you grew up knowing. But sometimes we need our own plot of ground to find out just how wonderful and strong we can become.
You've grown into a strong but gentle and loving woman, Katie-girl. I'm proud of you. It's time to thrive in your own place. But always know that you're never really far from your roots -- or from my heart.
"Mommy," Billy tugged on her pant leg. "Can we start now?"
Kate sat down cross-legged on the ground with her little boy and handed him a tomato plant. "Let me tell you a story..."
Copyright © 2007 by Tammy L. Bicket and Dawn M. Brandon
Chapter 1: Heirloom Gardening
Chapter 2: Propagating Wisdom
Chapter 3: Planting Seeds of Compassion
Chapter 4: Transplanting
Chapter 5: Cultivating Friendships
Chapter 6: Pest Control
Chapter 7: Harvesting Your Crop