In Grandpa's Garden
San Diego Horticulture Society Newsletter, July 1999

Rickety stone steps led down to the vegetable garden in the hollow.   Grandpa was a stone mason and had made them with his own hands. They were sufficiently uneven so that I had to pay close attention to keep from tripping. And what rewards that attention brought! Ants and beetles scurried in between the stones, foraging in the damp green shade provided by opportunistic weeds. An occasional earthworm, uncovered by a loosened stone, searched for re-entry into the darker and cooler earth below.

When I finally landed at the bottom of the steps, a family of birds took flight, their feasting temporarily interrupted by my noisy arrival. I was usually singing on my way down, but something about the hollow with its own symphony of bumblebees and birds prompted me to be quiet and listen while I roamed its rows. The vegetable garden was not large--about 30' x 60'. Fieldstone walls,at least twice as tall as I was, retained it on three sides and contributed to my sense that this was a magical garden., totally different from any other garden I'd ever visited. It had an indescribable scent that was a mixture of raspberries, wet humus, chicken manure and tomato vines. My nose was too young to have been prejudiced against 'bad' smells and, to this day, I prefer the smell of a vegetable garden to even the most expensive perfume.

The compost bins stood close to the bottom of the stairs and, as far as I was concerned, it was in this laboratory that biology, sociology, economy and chemistry all came together. I can still smell the coffee grounds mingled with grapefruit skins and egg shells. I was fascinated by how hard the sow bugs, beetles and worms all worked to break down our table scraps. Nothing seemed to go to waste. But the biggest miracle of all came on the day that Grandpa shoveled the gorgeous black soil out of the bin and back into the garden.

Straight ahead at the end of the dirt pathway that led from the stairs, a concrete ramp led up to the chicken coop. Each Spring, Grandpa would buy several dozen baby chicks in March. Grammy carefully tended the chicks in an incubator in the basement until the weather was warm enough for them to survive outdoors. Once they had been moved to the coop, they had plenty of space to forage for food and a roosting shelf that was just high enough above the ground so that I had to stand on my tip toes when I wanted to reach under a warm hen and take an egg for my breakfast. These eggs bore absolutely no resemblance to the eggs I buy today. They had bright orange yolks that sat high above the white halo around them. We enjoyed them most served atop a Dutch rusk. One rooster shared the coop with the hens. He was the most wonderful alarm clock that I could imagine.


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It did not bother me in the least that he woke me at 4:30 a.m. That was my signal that another day of adventure had dawned in the garden and the newly-ripened berries and tomatoes awaited picking.

Every Saturday evening, all summer long, one of the chickens was sacrificed for Sunday dinner. It seemed perfectly natural that my kind and gentle grandfather would kill one of his chickens. Chickens were part of the circle of life in the garden. They were nourished by the vegetable scraps from the kitchen; they provided a delicious meal for our extended family on Sunday; their manure and later their blood was dug back into the garden soil to feed the vegetables.

The walls surrounding the garden were made of honey-colored fieldstones. Grandpa had carefully laid them dry, allowing tiny plants to take up residence in the cracks. The stones absorbed heat during the day and then slowly released it during the night. Gooseberries, planted at the top of the walls, tumbled in a tangle of chartreuse stickiness, all the way to the dirt floor below. Raspberries and blackberries leaned against the south wall. I never had to be afraid to eat them directly from the bush because this garden was never poisoned by pesticides or insecticides.

I loved to walk between the rows of corn, especially when they had matured to several feet above my head. At dinnertime, after Grammy had put the water on to boil, my 'job' was to run down to the vegetable garden and gently pull back the husks and silk to identify which ears of corn had rows of yellow kernels swollen enough to assure perfect ripeness. While Grandpa cut the ears and cleaned them right in the garden, I picked several perfectly-ripened tomatoes. I learned how to judge ripeness by color, touch and smell. Then Grandpa and I raced back to the kitchen to drop the corn into the pot and slice the tomatoes.  Grammy's homemade bread completed the meal. No fancy recipes were used--the fresh vegetables needed no help.

I guess it's no wonder that summer camp never appealed to me. I was too busy learning about the cycles of nature of which I was a part. I was learning about the excitement of birth and growth and the inevitability of death and making room for others. I was learning to put back what our food took from the soil and to cherish what the earth could produce if one took good care of her.