Archive for ‘The Garden’

April 26, 2014

When I Grow Up I’ll Be A Farmer

by Cynthia



I’d been pulling weeds around the raised beds in the garden for a couple of hours this morning before I remembered to stop and stretch my back, sit down and rest a minute. Realizing how weary I was already, at only ten o’clock in the morning, a voice inside my head sneered, “Why are you doing this? This is nuts. You could hop on down to the farmer’s market and buy all the vegetables you want. Why do you spend so many hours out in this garden?. (The voice was on a roll and getting louder). You could be doing other things, more important things. You could be reading that new novel all your friends are reading. You could be doing volunteer work. You could be improving your mind, going to the gym, writing that book you always talk about wanting to write someday instead of breaking your back pulling weeds. Jeez.”

I had to admit, the voice had some good points. I don’t have to be gardening, so why do I? How do you explain something, even to yourself (and the voice inside your head) that feels like a compulsion, like something you just have to do?

My daughter gave me a little book for Christmas, one of those “Words from my Mom” books where your write down things from your childhood so your great- grandchildren have a records of your existence. It was sweet of her, but it made me a little depressed. The book is a reminder that someday I won’t be around to speak for myself. One of the questions the book asks is “What did you want to be when you were a little girl?

When I was in high school I wanted to be a professional weaver, and in college, a dietician. A few years after college I realized what I really wanted to be was a psychologist. I never became any of those things, although I came closest to psychologist when I became a marriage and family therapist. But when I was small, I wanted to be a farmer. I spent some time each summer on my cousin Diane’s farm, playing in the hay loft, riding horses, dusting tobacco plants, collecting wild berries and fishing in her pond. I thought it would be the greatest thing in the world to grow crops, and ride around on a tractor and take care of animals on my own land.

I suppose I pull weeds, and plant seeds, and grow my own food so the little girl inside me can play at being a farmer.

After the weeding, I transplanted tomato plants, all heirloom varieties from seeds saved from last year’s crop: San Marzano, my favorite paste tomato, Amy’s Sugar Gem, a very sweet heirloom that produces vines heavy with golf ball sized yummy fruit, Garden Peach, which is a  cultivar of a native South American fruit mainly from Peru where they are known as Coconas,  Costaluto Genevese, an ugly little knobby tomato with an intense tomato taste due to its high acid content and Mac’s Round Green, a little green tomato that I got from another Master Gardener in my county and have never eaten

I think I’ll put the “Words from my Mom” book inside a box, along with some heirloom tomato seeds. If my great-grandchildren really want to know who I was, they can plant a few of these old tomato varieties and taste for themselves a bit of history. One bite of a Garden Peach tomato on a hot summer afternoon and they’ll understand why I was a gardener!



May 19, 2013

The New Food Economy

by Cynthia

2012 (62)

It’s the middle of May and by now New Year’s resolutions are a thing of the distant past. Like diets, New Year’s resolutions sound like a great idea and they actually make you feel better about yourself for a while. This will be the year you really do it. (Lose ten pounds, learn to speak French, stop smoking, etc…….) Then a little slip becomes a little habit and there you are, late at night, standing in front of your refrigerator with the ice cream calling your name. You are only human, after all.  I don’t make New Year’s resolutions for this very reason.  I make intentions. Intentions give me more wiggle room. I don’t RESOLVE to do something; I merely INTEND to do it. The inevitable failure is softened this way. Each year, come January, I intend to make sure the pantry is empty and the freezer cleared out before next June when the vegetables start coming in. This is no small intention. My husband and I live alone, and while we are big eaters, we usually go into the summer months with remnants of last year’s bounty untouched.

I feel intimated when I open the freezer door and realize how much is in there. Green peas from the previous spring. Peaches, tucked away in the deepest corner, collecting freezer burn like cockleburs. Bags of blackberries, raspberries, blueberries. Dried herbs. Garlic scape pesto. A whole unplucked duck? Bags of casserole ready sweet potatoes. Sliced strawberries. Assorted packages of goose flesh. A quiche made with spring onions and fennel. A container of gumbo my husband made last March. And a twelve-pound turkey I had planned on cooking for Christmas until I got excited by a recipe for vegetarian lasagna made with kale and fontina cheese.

Unlike most people in the world, I never wonder if I will eat, only what I will eat. When Tim and I moved to the farm nine years ago, opting out of the suburban lifestyle was one of the motivators. Opting out of what Micheal Pollan calls the Big Food economy was another. Growing our own food isn’t just about avoiding GMOs and industrial fertilizers. It’s about having choices about what we eat. As less and less American soil is devoted to farming, those choices get more precious. President Obama lost me as a fan when he signed into law H.R. 933, an appropriation bill which included the Monsanto Protection Act. A republican senator from Missouri ( headquarters of biotech giant Monsanto) co-authored the portion of the bill with Monsanto execs  that protects Monsanto from being sued if any of its GMOS are proven to have caused harm to the millions of consumers who are eating it’s genetically modified foods. The provision also strips the USDA of the power to stop the sale and planting of potentially hazardous genetically engineered crops even if “in the course of its assessment the Department finds that it poses previously unrecognized risks.” (The corn syrup in your Coke is made with Monsanto GMO corn, just so you know).

Due to significant protest and activism on the part of people who are outraged at this free pass to Monsanto, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon), plans to introduce an amendment that would repeal the section that protects Monsanto and other Big Ag companies. GMOs don’t scare me nearly as much as the Big Ag companies who can buy the political power to do whatever they want with our food supply. The growing food movement includes seed savers, home gardeners, small farmers; anyone who cares about the quality of the food they eat and the health of the soil that provides it.

More and more of our friends who live in urban or suburban environments are joining CSAs. Like having a small chicken coop in your back yard, being a member of a CSA or shopping at the farmer’s market is trendy. Like driving a hybrid, it’s a statement that you care about the environment, that you’re a conscious person. As another person who cares about the environment, I’m happy about that. But what if all those folks went out into their back yards and planted a garden? Got a little dirt under their fingernails? What if local parks devoted space for communal gardens? What if the “new food economy” were something that more Americans could participate in as a way of life?

I realize how lucky I am to be sitting in the midst of such bounty. Acres of green pasture and leafy woods. Clean air and the sounds of birdsong. And a freezer full of food. This year perhaps we’ll have a big party and cook as much of what’s still left from last year’s harvest. We’ll empty the pantry shelves, throw open the freezer. What we don’t eat will go home with our guests like party favors. Who wants strawberry jam? Lima beans, anyone? How about a duck?

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March 22, 2012

Go Big for Beauty

by Cynthia

Spring has come early to Tennessee. Winter was ambivalent this year, barely showing up, an unfortunate portent to a wicked summer. I spent the day weeding:  the peony bed, the perennial bed, and then the garden beds.  It’s the best kind of work, weeding. Mindless and repetitive, it leaves the imagination free to meander all sorts of places. While digging up crabgrass and dandelions in the peony bed, I was planning my summer adventures; perhaps a week at the beach with the family, maybe a writing workshop, or a fly fishing expedition with Tim at the White River in Arkansas. Luckily, I came out of my reverie just before whacking the tips off a little green furl of dinner plate dahlia poking its fingers up through the soil. Every Spring, the sight of green plants, wakened and stretching themselves toward the sun creates a small renewal in me. In that moment, the darkness of winter with its unrelenting grayness and its damp clammy chill vanishes. Like the peony and the dahlia, my hopeful heart is resurrected.

The appearance of green shoots and sprouting things, with their death defying acts of renewal, emboldens gardeners, both the novice and the expert. Each year I choose a new vegetable to plant, something I have never tasted before, convinced it will flourish. If the peony which I have completely neglected since cutting the last fat flower in September can reappear with such vigor, surely a vegetable that I lavish with attention all summer will thrive. This year’s pick is pineapple tomatillos. They are supposed to taste like just like a pineapple, and since my locavore tendencies preclude my buying pineapple at the grocery, I’ve got big hopes for this little veggie.

That furl of dahlia pushing its determined limbs up through the Tennessee clay reminds me to pay attention to things that are easily gotten, little bits of beauty around me that are either free or darn inexpensive. Things like the sounds of wind chimes floating around on the breeze, the smell of freshly turned earth, the wiggle-twist of earthworms doing their good garden labor, unpaid. The outrageous purple-ruby of the random redbud tree in the woods behind the garden makes me hungry for beauty everywhere. So I plant flowers in between the lettuces from seed heads that I pilfered while walking through the garden at the Biltmore Estate last fall: hollyhocks and strawflowers and black-eyed-susans.  I repaint the bedroom, plant petunias, and hang a glass globe from a shepherd’s crook in the garlic bed.

If Spring had a billboard it would read GO BIG FOR BEAUTY. Beauty is easily gotten if you aren’t focused on glamour. Forget about the plants in the seed catalogues. Yours won’t look like that anymore than you will look like the Victoria Secret model just because you cough up a small fortune for the underwear.  Your plants will look a bit more like you; slightly stooped and a bit ragged at the edges, but sturdy and useful. In a word, Beautiful.

December 29, 2011


by Cynthia


Everything has a beginning. Most things begin as a tiny something, hidden away, usually in the dark. An traveling egg encounters a rushing spermatozoa, a pea is buried beneath the soil, an idea is formed deep inside the brain late at night while its thinker lies, sleepless.

Things sprout. The pea sprouts a root that reaches down into the soil for water and leaves that reach up to the sun for energy. The embryo sprouts little buds of legs and arms. An idea sprouts into a thought, the thought into an intention, the intention into action.

Planting, tending, watching and nurturing are my jobs. As a psychotherapist, my job is to witness and nurture people’s emotional and relational growth. As a mother and grandmother, my job is to support, encourage and guide, but mostly to love fiercely and without waiver. As a gardener, my job is to plant, nurture and harvest in a way that is respectful of the soil, the plant, and the planet.

This quotation from Hal Borland cheers me as Christmastime ebbs away and the two dreary months of January and February loom unpleasantly on the horizon;

“There are two seasonal diversions that can ease the bite of any winter. One is the January thaw. The other is the seed catalogues.”

They began arriving on Monday. Burpee, Territorial, The Cook’s Garden, Johnny’s.  And there will be more. I take them to bed with a cup of hot tea and turn up the electric blanket, dreaming, imagining, planning for spring, wishing away the winter. I’d like to enjoy the winter more and perhaps if we had sunshine, or snow, and especially if we had sunshine and snow at the same time, I might. But here in Tennessee, winter is mostly dreary, or wet, and often dreary and wet concurrently.

So I dream of thing sprouting. I buy seeds, and fire up the grow lights, and make my plans. In a way, it is what we all do each morning. We fire up the grow lights and plan our day. Something is always sprouting, if not in the garden, at least in our imaginations. Especially in winter.

December 2, 2011

Gardening as spiritual exercise

by Cynthia

It’s late November and time to put the garden to bed. There are still lettuces and cabbages and other greens growing like mad in one of the raised beds, tucked snugly under a row cover to protect them from the early morning frosts that herald the coming winter. In another bed is a lovely stand of green peas, their vines curling tenaciously around the cane poles I staked along the borders to give them support. The pea vines are a lovely translucent green and the pods are full of peas that will never mature. The vines froze in the first hard frost, leaving the big, flat pods shimmering and glassy. Clearly in my late summer greediness for a second pea crop I miscalculated the timing of days to maturity and first autumn freeze. I’ll pull them up this weekend and throw them in the compost pile.  One of the blessings of a vegetable garden is that even mistakes can be turned into something useful.

Last weekend Tim and I mucked out the animal stalls and transferred the litter to the garden. We are doing a little experiment. Since we won’t plant again until Spring, we put the manure directly into the beds, with four of the garden beds getting goat manure, and the other four getting chicken litter. We are wondering which poop will be the best soil amendment. A deep pile of leaves goes on top of the manure and hay mix from the stalls, and then before planting, a couple of inches of compost. I realize I put more energy into making sure my garden beds are well nourished than I do taking care of my skin. I know women who layer creams and moisturizers and clarifiers on their faces every night with the same kind of intention that I put into feeding my garden soil. While both seem important, I find the effort expended in taking care of the garden more rewarding than trying to stop the effects of time on my face. I’ll be wrinkled but well fed, with a lined face and a nourished soul.

Growing your own food, at least a bit of it, changes your life. Even in the places all over the world where people must grow their own food or starve instead, that active engagement with the natural world outside their doorstep deepens their experience. When I walk the hills in rural Guatemala, and look at the tiny well-tended kitchen gardens of Mayan Indians who subsist on next to nothing, it is clear that those beans and corn and cilantro plants are part of their cultural and spiritual expression of all that is holy to them.

 In Barbara Brown Taylor’s lovely little book about faith, An Altar in the World, she writes, “To make bread, or make love, to dig in the earth, to feed an animal or cook for a stranger—these activities require no extensive commentary, no lucid theology. All they require is someone willing to bend, reach, chop, stir. Most of these tasks are so full of pleasure that there is no need to complicate things by calling them holy. And yet these are the same activities that change lives, sometimes all at once and sometimes more slowly, the way dripping water changes stone.”