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Daniel’s Roots

I grew up in Ithaca, New York, a small city that is home to Cornell University and Ithaca College. As a kid, I “helped” my mother plant marigolds, and she helped me plant radishes. Seeing the radishes sprout and develop those little red balls was a rush… but kind of silly because I didn’t care for radishes, and I don’t think anyone else in my family did either.

Sandbox tomatoes
The family dog of my childhood, Whisper, sits in the yard with my dad’s tomatoes behind her. His tomato stakes were short, reflecting the short growing season in Ithaca.

My dad maintained about four rhubarb plants in the back corner of the yard, and I enjoyed the spring ritual of pulling the red stalks, cutting off the giant leaves, and cooking the stalks into sauce. I loved eating rhubarb sauce–I still do. When I and my brothers outgrew the sandbox in our back yard, my dad tossed the box and planted tomatoes in the sand. I quite despised tomatoes, so I had no love for his plants.

Our neighbor also grew tomato plants… as well as peas. In his garden, somehow tomatoes tasted good, and I learned that fresh pea pods were at least as tasty as the peas that came from them.

Jungle Bedroom
This photo barely does justice to the jungle that was my bedroom. Spider plants framed the closet door, and various hanging plants dominated the window space.

My bedroom became a greenhouse as I developed two compulsions:

  • I loved to start plants from cuttings… particularly plants that started themselves such as Mother of Thousands and Jade Trees.
  • I hated to see a potted plant die in the pot because someone had tossed it aside.

So, I had succulents: philodendrons and snake plants, a mother of pearls, and several jade trees. I had wandering jews and an ever increasing number of mothers of thousands. I had begonias and stinky geraniums I’d rescued from people’s trash; spider plants grown from friends’ spider plant babies; a Dracaena Marginata, because I liked saying the name; sweet potatoes, lemon trees, and avocado trees because it was cool to grow plants from dinner leftovers; Spanish Moss from the fling I had with bromeliads; and sensitive plants that gradually lost their interest in closing up every time I flicked their leaves. All that remains to support my claim is a lousy black-and-white Polaroid print that I’ve scanned and included here.

My parents bought a farm where my mother established an enormous vegetable garden; it was large enough that she had the neighbor visit each spring with a tractor to turn the soil over and then disk it smooth. We raised horses, so each spring before the plow arrived, we dug enough manure and straw out of the barn to pile several inches deep over the entire garden. Without the benefit of composting, this raw manure promoted intensely rigorous growth; my mom’s vegetables didn’t seem to mind.

Tomatoes on black plasticWe rolled out the same sheets of plastic year-after-year, weighted them down with stones and boards, and cut holes through them to plant tomatoes, broccoli, and cauliflower.

By now in my teens, I helped in the garden with more than just manure delivery. We must have grown every type of common vegetable. My mom was a great fan of black plastic: we mounded soil to define rows, and stretched black plastic over the mounds to trap in moisture and keep weeds from growing. We had no running water at the farm, so success depended on rain.

Dad's farm-raised peaches
At the farm, I got my first exposure to growing fruit; many of my dad’s peaches went into my mom’s canning jars and we ate them through to the following peach season.

As if the vegetable garden wasn’t enough, my dad planted several fruit trees. I remember an apple tree that had five varieties of apples grafted onto a single root stock… and there was a less impressive peach tree.

With all the produce, of course there was canning and freezing. My mom did most of that work, though I spent a lot of hours watching and learning. I made jelly several times in her kitchen in the days when a few layers of parafin was the prescription for sealing a jelly jar from bacteria and mold.

When I finished college and moved to Boston, I withdrew from gardening and growing houseplants. But eventually I married and we bought a house with a yard. I made a feeble effort to grow vegetables there, but our neighbor was a cement company that illegally dumped tons of unused cement on the other side of the wall; I’m guessing our soil was so basic that it singed away young roots as they emerged from their seeds.

Dad's farm-raised peaches
My green apple tree’s crown is now about 75% red apple; there are a few places where the old, unpleasant green apples still emerge next to red ones, but another year or two of grafting will let me altogether eliminate the green apples.

When my wife and I reproduced, we agreed to go rural. We settled in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania and bought a house on a third of an acre. The yard came with a raised-bed garden 14′ square, and five fruit trees: a pear tree, a peach tree, and three apple trees. There were also a few blueberry bushes growing in a hedge along one border of the yard.

Over thirteen years in Lewisburg, I’ve grown tomatoes, beans, peas, potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, peppers, butternut squash, pumpkins, carrots, lettuce, spinach, rhubarb, broccoli, asparagus, and various herbs: basil, sage, cilantro, rosemary, oregano, parsley, dill, and thyme. I’ve also participated in caring for blueberries and raspberries. I re-domesticated our five fruit trees (they’d gone quite wild), and have even grafted from one of them to the other–getting a tree that used to produce ugly green apples to produce almost exclusively tasty red apples.

I love to grow stuff to eat, I love to try new things, and I love to share with people who have similar interests. I hope you’ll visit the Your Small Kitchen Garden blog regularly. Please participate: chime in when you don’t agree with my approach, when you have more to add, or when you can offer viable alternatives so other readers can choose approaches that make sense to them.

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