My dad’s love for gardening grew in his parents’ yard. This photo from 1955 shows his mother’s garden—there are onions among the flowers. The corner of a structure appears along the left edge of the photo. Before I was born, that structure came down and my grandmother had moved her garden within the structure’s foundation.
I used to sit at the kitchen table long after my family had finished dinner and left the room. This was because of my parents’ edict: eat at least two spoons full of each item served before being excused. I detested certain foods mom prepared repeatedly: tomatoes, mushrooms, olives, and fish topped the list. Thankfully, she didn’t prepare these every night, so I sat alone only occasionally.
Each time I fell victim to my parents’ edict, my hatred for the food in question increased: here, tonight, not only didn’t I like the flavor and/or texture of this horrid crud, but I was being punished for my dislike and so I resented the crud. On those nights that my mother set a bowl of stewed tomatoes on the table, I felt despair through the entire meal knowing that eventually I’d have to choke down two spoons full of that soupy, soggy, tangy muck.
Not much of a photo, but you can see my dad’s tomato patch over the family dog’s left shoulder. That tomato patch was our sandbox until I was seven or eight—I was 12 when I shot the photo.
Folly of Forcing Food
My parents’ edict didn’t lead me to love these foods. Rather, it strengthened my dislikes and added a plank to my own parenting platform: I would never force a child to eat something the child claimed to dislike. Except for antibiotics; when a kid had strep, antibiotics were going down despite the 20 minute tantrums.
And what of my hatred of tomatoes? My brothers and I outgrew our sandbox; that’s what my dad seemed to think. He removed the “box,” moved much of the compost heap from behind the garage, and stirred the compost into the sand. Then he planted tomato seedlings.
Perhaps the first produce I ever ate IN a garden, peas directly from the pod to my mouth tasted awesome.
Our neighbor also planted a vegetable garden. One day, I was chatting with that neighbor and he shared peas fresh from the pod. I’d never eaten raw peas, but I didn’t want to be rude so I tried them. Oh, my, they were good! But that crazy neighbor demonstrated the most amazing thing: he picked some pea pods that weren’t yet fattening up, and he ate some! When he offered one to me, I tried it and liked it.
Later that season, my neighbor’s garden produced ripe tomatoes and he cut one up to share with me. To a finicky, emotionally challenged eight-year-old, that tomato tasted good. Clearly, the tomato was no different from my dad’s homegrown fruits, but I liked only the neighbor’s produce.
Finding the Farmer Inside
My parents bought farmland when I was eleven, and my mom developed a kitchen garden there. She did the lion’s share of work, but over the years I shoveled tons of horse manure, stretched and weighted down black plastic mulch, carried water from the stream, and pulled weeds. By the time I moved away, I’d stored somewhere in my brain the certainty that homegrown food matters.
When I was young, I’d willingly eat tomatoes only as ketchup or pasta and pizza sauces. Now I can’t get enough of this tomato and mozzarella salad, made with homegrown tomatoes, onions, and garden-fresh basil.
Fully 10 years passed before I started a garden. I’d succeeded as a writer, married, and was a father to two boys when my wife and I bought a house in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. A job I landed as we moved into the house took me away for 18 months. But on a visit home in that first spring, I set tomato seedlings in the one raised bed left by the previous owner.
I wasn’t around to care for the plants, but leaving the bed fallow would not have sat right. We probably harvested a few meager tomatoes. It was enough to inform me the soil was poor so I ordered up a dump truck of mushroom soil to smother the planting bed for the following season.
My love for tending and cooking what grows in my yard increases each time I serve dishes featuring produce just hours or minutes after harvest. The love also grows when I empty jars of home-canned fruits and vegetables. It grows when I season a meal with home-dried herbs or when I add home-dried fruits to baked goods and salads. My love grows when I toss home-frozen veggies into boiling water to serve as a side and when I bake a home-frozen fruit pie to serve in winter when no locally-grown fresh fruit is available to make a pie.
Grow Love for Real Food
Grow some love. Don’t force your kids to eat. Involve them with food; real food. Start seeds, till, transplant, tend, harvest, snack, cook, preserve, eat! Immerse your kids in your own love for real food, and you might just grow some love in them. I imagine it’s very satisfying when you discover your grown children are planting gardens of their own. My dad is obviously pleased about my gardening. He knows it’s love. You can grow that.
Learn about You Can Grow That and find other participating blogs at the movement’s website: You Can Grow That!
Learn how to receive free seeds to grow some of the vegetables that I’ll be growing in my garden this spring: You Can Grow from Seed!