She gently worked the soil around the base of the plants with a hoe. Wearing her white print, flowered housecoat with purple piping, she methodically moved up and down the rows.
That image was burned into my brain, and appears once or twice during the gardening season. I was 7. It was my first garden memory. I had no idea where it would lead.
I wish I knew exactly what she grew in the garden, because I would love to grow the exact same varieties.
The next summer I asked my mother if we could plant a garden just like Grandma's. I knew right where I wanted it. There was a bare spot where an above-ground redwood-sided pool used to be. The patch was only about 10-feet square and we filled it with tomatoes and sweet peppers.
I spent the summer tending my plants between backyard baseball games and other childhood adventures. I would spend countless hours watching as a praying mantis waited silently for unsuspecting prey. Fat bumblebees tried to force their way into the little yellow tomato blossoms.
Every so often something wild would show up, like that ugly tomato hornworm, to feast on the foliage. I kept that big green caterpillar for a week or so in an old peanut butter jar filled with tomato leaves. I had punctured the top with one of my dad's Phillips head screwdrivers so it could breathe and later let it go in the forest.
The garden taught me many lessons that summer, and they stuck with me.
One of my jobs was watering the garden, as it was in full sun. My grandmother constantly warned me not to get the foliage wet. In my wisdom, I ignored her, figuring that when it rains the leaves get wet anyway. Of course she was right, and I follow her advice to this day. Regardless of my improper watering, we harvested lots of fresh tomatoes and peppers.
My childhood obsession with gardening faded away as my interests changed and teen angst arrived. It wasn't until my wife and I bought our own house in 1983 when my passion was resurrected. She put in a vegetable garden that first year and I was hooked again.
I read every garden book in the library and expanded the landscape each season. When my two boys were old enough, they each got a small plot of their own and loved it. I recently stumbled onto a home video in which my youngest son was listing the things he wanted to grow. He would need four acres of good soil for everything he hoped to plant.
I wrote down everything we did together in my garden journal. Recently, when I looked through some of those old notebooks, I realized that even though all the garden information was important, the journal had become a priceless record of our family.
There were little things mentioned in there about our lives, chronicling some of the things you just wouldn't ever photograph. I hope my journal will let future generations know about the evolution of our young family in the garden and understand how wonderful it all was. Anyone who reads it will also discover what we planted and nurtured.
The boys are grown now and our daughter is the only one left at home. She enjoys time in the garden, helping me plant and painting birdhouses crazy colors. She loves picking fresh carrots.
The other day I was cleaning out my tool shed and looked over to see a small, plastic, orange trowel hanging in the corner. It was something McDonald's gave away in the late 1980s. I brought it with me 14 years ago when I moved to this house and it's something I could never part with. My oldest son used it in his little garden plot when he was 5 years old and it's still covered with the same garden grime.
On a recent visit, he wondered aloud if there was a way for him to grow plants in his downtown apartment. I resisted the urge to do a back flip, and when he asked how he could compost there, too, I almost fell off my chair. I'd been waiting a long time for those questions. What my grandmother and mother had passed on to me, I had passed on to him.
A week later, I was potting some houseplants, which will be perfect to get him started, and I'm looking at different indoor worm composting systems for his upcoming birthday.
It's seems like several lifetimes ago when I hung upside down in that maple. The image of my grandmother in her garden appears often when I'm working in mine. She been gone a long time, but I know she would be happy to see me tending the tomatoes the same way she did more than 40 years ago. And passing down the love of gardening to her great-grandchildren.