Back in the 60’s, when a farmer’s market was something you’d expect to see in a Greek village, my mother was growing produce in our backyard, right next to my aluminum swingset. I used to leap off a high-flying swing, land in the dirt, and pluck a baby carrot from the earth. Then, wiping it off on my corduroy pants, I’d pop it in my mouth. No fertilizers, no pesticides, just flavorful little snacks that I ate with about as much thought as I gave to my endless free time. I miss them both—the carrots and my free time.
Mom put a lot of effort into creating a usable and aesthetically pleasing yard. Vegetables, fruit trees, cactus gardens, roses, epiphyllums—we had them all. I toddled after her, watching, in awe of her conviction. She was fearless and tireless in the way she tackled the soil, the weeds, the slope of the landscape, the tilling and the watering. Growing up, I remember thinking, “I’d never put that kind of time and energy into plants.”
For Mom, home has meant Washington State, then Southern California, next the high desert, on to Southern Oregon, and eventually California’s Central Coast. With every move, she left a little bit of greenery behind, including some very non-indigenous trees.
Take the Torrey Pine, for example. It’s a rare majestic beauty normally found in only two locations: San Diego and the Channel Islands. But, because of Mom, there is one in a backyard in the high desert, one on a goat farm near Medford, Oregon, and now a potted one we named “Torrey” that sits on the back porch of our home in San Luis Obispo County. Torrey’s growth, slow but steady, has been photo-documented from a mere seedling. The little transplant is blissfully unaware of its adoptive home, being raised alongside a Monterey Pine and a Mediterranean Dwarf Palm.
“You’re like Johnny Appleseed,” I tell her one day as I plunge a shovel into an area designated for a mini-orchard. “Now, what are these again?” I point to several two-foot saplings we’d just unearthed from the vegetable garden.
“I’m not sure,” Mom says. “I think they’re peach or nectarine. When I saw them growing near the tomatoes, I knew they weren’t weeds, so I left them alone. Sure enough, they’re fruit trees. Must’ve come from some pits in the compost I buried there.”
Many of our successes are these “volunteer” plants. Seeds dropped by birds have resulted in some strange and beautiful bits of unplanned landscaping: multi-colored linaria, towering sunflowers, and a type of sorghum called Milo that likes to fool people into thinking it’s a cornstalk. For most of them, my mom takes the “live and let grow” attitude.
Through the years, I’ve picked up a lot of gardening tips from Mom, about things I never thought I’d have any interest. Like the importance of crop rotation, even in a tiny backyard garden. And something called “companion gardening,” that is, planting varieties together for mutual benefit, such as lemon balm and potatoes.
I don’t know what drives my mother to garden. At 87, she tends to her plants on a daily basis. She knows more about the benefits of organic gardening—and the dangers of GMO’s—than anyone else I know. She grows her own herbs, fruits and vegetables, because “at least I know it’s free of toxic chemicals.”
As for me, I still follow her around like I did as a kid, marveling at her stamina. Like Mom, I’ve grown to love our various trees and gardens but, unlike her, I hate yardwork. On a day off from my job, as I haul bags of potting soil, pull weeds, combat snails and pray for rain, I wonder how it’s come to this. Ah yes, I think to myself, it’s those yummy little baby carrots.