It would be nice to say that I began gardening as a little girl, pushing sunflower seeds into the dirt under the tutelage of a sun-weathered grandmother who’d been practicing the garden arts …
It would be nice to say that I began gardening as a little girl, pushing sunflower seeds into the dirt under the tutelage of a sun-weathered grandmother who’d been practicing the garden arts passed down from her mother, and her mother. But, this is not the case. I was raised in suburban New Jersey, just across Sandy Hook Bay from New York City, where it was against code to hang clothing on an outdoor line, much less roto-till your lawn for food.
I did have an early experience with freshly harvested food in the visage of a farm stand that we visited summer afternoons for daily produce. I recall the sensation of stepping from the car—sunburnt and salty from a day of swimming in the ocean—into a shadowy world of big-handed farmers and dusty bins of potatoes, green beans, peaches, radishes, lettuce and the ubiquitous (ever marvelous) Jersey tomatoes and corn. My mother would gather her items into paper bags and turn them into simple, but sumptuous, sun-blessed summer feasts.
This market—Sickles Market —is now a high-end, gigantic operation, selling everything from gourmet foods to prepared dinners to linens and gifts to expensive flowers, bushes and trees. Nothing, or almost nothing, is grown on site anymore, but rather is imported from other black-dirt regions of the state. One evening after a weekend at the shore with my daughter and niece, on our way back to the Catskills, I wanted some fresh Jersey corn for our table. I knew the market had expanded, but was not prepared for the megaplex, three-parking-lot corporate beast it had become. I wandered in bewilderment through the aisles and levels, through the indoor and outdoor sections, through the lawn furniture and garden ornaments, through the tablecloths and fancy arranged bouquets, through the bakery and the takeout aisles, looking… looking for that bin of unshucked corn that I remembered from childhood. Finally, I arrived. There was the bin—maybe not too far from its original location. I began to gather my dozen ears and burst into tears.
That is one story—here is another. I began gardening when I bought my house in Narrowsburg in 1993. I was 40 years old. I got a neighbor to plow up a section of field that once had been (I was told) potato fields. The dirt was pure clay, red and hard, and the weeds were strong in that field, and did not hesitate to return. But I was determined. I had heard that raised beds were the way to go in such an environment. I spent hard days digging raised beds and then, ignorant of everything, planted all my crops in the ditches between the raised beds.
Miraculously, I had homegrown food that year, as I have had every year since. I have learned many things and have improved my soil little by little, so that now the dirt atop the beds is a rich mahogany black. I have battled slugs, weeds, too much rain, too little rain, the wrong crops for my zone, and animal predation (this year, raccoons). But every year, I have a harvest, and I have learned to can, and my shining jars of pickles, green beans and tomatoes sustain me through the long Catskill winters.
Every garden is an experiment, as every gardener will tell you.
My father is now living in an assisted living center in New Jersey, near the town where I grew up. Recently, on a visit, I had the opportunity to meet and dine with Mr. Sickles, the remaining patriarch of the family that once ran Sickles Farm. He must be a zillionaire now, but he still talks about farming. He told me that the house where I was raised was once one of his fields, before all the development began. He planted it in corn, every season.
So, corn. Jersey corn. I was sleeping in an old cornfield as I went through all my teenage angst. That is so comforting to me now, and so right.