Finding the Essence

I grew up following my grandfather around the garden. By all accounts he wasn’t a good husband or father to his 16 kids, and I’m told he was once a vicious drunk. But he was a good grandfather to me. Age likely tempered him as it does most of us, but I think it was largely because my memories of him were from that garden. With 16 kids you need to grow some of your own food, and he knew his way around the garden. He’d likely shake his head at my flower garden, wondering why I’d take up so much valuable land on ornamentals. But I’ve raised a more manageable number of kids, and there’s benefit to flowers that go beyond caloric intake.

I think of myself as primarily a flower gardener, but taking stock I have a respectable number of herbs and edibles mixed in; basil, cilantro, oregano, lemon verbena, chives, monarda, dill, bell peppers, jalapeño peppers and four varieties of tomatoes. I also have two apple trees, blueberry bushes, a lime tree and coffee bush in pots… and those frustratingly unproductive grapes. This year I opted out of some other vegetables I’ve traditionally grown like nasturtium, sunflowers, string beans and squash because they simply overwhelmed the garden.

The harvest is already coming in, particularly the herbs. The challenge now is to keep up with them. Which means expanding the menu. Growing a new herb or vegetable offers two unique experiences; figuring out how to optimize its growth and then what to do with it when its time to harvest. When I was in Israel the employee kitchen had bunches of freshly picked mint that people would plunk stem and all into their tea.  I’ve been growing mint for years but never thought to do that until they taught by example.  Now that the mint is exploding I’ve taken to drinking more tea with fresh mint and give a nod to my former co-workers for showing me the way.

So consuming the edibles is one benefit, but the larger gift is in living amongst them day-to-day. Rub the leaves and smell the oil released on the fingertips. Flowering herbs like cilantro, chives and monarda (bee balm) are good for the local bee population, and good for me as I enjoy the show as they work their way around the garden. The garden becomes multidimensional. Good for the senses, good for the palette, good for the soul.

I think my grandfather was essentially a good man, but he was caught up in the frustrating struggles of his life and alcohol poisoned his mind. The garden drew out his attributes, and I saw the good in him. I haven’t struggled with the demons he struggled with, but I know I’m better for having been in the garden. And so was he.

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