It was a season of abundance.
Our family planted our first fullscale home vegetable garden. Not only did we harvest a plentiful crop of fruits of the earth, but we reaped some sustaining lessons on man and nature.
Eager for success, we started early -- about the time of the Great Snow of February -- filling little pots with earth and seeds and putting them on an old table in front of a window. Although we lovingly watered them, half the seeds didn't germinate. The soil in other pots mildewed and had to be thrown out.
The tomatoes, however, did beautifully and in due course were planted outside. Only then did we learn this variety was susceptible to fungus and so they, too, were thrown out.
We went to a garden store and brought seedlings.
In late March, when we were already frantic about missing pea-planting time, enter Mr. Palmer, the rototiller man. For $15, he plowed our rockhard backyard crabgrass, saving us from 10 hours of digging, callouses and a backache. The double-bladed monster machine tore into the sod, dragging Mr. Palmer along as through he were a rag doll. Where there had been a nice, level expanse of crabgrass there was now, in full view of passersby, an ugly clump of crabgrass clods.
"Just pull out the grass," said Mr. Palmer. (A month later, we were still struggling to pull out the grass, most of which had survived the rototiller and taken root again.)
Mr. Palmer then went on to till a flower bed.
Our 6-year-old son, who had been watching, ran screaming to me.
"Stop!" he implored, already in tears. "That's where I planted my carrots and beets."
In earliest March, as soon as the snow had melted, he had taken seeds for two root vegetables requiring a light and crumbly soil and, with his plastic toy shovel, dug homes for them in the heavy, damp mud.
A true believer, he had read the seed-packet promise that they were "easy to grow." He could taste the results already. Daily, sometimes hourly, he checked their progress and always was disappointed to report there was no progress.
We explained to him as best we could that they would not -- could not -- survive. They had been buried alive.
But he was stubborn. He trusted nature's benevolence and the seed packet. He kept screaming and hanging onto Mr. Palmer's sleeve to stop the plowing.
"Son," said Mr. Palmer, ignoring the roar and vibrations of the machine, "how did you plant those seeds?"
"It said a foot deep," said our boy, "so I dug down over here and I planted them and then I covered them up."
"Well," said Mr. Palmer as gently as he could, "they won't come up. You were supposed to work the earth a foot deep but you weren't supposed to plant them so deep. Now, you're a bright lad. You know seeds need water. They can't get water that deep."
"Yes, they can," our boy screamed, still faithful.
"And they need sun, too, after they get started. There's not much sun here. And the earth is too hard. It'll be better after we dig it up. It's best to start over and do it right."
Still crying, worse than ever, our son walked to the other side of the garden, away from the murdering machine and the mean adults, and made his final plea:
"But you'll cut them in HALF," he wailed.
Now, seven months after that confrontation, I can think of no better way than by planting a garden to teach a child -- or an adult -- about the workings of nature. Or to awaken or reawaken a respect, even an awe, for the beauty and bounty of the earth.
Every visitor to our home over the summer was escorted personally by our son on a tour of the tomatoes, green peppers, broccoli, okra, green beans, lima beans, eggplant, peas, lettuce, zucchini, pumpkins, corn, strawberries, cucumbers, and of our herbs -- mint, dill, parsley, sage, rosemary, tarragon, lemon balm, coriander, basil, rosemary and lavender, and of our giants, the sunflowers.
The garden became a family project, involving us in preparing the soil with composted manure and leaf-mold, planting and transplanting, watering and, later, in the daily tours of inspection, the picking, cleaning, cooking and eating.
It is delightful to watch a young child pick lettuce leaves one by one, wash and dry each leaf and then, finally, assemble and serve and eat the salad.
Even our twins, when they celebrated their third birthday during the height of the tomato harvest, helped. Once they learned about colors, they stopped picking the green tomatoes and started picking the red ones. The twins perface their meals with a discussion of where the food comes from.
"Is this from our garden?" they ask about a cucumber. "Is this from our garden?" they ask about a hot dog.
They have obligned us by eating okra and drinking considerable quantities of tomato juice and by exclaiming, "I love zucchini," when presented with it for the 10th straight day.
They eat green beans straight from the plant, strawberries off the vine. They are healthy.
We always marveled when a seed sprouted. "They do it at night," our son decided, because in all his tours of inspection, he never actually caught them in the act.
My husband was impressed by the green beans, paying them a high compliment: "They taste like they came from the store."
We watched the sunflowers develop seeds, and watched the birds eat them. We were amazed to see our green peppers turn a brilliant red and to watch our corn grow so high that the children could get lost in it. We ran out to chase a fearless brown rabbit, whose habit it was to take one large bite from many tomatoes. I came to sympathize with Farmer McGregor.
I learned an important rule of gardening without poisons: Plant enough for the rabbits and birds and bugs and maybe an extra one for the kids to step on.
Houseguests were served ratatouille -- the famous Provencal stew of zucchini, eggplant, green peppers, tomatoes, olive oil, onions and garlic -- and "green spaghetti," made with a pesto sauce of basil, cheese, garlic and nuts. They are zucchini soup and gumbo made with our okra and tomatoes and eggplant Parmigiana. We had homemade pizza with our tomato sauce and green-pepper topping.
One dinner party for 10 was fully supplied with as much sweet corn picked from the garden minutes earlier as could be eaten. Since we used no pesticides, lots of the ears were not store-perfect, but they tasted fine.
I put up bread-and-butter pickles from our cucumbers and used the dill to attempt -- and fail -- at making kosher dills. It was nice to know how things used to be done.
Although economy was not our primary motive, I was pleased to find we got at least $10 worth of eggplants from three seedlings that cost 79 cents and at least $15 worth of green peppers from six plants costing 79 cents. Zucchini seeds cost 75 cents and have yielded at least 40 pounds. Twelve tomato plants yielded at least 60 pounds. All four are still producing.
Like other city kids, my early contact with nature was limited and unenthusiastic. Growing up in the synthetic '50s, we ate things frozen and canned. Until my mid-20s, I thought cranberry sauce can from cans at Thanksgiving.
But Dimly remember my father's post-war Victory garden and the wonderful Sunday trips to pick the vegetables. Now, I want our children to see things growing and know that those things can nourich them as surely as the packaged, waxed, prepared products we buy. I want to see their mother -- who washes, cleans and tidies up -- able to work outside, with dirt on her hands. I want them to know there is value in physical labor and contact with the earth, that we reap what we sow and that it must be done with discipline and knowledge.
We are now watching our fall crops --peas and lettuce -- develop and we are cleaning up the corn patch, putting the dry, shredded stalks into the compost pile where they will decay and be used to enrich the soil of next summer's garden. At the dinner table, we discuss what we will plant next year: cantaloupe and watermelon, cauliflower and cabbage and carrots and beets.