By Cindy Lamb
Seeds of Hope in the City – How Does Your Garden Grow?
As I watch spring creep in each sunrise and sunset from my desk overlooking Village Drive, I see buds popping like corn on the fragile forms of pear, tulip and dogwood alike. One day in particular seems to have the seasons clashing. To the northwest, a wall of dark gray and its preceding balmy winds promise rain in two minutes. Glancing at the television, a bright wall of weather technology promises snow in two days. The bulletin crawls beneath to make sure we know of a tornado watch. Welcome to spring in the Ohio Valley.
As you read this, we’ve been jump-starting warm weather for weeks. It’s taken some time this year to shake the ice from our Fleur di Lis, though last fall’s windstorm and winter’s deep freeze spawned a baby boom from the power outages. Candlelight has its benefits.
The light will be different this summer, as the sun and moon filter through fewer trees. The missing shade of magnolias and oaks won’t cool our lawns. My hope is that the storms have offered us more wood for our fireplaces and stoves come winter. Perhaps artists have cabbaged on fallen trees for their creations? A friend is utilizing the surplus of trunks and logs for growing shiitake mushrooms. Whatever the healing and recycling brings of the year’s raging elements, there is one sign that all can read and appreciate. The garden.
Yes, We Can
Nestled in the asphalt and concrete of our city are flowers, fruits and vegetables that thrive – some with and others without the tending of human hands. The birds help and the breezes do their part. A bounty – enough for a family feast – sprouts amid the squalor of traffic, utility cables and construction.
In the Highlands, we coax beauty and food out of every available space we can. Indoors, a vase is waiting for tulips and a bowl is ready for tomatoes. Outdoors, a child waits for a snapdragon to play with and a cat waits for nip.
A garden is a combination of eagerness and patience. Those are two of the qualities that came to mind as I watched Michelle Obama break ground for the first Victory Garden at the White House since WWII. The First Lady, with shovel in hand, was joined by 26 elementary school children who learned the value of growing our own food.
The first planting included spinach, broccoli, lettuces, kale and collards. A beehive is also part of the project. Some produce will be cooked in the White House kitchen and some will go to local soup kitchens. Our nation is eager to make things right and it will take as much or more patience than anticipating a garden. The harvest should be bountiful.
If you can locate citizens who were aware of victory gardens, they will tell you their parents and community leaders worked tirelessly and with much pride on their small crops. They are in their seventh decade and over, and their stories will be handed down, hopefully not from war to war or during a crisis, but from hand to earth, plant to plate.
Councilman Tom Owen was of kindergarten age when the war was coming to a close. He recalls that many of the schools plowed their own victory gardens. In his DVD collection, “Life in the Old Neighborhood,” the images of a nation in crisis involved personal and public gardens. Government signs reading ‘Food Is Ammunition!” put the educational and patriotic incentive into motion in one fell swoop.
“It was a time of austerity and scarcity,” Owen says. “The gardens were a way to help yourself and your neighbors by growing and canning.”
A lot of what Owen absorbs through the city is what he sees from his bicycle. “I continually appreciate people who are putting things out – flowers as well as food – despite their economic circumstances. I see a lot of diverse communities when I ride. Even gardening in a confined space can be enjoyed by all. They make an effort, it means so much and is a statement for the community.”
My mother was raised in the country and brought a lot of it to the cities and suburbs where my two siblings and I grew up. She was a teenager during the war and remembers victory gardens in both rural and urban areas. “The food ration stamps weren’t always enough,” she said, “so we all started victory gardens to supplement our families.”
Mom still cans. Row after row of Mason, Ball and Kerr jars glisten with bold contents from her garden as well as local farmers’ markets – green beans, pickled beets, relish, tomatoes, pears, apple butter, sweet pickles ... canning may be a lost art, but it is a beautiful sight to see in my pantry after a visit down south.
Thinking Inside the Box
After helping out the good folks at Misty Meadows Farm at the Phoenix Hill Farmers’ Market and joining Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) for two years, Original Highlands resident Christy Grass decided it was time to take more control of and bring more joy to her family’s food. Receiving a pressure cooker for Christmas, Christy took some lessons from her mother and was thrilled to pick up the tradition of canning food.
Along with husband Scott and 3-year-old daughter Kaya, the family is both active and activists. Hiking and climbing in Red River Gorge one week and supporting local growers the next, they are vibrant members of the community. As a nurse, Grass is aware of the nurturing aspects of locally grown foods.
“People in the country say that kids in the city don’t know where food comes from,” she laughs. “Well, mine does!” Kaya participates in selecting turnips, cantaloupes, beets and beans alongside her parents at both the Phoenix Hill and Bardstown Road farmers’ markets. Since the Grass family has been canning and subscribing to CSA, they notice there are fewer trips to the supermarket and the food tastes so much better.
Their personal property is shaded and scarce so gardening space it tight. “We did window boxes with lettuce, spinach, radishes and such last year,” she states, “but squirrels ate everything as soon as it sprouted. I’ve done herbs in boxes with success and that’s what I’ll be doing again this year.”
The other box on the family property is for compost. “I never thought I would get this involved with it but I have,” she laughs. “My compost pile is ready for the growing season. I love to go outside when it’s warm and hear my worms wiggling around!”
A Garden of Verses
Brigid Kaelin is an established singer-songwriter and one of Louisville’s finest musical collaborators. One might observe, after countless performances, radio broadcasts and studio invitations, that she plays well with others. While lurking on Facebook one day, I put forth the question “Do you have a garden” to anyone who might respond. Kaelin returned with the fact that she enjoys front yard crops. She co-ops with local Americana music promoter Charles Spivey, a.k.a. The Bourbon Cowboy, in their respective Highlands-area front yards. Sharing a love for quality, original music as well as a strong sense of humor, Kaelin and Spivey maintain a gardening friendship.
"I’ve run out of room in my garden," she says, “So, rather than digging up a new bed, I’m sharing another front yard. Charles is new to gardening, he’s got great soil already, and I love to teach. His front yard is completely
landscaped with bulbs and perennials, so we’re planting around the flowers. So far, we’ve got carrots, corn, peas, soybeans, three types of lettuces and plenty of herbs. Inside, we’ve got over 100 seedlings started for other vegetables ... mostly tomatoes and peppers, but also some cantaloupe and squash. There’s also a salsa garden (cilantro, peppers, garlic, onions, tomatoes).”
Neighbors who prefer the manicured appearance may frown upon front yard gardens, but if there’s an extra bushel of tomatoes or peppers in it for them, all should go well.
“My front yard garden isn’t planted in rows. It looks more ornamental, but pretty much every plant is edible,” explains Kaelin. “I try to keep it from looking like a farm and more like a pleasant place to sit down, read a book and watch the butterflies. I’ve got loads of herbs there, along with scattered veggies, likes peppers, eggplant and squash. There’s also an island bed of tomatoes in another part of the yard.”
There are also flowers in the mix but not just for bouquets. “I plant chamomile and cone flowers (Echinacea) because you can use them for tea. I’ve also got some resurrection lilies because I came across a box of bulbs that someone was throwing away.”
Kaelin wishes she could attend the Bardstown Road Farmers’ Market more often and that it went on later. Friday night gigs can push into the early morning and if you’ve seen her commanding that accordion, you know what she’s saying.
“I run on musician’s hours,” she says, confiding, “Saturday sun, a walk to the farmers’ market, a stop at the omelet booth, and walking around the other booths about ten times until I can decide what to buy for dinner is a perfect summer morning.”
When asked what the perfect supper is that Kaelin could pull from her garden, she replies “Definitely edamame (soybeans) and some fresh salsa. Then I’d do grilled veggies. Zucchini, squash, garlic, peppers, tomatoes, eggplant. Then some cantaloupe.”
Any song lyrics on food to close this conversation? “I don’t have any, but I always sing John Prine’s ‘Spanish Pipedream’ when it’s peach season.”
“Blow up your TV, throw away your paper
Go to the country, build you a home
Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches
Try an’ find Jesus on your own”
See Cindy's companion piece, "Dialing Wendell Berry
," for an account of the writer's phone call with the author.