Each summer, I look forward to eating fresh vegetables that I have picked myself from my own garden. After planting vegetable seeds and plants in the spring, I eagerly await the arrival of seeing the first signs of fresh produce. I continue to check on my plants throughout the summer as they grow, mature, and eventually bloom. Then, when the first signs of a vegetable arrive, I anxiously await the day that the vegetable is ready to be harvested by my hands.
Early morning, after a sweaty workout and before my toddlers are awake for the new day, I head out to check on my vegetable plants, hoping that there is something for me to pick, place in my grocery sack, and take inside to wash. Some mornings I return with an empty sack because the vegetables just aren’t quite ready. Other times, my grocery sack is overflowing with large zucchini and tomatoes. Each year and each day is different. One year, my in-laws couldn’t grow zucchini from any of their plants while I had them overflowing on my kitchen counter. Other years, my pepper plants produced not one pepper, while this year I have a steady flow of them each week to pick. Rain, sun, heat, bugs, weeds, the large size of neighboring vegetable plants, unexpected frost, etc. are all determiners, in my experience, of the amount and size of the vegetables my plants produce.
As a little girl, I experienced planting and harvesting vegetables with my Great Uncle who planted a large vegetable garden in the backyard of his suburban home. Growing up on a farm himself, he brought his farmer roots with him to the Chicago suburbs, set aside a plot of land in the middle of his backyard, and planted vegetables every year. This was not typical in the suburbs, and I have yet to see a large vegetable plot in anyone’s backyard. He’d invite me over on the days he’d plant his carrots because that was my favorite to harvest. Pulling the gigantic carrot out of the ground was one of the coolest mysteries I experienced as a kid. I still have memories of what it felt like to take a hold of the green top, pull as hard as I could, and sometimes with his help, uncover a long, orange carrot that had been hidden under the soil. He’d let me take home anything I picked. I even have memories of sneaking out of my bed at night, going downstairs, opening the refrigerator, quietly opening the bottom drawer, and taking a bite of one of the carrots I picked with my own hands. (I wish my own kids loved eating vegetables like that!)
In high school, my father started planting tomato and herb plants wherever he could find space in his yard. In one house, he used a small area behind his garage that received direct sunlight, in another house, he had to use pots. The Italian that he is, the tomatoes and herbs were used in his delicious pasta meals. He’d teach me the smell of different herbs and how to use them in cooking. Whenever there was a tomato ready to be harvested, we’d pick it, wash it, slice it, sprinkle it with salt, and sink our teeth into its juiciness. Now, I find myself doing the same thing. A juicy tomato is one of my favorite things to eat before dinner.
When I moved from my apartment in the city of Chicago to my husband’s farm once we were married, growing my own vegetables was something I looked forward to. However, I didn’t know much, other than I had to plant seeds and watch them grow. With the help of my mother-in-law that first spring on the farm, she taught me how and when to plant each type of vegetable. Throughout growing season, she’d remind me of what to do, when to do it, and how to deal with certain weed or bug problems. When it was time to harvest a particular vegetable, she’d tell me what to look for and when to pick it. I was so new at gardening that when she told me the potatoes were ready, I was really confused: I didn’t see any potatoes above the soil that needed to be picked. With a laugh, my husband revealed that the potatoes were actually underground and I had to dig them up. (No way!! Just like those carrots!) I brought that revelation to my dad, who couldn’t believe it either. That next spring, he planted his own potatoes in his small suburban garden behind his garage and enjoyed discovering them in the soil when it was time for their harvest.
Moving to the country has included many new experiences for this city-gone-country girl. Growing my own vegetables is something I’ve loved from the beginning. Whether you live in the country, the city, or the suburbs, it’s something we can all experience if you have a sunny spot of soil. Urban gardens are popping up in various cities, and it’s fun to see how city dwellers are learning about and experiencing growing their own food. On our own family farm, my husband and I look forward to teaching our children about where our food comes from and how to provide safe, healthy food for our community. And wherever you may find yourself, give it a try sometime; you may be surprised at what will grow (above or below ground)!
Kristen Strom, Brimfield
Kristen is a city-gone-country girl after her marriage to her husband, Grant, who is a full-time farmer. You can follow her stories and adventures on her blog, Farm Notes from Little Dahinda, IL.