Growing Up a Gardener

Angelina Conti tells of her life growing up a gardener.
By Angelina Conti
April/May 2001
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Growing up a gardener can have a profound affect on how you view the world.
Photo courtesy MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors


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Growing Up a Gardener

I am a gardening idealist. When I plan my vegetable plot in the depths of winter, I spare no detail. Only time-honored heritage varieties will be allowed within my (fenceless, of course) garden. I will companion-plant, using only natural fertilizers and absolutely no pesticides. Every day, I will come home from school and water each of my plants by hand. In the evenings, as the days get longer and warmer, I will go out into the garden and weed. In no time at all plump, delicious fruit will drop off the vine into my outstretched hand.

By late September I have sobered. I have also labored, cursed, stomped, cajoled and pleaded with my garden. I'm lucky if I can still see my tomato plants, luckier still if their overripe and neglected fruit doesn't burst in my hasty hand. The beans, though successful, have come and gone, and now their withered remains sulk in a corner of the garden, glaring at me. The melons, so beautiful and eager to grow in early July, have succumbed to a strange, unknown browning, and their fruits, so promising, never progressed past softball size. Then there are the weeds. Tall, coarse pink things that go nameless, dozens of creeping oriental grasses, milkweed, bindweed, daisy flea bane and clover, all have made a home wedged between my unsuspecting plants. They push out the parsley, shade the cucumbers and strangle the basil.

Despite my gardening troubles, I do not own the most substandard hundred square feet of soil on the East Coast. I work with what most gardeners have: land with a history. In its recorded past, my backyard has been a pine forest, a family farm, a turn-of-the-last-century housing development, and, most recently, an organic garden. Before that it was the delicate wetland soil that crouches throughout in this corner of Pennsylvania, shifting and creeping slowly from the Appalachian Mountains to the churning Delaware River a few miles away. All of these changed the ecosystem... ruined it, some would argue. When I garden, I rail against 300 years of history that has done to my backyard what Americans have successfully done to most of this country: created an ecosystem that doesn't know what it wants to be.

The land is only part of my problem, however. The other part is my own failing, my own idealism, that excessive plotting and planning in the muffled folds of winter. I'm a political gardener, you see: a dreamer, a revolutionary with spade in hand. And despite all my weeds, I wouldn't change that for the world.

I have come to understand my radical relationship with gardening by deciphering my own history. It is a tangled series of memories. I know that when I was 14 I planted an herb garden, probably because I was a teenage witch, an adolescent interested in earth-based spirituality and magic. This sparked memories of my childhood, before my parents' vegetable patch was lost to the demands of job and family (namely a younger me). My first plot was composed mostly of parched and cramped seedlings from the local supermarket. Most of the plants died before August. I mark that year as the beginning.

Over time, I found that gardening could be both loving — cultivation, beauty, nourishment — and rebellious, because it was self- sufficient, because it represented time spent away from the TV, and because, I discovered, the agribusiness in this country is a far cry from the family farms of yore. It spoke to my activist upbringing and my love for the planet, my need to have a positive effect on the environment around me. It also, some how, spoke to my adoles cent need to be different, to serve some higher purpose. I learned about older vari eties of plants that have been abandoned as more techno logical farming techniques have advanced. I was about 15 when I began trawling the Web, looking for heritage seed suppliers. I was lucky, because I already knew how to speak the double tongue of the Internet. I knew to look for "heirloom," "open-pollinated," and just plain old "seeds." Each of these described what I wanted: history, legacy, interesting names, and, as I discovered, fantastic colors. (To my delight, most vegetables come in some shade of purple.) I remember returning home from school each day, curious to see what low-budget publishing treasure trove had arrived in the mail. Later still, I would come home and descend into my cavernous basement, to see what green beauty had poked its head above the soil while the heater rumbled beneath it.

I've had my own gardener's education. I've discovered what gardens require. I use compost, that dark-brown earth that regenerates itself under the pile of leaves at the corner of our yard, and store-bought soil, both of which are swallowed by the immutable red clay of this area. About once a month I weed-wack the ruffian species that invade my garden, tempted by the rich underground nutrients. (I've had some difficulty defining "weeds", more trouble still convincing myself that I have more rights than they do.) I water more than I would like to think, often returning to the house at dusk with the bottom half of my pants soaked and my shoes masses of squelching rubber. I've weighed the merits of diatomaceous earth, fish emulsion, worm castings, seed weed powder, various `guano' and, frankly, chemicals. I've watched beautiful plants come to fruition, and equally beautiful plants succumb to disease and insects. And even though I love it, at some point in July, when the sun is just too hot, or I have other things to do, or when I lose my patience, I give up. I sneak in Miracle Gro in the early evening, hoping that the gods of organic gardening aren't looking, and I relinquish control to the weeds.

I am only just learning that, love is a work made beautiful. Gardening has taught me that. From heritage seeds I moved on to Green Politics, illegal community gardens and an interest in sustainable development. None of these concepts were foreign to me prior, but they all became that much more real when I could hold them in the palm of my hand. Now when I pass abandoned lots, I see flourishing flowers, plump vegetables and working people. When I see the green lawns of suburbia, I see wastefulness and potential. And when I look at my yard I see a great space for learning, and I see no end in sight. Perhaps these are the pieces of my own personal puzzle, but I doubt it. I think there is something more here — a connection, a promise, a pulse gardeners have their finger on. When we do it ourselves, we do it for more than the status of a green lawn, but for something much deeper.

At its best, gardening is an act of protection, the assuming of a guardianship, and, at its worst, a domination. And in its most common form, it is a precarious partnership with the planet. Real gardeners, I've decided, do it out of love, out of the highest form of idealism. We establish trees because we are confident that someone will be around in 50 or 100 years to see them. We plant pansies because they serve no other purpose than being beautiful. We grow vegetables because there's something special in eating something you planted, even though you could just as easily buy it. We don't need to do any of this, no one's making us, and there are probably just as many people who would rather see a parking lot than a bunch of plants. Gardeners work from a better vision of the world and of the future. Here's hoping they all know that, and that they don't quit any time soon.


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