Growing Up a Gardener

Angelina Conti tells of her life growing up a gardener.

| April/May 2001

  • Growing Up a Gardener
    Growing up a gardener can have a profound affect on how you view the world.
    Photo courtesy MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors

  • Growing Up a Gardener

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.


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