When I was growing up in Bayville in the 50’s, a beach town on the North Shore of LI, my father kept a magnificent garden. We were a family of eight children, so there was a lot of motivation for him to tend this garden. His wages were extremely low, even for the times, and he had a lot of mouths to feed. He also went clamming and fishing whenever he could to further supply food for his hungry family. Since resources were plentiful in those days, he often came home with a bushel of clams or a large fish for dinner. One of my fondest memories is my dad opening clams for us in the backyard, topping the raw clams with a hefty tablespoon of horseradish sauce. We swallowed them like greedy baby birds.
Since Bayville is literally a beach town with the LI Sound on one side of the peninsula and Oyster Bay Harbor, an inlet of the Sound a few blocks away on the other, the soil there is very sandy. Somehow my father managed to produce bushels of produce every spring and summer despite the poor quality of the soil. We eventually realized as we got older, that he was an organic gardener before the idea became trendy. His secret was the fish innards he plowed into his soil from his fishing expeditions. (Remember Squanto and the Pilgrims?) Whatever the reason, he was legendary in the neighborhood for his bountiful vegetable garden.
It was not only what he was able to grow in his garden that gave him satisfaction. It also satisfied his need for a sanctuary of his own. Where else could the father of eight children find a space to call his own? Right after work during the growing season he would go immediately to his garden to weed, dig and gather his produce. We were not invited to be part of this activity. Years later, my son…his grandson…stepped into the garden out of curiousity and was immediately reprimanded for it. It was my dad’s sacred space.
I began gardening when we bought our first home in the 80’s in Huntington, LI. The property was overgrown with an assortment of bushes, flowers and weeds. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to how things were planted. I sought solace from the tedium of being a working mother of two young children by retreating to the yard whenever possible to produce a more beautiful landscape. When we moved from that house, fifteen years later, I felt sad about leaving behind the re-landscaped property I had worked so hard at cultivating. At the last minute I grabbed some bulbs from my peonies to plant in our new garden where they now thrive.
Our next house, bought in the early 90’s came with an already landscaped, somewhat neglected garden. The hill behind our house has old-growth azaleas lining the back brick wall that become a wall of pink and fuschia in the spring. The hill itself is covered with lavender rhododendrons to which we have added over the years. They burst into bloom just on the heels of the fading azaleas, so the month of May is a continuous, glorious display of color. Next to the concrete patio is what I refer to as a mini-English garden. It is divided into four squares, with small hedges dividing each quadrant. I can’t even remember what was growing there when we first arrived, except one amazing quadrant filled with cutting zinnias. Nothing of the original garden flowers remain, however, through natural attrition.
Over the past fifteen years my husband and I have toiled like serfs on the land. Because we are surrounded by old growth oak trees, a sycamore next door, and several towering pines, there is no end to the cleaning up we must continuously do every season. Over the years I have tried out many variations of flowers, many of which succumbed to the unbearable heat we’ve had over the past decade of summers.
I’ve finally managed to grow perennials in all four quadrants of the mini-garden which seem, at last, to be able to tolerate the intense heat and the rocky, sandy soil. My children have grown up watching this garden change and develop and my son, in particular, often bragged about it to relatives and friends. I have enjoyed having beautiful growing things to look at through my newly enlarged kitchen window and we have all enjoyed our garden during the months we are able to sit outdoors (until the mosquitos arrive).
About four years ago my daughter came back to live with us after seven years of living on the West Coast in gorgeous Santa Cruz, California. During her seven-year stay she spontaneously became quite a gardener herself. She moved into a lovely old house that needed a lot of TLC with a completely overgrown yard. She hacked away at the weeds and slowly but surely reclaimed much of the yard. She planted pots of flowers and put them everywhere and within a couple of years her garden and yard were magnificent, complete with a couple of Birds of Paradise plantings.
Leaving her garden paradise was heartbreaking for her, but she could not find enough work to support herself in Santa Cruz so she had to move home. During her first couple of years at our house she was not able to do much gardening due to her recovery from her fourth and fifth open-heart surgeries. (That’s another story!) About two years ago she began to putter in my garden and then finally requested a plot of land to cultivate her own.
My son labored to convert a patch of ivy into fertile ground for her and she began her garden immediately. Last year it was amazing, and this year it is superb! Even she can’t believe how luxuriant her plantings of Columbine, Foxglove, Chinese Lanterns, African Daisies and giant Sunflowers are. At least once a day she is outside tending her garden, reminding me, of course, of my father. She has had a lot of stress in her life due to health issues, so gardening has become her favorite form of meditation and exercise.
Meanwhile, at about the same time as when she moved to California, my son was beginning to put down roots in Brooklyn, NY. He moved several times in his first five years there, but eventually settled into a brownstone apartment in a lovely neighborhood known as Carroll Gardens. Many of the brownstones in that neighborhood have a tiny plot of land in the front of the apartment that lends itself to gardening. Some gardeners in the neighborhood have made showcases of their plots; others could care less and grow a healthy crop of weeds.
True to his roots (pun intended), he quickly took charge of his plot since no one else in the building seemed to care. It required a lot of attention to cull the weeds and ugly overgrown bushes and to re-till and replenish the soil so he could plant a garden. But he persisted and within a couple of seasons he, too, produced a noteworthy garden. Because he lives on a busy residential street, many of his special tulips get picked by passersby (probably kids) which causes him no end of frustration. But mostly his garden has become for him, too, a respite from his stressful work. He is a freelance camera operator in the film business so his life can be very hectic and often keeps him away from home for 12-hour shifts for days at a time. But when he finally gets to spend a few days at home, he is often in his garden.
Nowadays we often exchange garden photos online and chat in real time about our gardens when we are together. This has been a lovely way for all of us to connect and to share what has clearly become a family tradition. I never planned it this way; I never even thought about the possibility of this happening. It just evolved…over decades…and has become a great source of peace and joy in our lives.