Elizabeth Lillis, Faculty Member
Tiny tomato guts have splattered on my 4 year old’s nose and cheeks. ‘Mommy, this one is my favorite!’ he gleefully exclaims. The vines are straining on the upright cages we have staked in our garden. My littlest child (who is just a year old) eagerly reaches for anything spherical, regardless of color, and together we work to find a suitable snack amongst the fruits. This year our bounty is encouraging. The seedlings we planted in late May have yielded many clusters of cherry tomatoes: yellow pears, orange and maroon globes, tiny red Super Sweet 100s, oblong Juliets, and a new variety - the striped Sunrise Bumble Bee. This year we may in fact time our family summer travel right and get to enjoy the harvest even more than the neighborhood birds and bunnies.
Our garden began (and remains) a modest endeavor. We migrated from large pots to a permanent cinder block raised bed after just one year of reveling in the flavor of food grown at our own home. There is a delicious excitement when the seed catalogs arrive in the mail in February, when it feels impossible that the land will ever warm up. Plump green beans, towering basil, sugar snap peas — that never seem to last on the vine more than one day with our eager hands — spicy arugula, zucchini, even my Mom’s favorite herb - marjoram. I share stories with friends and colleagues about varieties that were successes, and more often failures, so as to plan out our garden for the year. My father-in-law, a proper farmer with many years of experience growing for his own large family, eagerly advises me and we plan to share seeds, dog-earing the same shared catalog. My notebook of sketches, diagrams, and measurements has dirt-smudged and rain spattered pages reflecting the live data-collecting from previous summers.
Now that I have children the process of growing some food that we eat has taken on new meaning. How much more important food became when I considered how my pregnant body fueled every cell that was to become my child. Their bodies (and all of ours) are created from ingested molecules, and it is my responsibility as a parent to select and provide this nourishment. I am helping to build their very bodies. What more wonderful way to do this than to collaborate with the Earth in the generation of our food, and experience the wonder as it emerges directly from our own yard?
When choosing foods at the market I aim to minimize our exposure to toxic chemicals - pesticides, persistent metals and bioaccumulated chemicals all weigh on my mind as I place food in my basket. I am fortunate to have choices, and I have prioritized investing in better foods for my family. I have adopted the mantra of ‘shop the perimeter,’ spending more time at the edges of the supermarket, where more food is fresh and less processed. I also read labels and signage much more closely, and I rely on resources such as Environmental Working Group for their ‘Clean 15’ and ‘Dirty 12’ lists of produce recommendations based on pesticide loads. My own research is only part of the story; more and more, supermarkets are labeling the origin and sourcing of their products, and companies are advertising the ingredients of their items with more clarity. This is critical. What we eat should not be mysterious, and we have the right to know what is in our food.
Our home garden is a place that I feel especially encouraged by. We chose the soil placed in the raised bed, and now we conduct our own yearly D.Y.O. by growing food. What will we try this spring? Should we expand to include more permanent plants like blueberries? Will this be the year I actually learn how to preserve and can some of our tiny crop? I promise to myself to pull in the herbs next October and dry them; this year I wasted the opportunity. My notebook entries for 2018 begin with a flurry.
And that is the beauty of a garden. You get to try it all, again. You get to experience it, immerse yourself in the buzzing and blooming beauty of the plants and then months later look wistfully at the brown, or more often white-encrusted earth, imagining all the possibilities that will come with the next spring.