Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Gardening, Part I: Mothers' Hands

     I have been putting aside writing this post since things have gotten very busy.  I’m diving back into my dissertation work and will have my hands full researching and writing my prospectus.  It may be more appropriate to write this now anyway as the fall season is coming to an unofficial end and the dreary, gray clouds roll in filled with snow and biting cold.  I write this with some bitterness because Buffalo has a long, and often sunless, winter and the thought of not seeing green, vivid color, or plant life for the next five months takes its toll on my spirit.  In fact, I have learned I (and I suspect many others) deal with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) every winter.  Fortunately, it’s not severe and I do my best to soothe it with careful attention to diet, Vitamin D supplementation, a light box, and restorative activities that help center me.  I try my best to survive the cold, listless days with beadwork, photography, yoga, reading, puzzles, or (if I am absolutely without energy) binge-watching TV shows on Netflix.
      Before we fully succumb to the short days and long evenings, I want to reflect on gardening.  When I was a little girl, we often visited my grandmother’s house on the reservation, and my mother, sister, and I sometimes lived there too.  It was a small two (?) bedroom house built by my grandfather’s own hands and it’s amazing to think they raised thirteen children there.  From what I remember, Grandma always had a small garden in the backyard where she grew tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, corn, green beans, and squash.  She often canned what she grew, or shopped from the nearby farmers, and made THE BEST homemade pickles with fresh dill, spices, and cucumbers.  Having worked in a cannery in the past, Grandma has a vast amount of knowledge on how to preserve tomatoes, chili sauce, beets, peaches, plums, black-caps, jams, or pretty much anything.  Many times I would come home from school and be greeted by the spicy sweet smell of salsa or the garlicky dill, acidic vinegar scent of pickles waiting to be canned in her pristine jars.  Sometimes I was sternly scolded for getting my grimy hands on her precious, clean Masons.  I would see her and my mother standing over the hot kitchen stove, boiling jars, peeling tomatoes with the speed and ease with which we might peel string cheese, shoving cucumbers into jars, and telling jokes and stories about rez happenings.  I usually kept out of their way so as to not be a pest, playing outside and making forts, but sometimes I stayed and watched, quietly enjoying the comfort and nurturing of two maternal generations who have taken good care of our family.  I can still remember the smell of onions and garlic lingering long in the pores of my mother's hands when she tucked me into bed later in the evening.  The scent permeates with the love, care, and strength of women providing nourishing sustenance for family so that we can live and thrive.  I dream of the day my own hands can one day carry on the tradition.  Though Grandma no longer has the energy to do these things these days, I still like to ask her about it and hopefully can learn myself someday. 
     I look back on these memories with such fondness.  I loved having the chance to water the garden and be her assistant, watching green fruits ripen under the hot, August sun, or being the one to pick these Creator-given gifts when they were ready.  We never knew how each growing season would treat us and sometimes our poor plants were flooded or scorched and our yield depended on that.  Regardless, we did our best.  It really makes you respect the old agricultural ways and farmers who do this for a living.  My mother inherited this gardening tradition and now has the green thumb of the family.  She lacks the land for a garden plot right now, but I assure you she has the ability to revive wilting plants destined for the garbage, or to magically produce more tomatoes than a ketchup factory might need in a week.  My aunt carries on the wonderful practice of food preservation and her pickles almost rival those of Grandma’s, especially her special spicy formula.
      I have been trying to keep these gardening traditions alive through my lowly little porch container garden over the past few years.  I started gardening in Oklahoma when I soon found out practically only cacti and prairie grass can survive heat of that magnitude.  My cucumbers and tomatoes did not stand a chance by the time the mid-June steambath hit and water would begin to sizzle once you poured it.  Exaggerations aside, my first attempt at gardening was a failure.  Then my husband and I moved back home to New York where I began to start container gardening using clay and plastic containers and store-bought soil.  I found that tomatoes thrived here, but lettuce not so much, and growing out of containers comes with its own challenges. 
      At our current apartment, I am fortunate to have a south-facing porch that gets plenty of sunlight from season to season.  I got a late start this year since I was finishing my comprehensive exams in mid-June.  This year I planted green beans (bush), kale, arugula, spinach, and basil from seed.  Since I started so late, I supplemented with plants I purchased at the nursery.  These included: strawberries, rosemary, thyme, oregano, lemon balm, catnip, mint, and lavender.  I had a wonderful turnout with the herbs, beans, and arugula.  In fact, soon I’ll be devoting a separate post for ways to harvest and preserve homegrown herbs.  This year, my spinach became the gardening casualty as well as the kale and green beans, but for different reasons.  Spinach turned out to be a less than stellar container plant because it needs more space to grow and branch out.  My kale became a breeding ground for a family of hungry caterpillars that transformed into what I believe were yellow sulphur butterflies.  I thought I was safe to plant a new batch of seeds after they cleared out, but a new generation introduced itself.  Luckily, I was able to enjoy a salad and a smoothie for a split second before they decimated my greens.  My last nemesis, red spider mites, attacked the leaves of my green beans  In late July, I noticed my leaves took on an unhealthy yellowy, spotty appearance and soon discovered tiny red bugs just barely visible by the naked eye on the underside of the leaves.  They quickly spread to other containers and it was too late to wage war on the little critters, but next year I’ll get my revenge.  I look forward to carrying on these experiences in six months (eek!).
      Thanks for listening to my ramblings about gardening, food preservation, memories, and my maternal teachers and inspirations.  Today I am grateful I had these experiences for they taught me the value of patience, hard work, love, and faith.  It brings me such great peace when I garden, connecting with my family, past memories, the natural world, and growing food I can pridefully enjoy consuming.  I know there is a larger story underneath this telling that I hope to unravel in another post about gardening, resistance, economic self-sufficiency, and sovereignty; but for now my mind must get some quiet rest before this winter storm hits us.  Enjoy your evening and take a moment to remember the greenery while the flakes fly. J

Do you have any beautiful and inspiring stories about your own or your relatives’ gardening experiences?  Or maybe you have natural remedies and advice to get rid of these pests?  Please feel free to share them in the comments.  I would love to hear them.

Delicious baby arugula leaves made for great salads and smoothies.  I really enjoyed it blended with pears or peaches and coconut milk.

The green beans were so plentiful this season until the spider mites appeared.  You can see the beginning of their destruction in the top right photo.

The unfortunate kale and beautiful pests!

Gorgeous sunflowers grown from seed gifted by the Indigenous Women's Initiatives last year.

My container garden, two curious eyes, herbs in a clay pot, and lavender flowers.


  1. Thank you so much. It's comforting to know people enjoy hearing my stories. :-)