In August our backyard gardener Rachael reflected on her journey to gardening with us, starting in upstate New York and ending in a tightly packed neighborhood in Wheeling, West Virginia. We’ve seen Rachael’s garden come to life this summer, and it has been so fun to see how much she and her family are getting out of it!
About thirteen years ago a friend introduced me to the book, “Nourishing Traditions”. I recall being enraptured by the idea that somewhere along the way, we had messed up our relationship with our food. But more importantly, our relationship with the earth around us. I had big ideas about how I wanted to live one day. It’s so fascinating to see how those thoughts have come almost full circle today.
I grew up in rural “upstate” New York. The tiny towns that make up the county I’m from have more farm acreage and livestock than anything else. Working the land is part of your heritage when you live in the country. Most families grow something, even if they’re not “farmers”. Or, they humbly work on dazzling displays of well landscaped flower beds. Being outdoors as much as you can and maintaining your property isn’t for “keeping up with the Jones’”, but because it brings you joy. It’s a part of you!
Farming and food preservation skills were passed down on both lines of my family tree to my grandparents. Generation after generation taught the next how to work the land, produce a harvest, and save it for long after summer ended. From my earliest memories, both sets of my grandparents had hobby farms and lucious gardens. My grandmothers knew how to take what was grown and butchered and feed their families with it. Isn’t it disheartening how, as a society, we take this knowledge for granted?
The last time I lived at home, I was young and “too busy”. Although I had a greater appreciation for the knowledge my grandparents possessed than I did in my childhood/youth, I didn’t make the time to sit and learn from them.
Work brought me to the not-so-rural Wheeling, WV in 2011 and again in 2013. I got married and started a family here. I made some attempts at container gardening and working on the landscaping in the places we lived. One time, my mom and I put in a little spaghetti garden when she visited. But, when you have young children, you’re in survival mode at times. Children trump lawn care. Plants didn’t get watered and things were left overgrown. We always had fun planting seeds together, but those seeds never really made it anywhere or into anything.
But then, Covid! I would be remiss not to say being homebound did something in the hearts of many in regards to getting back to our roots. Time literally slowed down, shut down. We had time to reflect and be home to work on the projects we always wanted to. Some used it as time to get their priorities in order. Many made the huge realization we are entirely too dependent on grocery stores providing what we need to feed our families. We collectively have lost touch with the knowledge on how to sustain ourselves.
In the years since the pandemic, I’ve watched many friends and family members completely change the way they’re living. Victory gardens, anyone?! Homesteading is such an amazing thing. But getting to watch loved ones nurture a way of life that is foreign to them, because it’s something they really believe in, is even more beautiful. I looked on from the sidelines as they gardened and adopted livestock. And then admired as their children became little farmers collecting eggs and helping pull veggies. My mother inherited her parents small beef farm and has been slowly restoring it back to its former glory. An amazing feat. Inspiration all around!
But, my little postage stamp yard, in a tight Wheeling neighborhood, can’t host cute little goats or rows of plants. Besides, we were never successful in our efforts before, what would change now?
Last fall, my friend sent me the link to apply for the Backyard Gardening Program. I needed an outlet I could be passionate about other than my job. I put my heart into the kids and their families I have the privilege to know and I truly love my work. But we are more than the career that we hold, we are the legacy we leave behind to those we love. Particularly those who are growing up in our homes. I have been relearning that lesson frequently. I want my kids to be raised similarly to the way my parents were. I had pined for years about actually making time to slow down to foster those abilities and now there was a great opportunity to start somewhere. To be honest, I also looked forward to the accountability and support of having a project to learn and grow from.
I almost didn’t make it into the program! There were so many applications this year. (Such an incredibly positive problem when you really think about it. How magnificent is it that the Ohio Valley really wants to learn to grow their own food?!) But after hanging out on the waitlist, a spot opened up for us to join!
This experience could not have started at a better time. My youngest was turning six. From the moment he found out we were digging up the backyard, he was all in! His mother felt a bit more apprehensive; Could I even keep up with a garden? We are so busy all summer long! Regardless, we walked the plot, covered it with cardboard boxes and tarps to smother the grass, and waited for the day to till. We were expert seed planters by this time around and my kids quickly got their choices in the dirt and in our cheap mini greenhouse from Aldi.
I love the delightful lessons you learn in patience while you’re gardening. It was actually excitingly suspenseful for the kids. We were waiting for the seeds to sprout, waiting to till, then waiting to put the fencing up, and then we were waiting to plant transplants in the ground. We dodged stormy days and unusually cold days. And of course all the hard work, the kids can’t really help with, in between. Then we hunkered down and waited for the veggies.
But we were outside! Every day, multiple times per day. And we were having fun! The consistent fresh air, sunshine, and hands-in-the-dirt-goodness (the kind that makes your soul feel fantastic), are our vitamins. We are an outdoorsy family already. But now we HAVE to go outside to check on our little space right after we wake up. Our garden needs her morning shower and there may be surprises in store. Once we’re out there, time is just an elusive afterthought. The bigger the plants grew, the more we wanted to be within the fencing.
Then one day, kneeling in my tomato bed, I forgot we were in the city limits at all. I was mentally transported to a place that felt like the nostalgic countryside I grew up in. Just mindlessly pruning and all I could hear were the birds chirping, the bees buzzing, and my child playing with the hose. A little slice of heaven on earth right here in between the rows of houses. Who would have thought! The peace that we have found in our less than four hundred square foot garden is immeasurable. We grew a happy place in our own little backyard! Y’all, we hadn’t even harvested anything yet.
In the weeks since that day, we have collected and eaten pounds of produce, herbs, and are now cutting flowers. We tried our hands at fridge pickles and salsa. I’m gearing up for another canning class through WVU Extension and we’re just thrilled at the idea of putting up pasta sauce. We’ve even done a bit of bartering with our “garden club” friends.
I could not have done any of this without the consistent information, instruction, and workshops from the Backyard Gardening Program! I have learned so much of the “why” behind growing. I started really simple and set the bar really low. We wanted this adventure to be an enjoyable family thing and we were not going to be stressed out about this!
We got so much more than we could have ever hoped. It’s like Christmas morning taking the basket to the garden to collect the harvest. My children can name the plants they grew. My picky eater is trying lots of new things I never thought they would eat! Speaking of food, we have eaten healthier than we have any summer before this because we can just go to the garden to plan our dinner. What a gift it is to be able to pull one hundred percent organic veggies from our backyard.
We have had our challenges, as to be expected, and probably a lot of beginner’s luck? But it doesn’t matter. We grew JOY this summer. Our family is already planning what we want to plant next year. My husband really wants to get some chickens. I pray the love of gardening was sowed in the hearts of my children this summer. It was surely rekindled in mine.
You know what unexpectedly happened? Our neighbors stopped by to cheer us on. We met new friends on our street. Then we were able to start physically sharing our joy with others by giving away our firstfruits.
Three of my four wonderful grandparents are no longer with us. I can not ask them questions or share with them the ups and downs of our experience. But I have felt them with me and the memories from long ago have come back into focus. I can still remember my grandpa showing me how to quickly rip up green beans for dinner and I can’t wait to show my kids the same way. I feel closer to my ancestors now than I ever have. Now I really understand why they parked their chairs facing the gardens and bird feeders.
“Nourishing Traditions” has a bit of a different meaning to me these days. It’s going to be an entertaining test to see how much “homesteading” we can accomplish on our little lot. You can’t stop us, we’re hooked! Getting started felt daunting. But, there is ebullience to be found in the toil and the unknowns. Isn’t that such a resemblance of real life?
From her book, Sally Fallon says, “The wise and loving marriage of modern invention with the sustaining, nurturing food folkways of our ancestors is the partnership that will transform the Twenty-First Century into the Golden Age.” I think that’s a picture of what we’re seeing now all across our country. We’re opening our eyes and choosing to be proactive about our food and our health! It’s an exciting time to witness and finally be a part of. I hope we all can be students of the earth, continually striving to try things that don’t come naturally, and to cultivate new skills. May we fumble and triumph together as we regain what was lost and ensure the next generation grows up with this inherent priceless knowledge.