Friday, October 29, 2010

Friday, October 29, 2010

As a sophomore in college, I took a course called “Plant Physiology and Horticulture,” or some such thing. It was a “science for non-scientists” elective for those of us who weren’t among the 900 pre-meds at UCI. To me the best part of this course was that the lab was to plant and maintain a garden in a plot assigned in the UCI Community Gardens, conveniently near my dorm (sadly, I think this area is now a parking lot).

My farmer dad was very excited when he heard I had registered for this course. He kept asking me when was I going to get to plant my garden so *he* could get ready. You see, this opportunity combined two of his three favorite pastimes: puttering in dirt AND helping us with our schoolwork (the third was golf). Finally to him, although I recall it was just the second week of class, I called him to say my plot was assigned to me, so come on down.

He arrived on campus that Saturday morning with the car loaded with garden tools, bags of soil amendment and fertilizer, and seedlings. Growing up, my help in the industrial-size garden he always put in each summer was limited to “changing the water,” meaning switching the hose from row to row, or picking the vegetables for my mother before mealtime. As my dad was unloading everything out of the car, I realized that despite having grown up in the shadow of serious agriculture, I really didn’t know how to do any of it myself.

No matter. My dad really wanted to do it all. I tried to look helpful and capable in case any classmates were watching. (They weren’t. It was pretty early Saturday morning. But still.) As he worked, he explained to me what he was doing, and why. He gave me a complete tutorial. When he was done, my plot looked nothing like anyone else’s: it was a mini-farm. All it needed was a vegetable crate with the “Kamei Brothers” label nearby for effect. He cast his eye over the neighboring plots and pointed out what he would do differently, not, as he wanted me to know, because he was being critical, but because he wanted me to observe how those plants fared so I could assess the differences myself.

When my professor checked out my plot mid-quarter, he smiled approvingly and waved his hand over my plot, saying, “You’ve done this before.” I smiled modestly. My dad laughed gleefully at that report. Right on script, my cabbages, cauliflowers, lettuces, and carrots turned out picture-perfectly. At the end of the term, the professor said it was the best looking garden he had ever had in his class. And that was what my dad wanted to hear.

That tutorial garden activated in me the Kamei family farming gene, although 14 years would elapse before we moved into this Howard Street house and I could try my own hand at my own garden. One of the first things Bing did was build me a series of raised beds in the back. My goal each summer was to grow enough quantity and variety to be able to cook with our garden ingredients: pastas with grilled zucchini, crookneck squash, and tomatoes; salsas; insalata caprese; salads with arugula, mache, frisée, and oak leaf lettuces. Basil pestos went into the freezer, sun-dried Roma tomatoes were packed in olive oil, and eggplant became “karashizuke.”

More recently I’ve grown “Bright Lights” swiss chard, spinach, potatoes, Maui onions, cucumbers, and heritage tomatoes – Yellow Zebra, Black Krim, Carmello, Sun Gold cherry tomatoes. Now I don’t think I could ever cook without fresh herbs on hand.

Over the past 20 years, when I have had matters weighing on my heart and mind, I have gone out to the garden to work. I think things through while I’m digging, weeding, sowing, trimming, staking, and watering. The September chemo derailed what would have been the winter garden and kept me from my own “garden therapy” when I really could have used it.

Last Saturday, a rainy afternoon, I looked out my kitchen window and was surprised to see a flat of winter vegetable plants on my back brick patio. My neighbor Greg turned out to be my “garden elf” and his thoughtfulness gave me great cheer and encouragement. Right now I do have a second crop of green beans growing along the side yard fence on trellises, and that makes me happy. This first week of Bortezomib has been so much better than the first week of the September chemo that I tempted to think ambitiously and hopefully that I can function normally over the next couple of months, including being at work and in the yard.

One good outcome from this diagnosis is that it has forced me to be realistic about the upkeep of the rest of this lot, which is actually larger than the square footage of this house. Tomorrow I start some major relandscaping plans to reduce the water and maintenance requirements and to clean up problem areas that I hadn’t mustered the vision, courage, or money to address before. So I’m hoping that when it is all said and done in a few weeks, I won’t have to pay much attention to the rest of yard, and I will have the time and energy again to just putter in my garden plot and be a farmer’s daughter.

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