Some of my earliest memories are from gardens. My family had a small gardening plot in our large back yard where my mother planted carrots, greens, cucumbers and peppers and oversaw a small strawberry patch.
My mother never harvested a single carrot from that garden because I loved to pull up and eat the fresh baby carrots, dirt and all, long before they reached maturity. I confessed this to her decades later when she was celebrating the carrot harvest in her new garden bed and scratching her head over those years of failed crops. She had thought we had moles.
My great-grandmother’s garden was the fantasy fairy world of any child’s imagination. It included sweet-smelling jasmine, thick, woody rose bushes, hydrangeas in every color, a potting bench, an open-sided shed offering shade and respite and a fig tree so big and prolific that it could hide a horse and feed it, too.
My imagination was fueled by more than just my great-grandmother’s beautiful flowers; my great-grandfather had added his own touches. An avid naturalist, local hiker and hunter, he used the shed to display found and hunted skulls, skins and obsidian arrowheads. The entire rose garden was encircled with Wappo mortars and pestles he had collected.
In this garden, sitting next to my great-grandmother on her shaded patio swing, we would sing lady bug songs, smell the sweet air, eat fresh figs and listen to my great-grandfather spin tales about the native people of our surrounding area.
It was in this garden, two decades later, that I would plant my own first vegetable patch. By that time, my great-grandfather had been hiking in spirit for nearly 10 years. His entire collection had been donated to Calistoga’s Sharpsteen Museum, tripling their collection of Wappo artifacts. My great-grandmother had moved into assisted living, and I was asked to move in and care for the house and yard.
Venturing beyond my familiar memories of this yard, I discovered a surprisingly large and sunny long-ignored patch by the fence. Surely I had seen this area before, but this time I saw it with new eyes. It would be my space, a place of trial, hope and anticipation.
I purchased a gardening book from the local bookstore, borrowed my mother’s rototiller, picked up some starts and seeds from the nearby nursery, measured, mapped, planted and drip-lined the entire area myself. I was 23.
I knew nothing about fertilizer, soil tilth or amendments, and the only garden pests I knew were snails and slugs.
By sheer dumb luck, I harvested corn, squash, cucumbers, peppers, radishes, potatoes, eggplant, onions, garlic and greens from that garden. All my friends and family were impressed and benefited from my newly discovered green thumb.
Now, in my own home with my own family, I work to instill a similar garden-loving foundation with my own children. I include them in selecting the seeds and seedlings that we plant and in preparing, planting and managing our garden.
My son, who likes to dig, helps prepare our raised beds. He also loves to help rip out the old plants and mix in the amendments. With close supervision, he’s a great weeder, too.
My daughter is not a fan of getting her hands dirty but has great attention to detail. She is in charge of removing all the little rocks from the garden beds and inspecting plants for pest damage. If she finds any, we make a science experiment out of it. We talk about what we have observed, whether it indicates a “good” or “bad” bug and how to deal with it appropriately. Both of my children love to collect the bugs and water the new seeds and any containers that are not connected to the drip system.
Come summertime, you can almost always find my kids in the backyard chalking the concrete and watching for butterflies, hummingbirds, dragonflies and ladybugs. They make houses for the sow bugs, and pick and eat beans and strawberries right off the plants. They know which flowers are edible and which weeds I like to keep. They are my garden eyes and ears and a huge part of the reason we grow vegetables at home.
I am eternally grateful to my mother and great-grandmother for my gardening heritage and grateful that I get to pass that legacy along to my own children. Certainly I will feel more sadness than satisfaction the day I pluck my first mature carrot from our garden, an experience I’m hoping remains a long way off.
Workshop: U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County will host a workshop on “Creating Holiday Wreaths” on Sunday, Dec. 11, from noon to 3 p.m., at the Yountville Community Center, 6516 Washington St., Yountville. Learn what plants in your garden could make good wreaths for decorating. Learn how to choose and prepare plant materials so they will look good for a long time. Learn tips and tricks for designing and making easy wreaths for the holidays or any time. Participants will create their own wreath to take home, made from locally collected plant materials. Cost is $20 for Yountville residents; $23 for non-residents. Register with Yountville Parks & Recreation or call 707-944-8712.