It’s been a cold spring in northern Michigan. As I tend my seedlings by the window sill before they’re ready for the greenhouse, I envision where everything is going to go in my garden. I like to rotate the plantings, and with last year’s garden design in hand, I visualize where every little plant will eventually end up. While watching over the little cucumbers, which show vivid, robust growth compared to the tomatoes, my mind drifts to the gardens my mother cultivated on the dry, arid plot of our little house outside of Athens, Greece.
I was lucky to live in the countryside on a dirt road, surrounded by cypress trees and lilac bushes. Mulberry trees formed a natural hedge screening us from our neighbors, and it was the “battlefield” of many mulberry skirmishes. During mulberry weeks, my three sisters and I ended up purple all over, much to the dismay of my mother who still had to wash our clothes by hand.
The little path that meandered from our house to my friend’s was hemmed by a low trellis where grapes grew. It was a treat to walk up that little path and munch on grapes, while anticipating a game of table tennis, or an invitation to pick fresh pistachios from her orchard.
Greece is a dry land in the summer, with the sun shining every day, and hardly any precipitation.
My mom’s vegetable garden was smaller than my current one here in Michigan, which I used to attribute to the paucity of water in that climate. However, with hindsight, I believe it was small because of my mom’s extraordinary love for flowers, roses in particular. Miraculously, water was always found for her flower gardens. As children, we went to the veggie plot with a watering can, making sure that no drop was lost, whereas my mom’s flowers fared much better. Water was saved in many ways, and not much was wasted going down the drain. It was collected, amassed, even hoarded in containers that were dipped into with a cooling splash in order to distribute the liquid treasure somewhere needed.
My mother’s tall, white rose bushes yielded such a profusion of blossoms that people would stop to admire them. The scent from the roses wafted in the cool, evening twilight, encircling the house to find an open window to linger by our bedside. I remember falling asleep with the sweet smell of roses settling around me.
Although I loved the beauty that all of my mom’s flowers afforded around our house—an oasis of color amid the dry, brown landscape punctuated by the faded green of the eucalyptus trees across the road—what I most enjoyed was the fruit trees that a previous owner had planted in the yard.
My favorite was the big, gnarly fig tree on the east corner of the property. Since I was the only one who could climb it, I claimed it. The fig was MY tree, my territory, and the luscious fruit it produced was a gift I provided to my sisters and parents. I cannot think of a more delicious fruit than the fig. Its deep purple casing contains hundreds of little seeds surrounded by filaments and culminating in a little drop of honey from the tiny round opening where the flower once blossomed.
Bees and wasps were attracted by this little drop of honey and vied for the prize. The humming of the insects was intoxicating to listen to from way up in the heights of the tree. As I am reliving this memory, I can still picture myself as a little, skinny girl surveying my kingdom high above ordinary, mortal life. That fig tree was my dominion! Climbing early in the morning and picking a platter full of figs by twisting off the ends of the fruit, with the milkweed-like sap dripping down my hands, was one of my greatest pleasures at the time.
I liked gardening even as a young child and relished watching things grow from a tiny seed to something yielding food for the table. My favorite perennials were artichokes. They grow with spear-like leaves pointing to the sky, covered with bristles and offering just one magnificent artichoke armored with scimitar-like claws, culminating in a purple thin cluster of many budding small flowers. I was not the only one who liked the rows and rows of artichoke plants: the neighbor’s chickens would lay their eggs under their sheltering foliage and hatch their chicks in the proffered shade. Another advantage of these Mediterranean plants was their need for scant watering. Having divested the several watering cans of the heavy liquid in the vegetable garden, there was very little need to carry more water to the edge of the garden, where the artichokes flourished. Growing up among plants, fruit trees and flowers was indeed idyllic. I attribute my penchant for the vegan lifestyle to those early beginnings under the Greek sun.
Mediterranean Herbed Feta from the Non-Dairy Evolution Cookbook by Chef Skye (The Gentle Chef)
A Different Kind of Sun
As I look at my seedlings vying for sunlight on the window sills on this blustery day, I can see how far removed I am from my gardening beginnings: by time, by space, by geography and by climate. Whereas the sun always shone in Greece, and no greenhouse was needed, the beginning of summer here is always fraught with the danger of frost, and I need to be vigilant to ensure that the plants make it through this dangerous time. Whereas I have all the water I need from my spring-fed well, and rain is abundant during the summer in Michigan, we struggled long time ago to keep the seedlings from drying out under the strong sun. Nevertheless, gardening is gardening, and one needs to adjust to the environment.
Here, in the northern climate, my most abundant and prolific plants are tomatoes. I grow several varieties that take up 3-4 beds. After some fussing over them in the beginning stages while they’re still in the house, they are transferred to the greenhouse and later into the garden beds. Once established, they need little attention. They get the same watering and fertilizing as the rest of the plants in the other 20 beds of the garden. All I need to do is stake them so the red, sweet and tangy fruit can emerge and grow until the heavy frosts come in September and October. I love opening the garden gate, walking barefoot on the grassy pathways and stroll in my garden, checking on growth, picking a cherry tomato here, a big heirloom one further down, and plopping them in my mouth. Their juiciness, vibrancy and warm flavor are a treat that cannot be duplicated.
I have lived on this little patch of earth of 20 acres for more than 35 years. Nestled near a maple forest, it’s my retreat, my haven. The vegetable garden and the old flower beds are the focus of the property. There is always something blooming, some greens or vegetables that can be harvested, and a simple joy to be had.
I breathe in, close my eyes, listen to the birdsong—at this moment the Baltimore orioles are in full choir—and give thanks for the gift of this beautiful place.
–Lizzie Treefon for the Veggie Fest Team