My husband Ed was an Idaho farm boy who mentally never really left the farm. He grew up in Southern Idaho where his close and extended family grew potatoes. He got this rich dirt into his veins and could never get it out. One of his earliest memories is as a small child out on the farm watching the family work. It was during the last days of World War II,
and German prisoners of war were helping to farm the vast potato farms. Ed was a tow-headed child, and he recalls that often when the workers would take a break, the German prisoners would pull out worn photos and show him images of their own blonde progeny and say reverently, “mein sohn.” He reminded them of their own children far away in war-torn Germany.
Ed helped on the farm until he was a teenager and got a job in a Department Store selling shoes. But he never got the dirt out from under his nails. When he was finishing college the Vietnam war was going on and he became a helicopter pilot and served two tours of South Vietnam. He decided to make the army a career and our adventures began. We first lived in north central Texas, a small town west of Ft. Worth. I picked a place to plant my flowers and he dug up a side of the yard to plant his vegetables.
My husband insisted that he plant vegetables typical for the area. So, he grew radishes, carrots, string beans, strawberries, all kinds of peppers, and peas. He felt that fresh peas were essential to everyone’s diets and was so excited to be able to get several harvests of them, one planted in the fall and one in the winter. Nothing tastes as good as fresh, home-grown tomatoes so he always grew lots of them. And he had to grow several varieties of peppers to fit the Tex-Mex cuisine. One day he was cutting up and seeding a super-hot pepper and our son, then a toddler, licked the knife Ed was using. I had to take our son to the emergency room because just the juice of the hot pepper had burned his tongue so badly.
We lived in three places in Texas over the next decade, but our tour in El Paso a Mexican
border town was especially interesting. I planted marigolds along the side of the house and Ed planted more varieties of peppers, including Anaheim peppers so I could make chili Rellenos. We had grape vines, and our Greek neighbors showed us how to make Dolmas, wrapping grape leaves around the food before cooking it. Ed insisted on planting peas and tomatoes, but he added onions so he could make different salsas.
We moved to the windward or rainy side of the Big Island of Hawaii next, which was an adventure in itself. Ed learned about Hawaii agriculture and planted sacred Ti plants around our house to ward off the evil spirits. At first, I wondered if Ed was going to grow a garden at all; he could legally go out foraging on the beach and pick avocados by the bag full; he could pick all the fresh bananas he wanted on the slopes of Mauna Loa, as well as passion fruit, guava, papaya, and mango in the jungle.
But Ed being Ed couldn’t stand not having a garden. Making one wasn’t easy. Our backyard was volcanic rock with limited dirt and grass over it. Our property had been part of a lava flow about 15 years earlier. It was potted with holes that filled with rain (since we were on the rainy side of the island it rained all the time). The children would go out at night and shine a flashlight on the grass and watch the frogs jump in the backyard. Ed ordered a load
of dirt (which cost more than a used car) and poured it over our frog patch and tamped it down. Then he planted grass and a garden area. Our front yard was like a zen garden. It was small lava rocks with very few strategically planted mounds of plants or unusual rocks. It was supposed to represent a place of meditation and peace. It was murder to prevent the lichen and weeds from growing in it and impossible to walk on, so Ed changed it a little so it wasn’t so Zen and more child friendly. He left the lava rock and shrubs, but controlled the weeds and moss; however, it lost its Zen feel.
Ed planted tomatoes, onions (sorry they weren’t the Maui sweet onions because we weren’t on Maui), strawberries, and of course peas. Root plants such as carrots, radishes, and beets didn’t grow well because of the moist soil. Then a Hawaiian native showed Ed the local orchids and Ed planted a forest of hapu’u (Hawaiian tree fern) next to the driveway and started twining them with wild orchids. They weren’t fancy or rare ones, just common bamboo orchids, Hawaiian Lei orchids, and other common wild tree varieties. They didn’t resemble the orchid corsages you purchase for proms, but they were beautiful and plentiful climbing around the hapu’u.
When we moved to Southern Alabama, Ed became very southern and decided to grow black-eyed peas (which are really beans), cabbage, cauliflower, tomatoes (of course), onions, mild peppers, and strawberries. I remember picking ripe strawberries in early March when my sister called from Boston; she couldn’t believe my strawberries were ripe when they were in a blizzard. The cabbage and cauliflower got bugs in them; my husband smashed up an avocado and teased my youngest daughter that the avocado was really the smashed green bugs he’d been pulling out of the cabbage and cauliflower. He gave up on cauliflower and cabbage.
We learned to love the secret barbeque sauce of our friends and Ed grew a lot of the ingredients; I learned how to barbeque ribs the southern way. There is a large boll weevil monument in the center of the city to honor the insect that ruined the cotton and made them change to growing peanuts instead which was far more successful. Ed didn’t plant peanuts, but we loved to buy boiled peanuts from local vendors. Luckily, I convinced Ed not to grow okra and collard greens.
When we got assigned to Northern Italy, I could just see Ed imagining all he could plant there, especially tomatoes. We moved to Vicenza in the Veneto area (between Verona and Venice). Our government quarters were at the far back of the housing area, by the back gate with a narrow trail through a huge cornfield between us and the small Italian villago. I was surprised because Europeans normally don’t eat corn; they think it is for cattle and pigs. But Vicenza is famous for a special dish containing corn meal—Polenta. So, corn fields are common throughout our area.
Ed grew quite a large garden the first year in Vicenza. He ran the operations center for all
American troops south of the Alps, and his office was a huge metal vault with multiple levels of security. He loved to leave the dark place and dig in the earth. His tomatoes were huge and so good. He claimed it was the rich Italian soil, but the regular vegetables were just as delicious. Our area just at the base of the Alps was too cold for citrus trees or olives, but I planted lots of Italian herbs and zinnias to brighten my day. Each week a local produce truck would pull into our court near our houses and we could buy all the fresh produce you could imagine, including blood oranges from Sicily. One of our fondest memories was going to a local vineyard, seeing them stomp the grapes and then eating and drinking under the vines.
After Italy, we were assigned to the North Shore of Chicago, Ft. Sheridan. It was a Civil War army post that was important throughout the years. We lived in 100-year-old quarters, but they were restored and beautiful. The only thing that was strange is we shared our three-story house with another family. They lived on the first floor and we with our five children lived on the second and third floors. With our windows open we could hear the lake breaking on the rocky shore. What had originally been the carriage house became the garage for the car.
Ed struggled to grow tomatoes; they require lots of sun and our yard was filled with large, old trees that completely shaded the house and yard. But he finally found a small corner of land that had sun and his tomatoes were delicious. I planted impatiens everywhere because they like shade.
When it came time to retire, we were torn. Ed wanted to live in Northern California, around
Sacramento, where the climate is moderate. But even in the late 1980s, housing prices were too high. I convinced him to look at where I grew up in Northern Utah and we found a house with a third of an acre of land. Ed dug up three sides of the yard and went wild planting raspberries, strawberries, peas, carrots, beans, tomatoes, zucchini, melons, pumpkins, and lots more. There were only three fruit trees when we arrived: an apple, a pear, an ancient apricot tree, and some grape vines so Ed added another apricot tree, a peach tree, a fuji apple tree, a plucot tree (apricot and plum combined—which died), and a plum tree.
Ed was a regular at the county extension office, where he learned how to prune trees and
how to help his garden grow! I planted roses by the front door, and tulips by the sidewalk and thought I was doing good to keep them alive.
My husband taught my daughters who live nearby (not my sons) to grow things, and their gardens are lush and beautiful. My one daughter is making salsa, and Pico de Gallo with items from her garden, and is determined to get a year’s supply. Ed shared with her cuttings from his grape vines, raspberries, and strawberries and they are doing extremely well. My younger daughter’s raspberries are big and beautiful and she has grown her peas on teepees so they don’t get on the ground. She has one tree that bears five different types of fruit on it, all beautiful and full. They generously share their produce with me.
Ed passed away seven years ago, and I’ve filled in most of his garden with grass, shrubs, mulch, and black plastic. This year I’ve planted three tomato plants and because of the drought in the west, our watering is restricted. My tomatoes are skeletal and the tomatoes are the size of apricots—small apricots. Even my roses are struggling. My peach, apricot, and plum blossoms froze so I got no fruit from them so all I have left is apples. I’m glad Ed isn’t here to see my failure.
During all 54 of the years we had together, the two things Ed would never grow were potatoes and corn. He insisted that corn took up too much area to grow efficiently and that it was sacrilegious to grow potatoes anywhere but in Idaho. I wonder if he’s growing them up in garden heaven while laughing at my feeble attempts to be a gardener.