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Kitchen Gardens: From O, Pioneers to O, Martha Stewart

I stood in K-Mart Garden Center and hunted for peat pots, those small hard disks that absorb a single vegetable seed, then swell up into their own no-transplant-shock, no-fuss-no-muss containers. I found the pots, sold in packs of twelve, encased in their own little plastic greenhouses. I bought three of these kits, rang them right up on my credit card without even checking the price and drove home to make my winter garden plans.

All of this — from K-Mart blue-light shopping to pre-fab peat pots under plastic — was uncharacteristic of me and my style of do-it-from-scratch gardening. But the pots had Martha Stewart's signature on them, and I wanted to support her during her prison term. When Martha Stewart chose to give up her court appeals and immediately don her orange jumpsuit, she told the press that she wanted to be finished with her term in time to plant her garden. Oh, right, I heard women moan. How sweet. How feminine, how tame. How ridiculous. She just wants to get back to her corporation and make more shady stock deals. Now, wait, I thought to myself. Okay, so her statement is a spin. But in this case her "garden" is more than a metaphor. Martha Stewart, for all her hype and commercialism, reclaimed the role of the woman gardener.

Don't buy it? Look around and notice how few women today keep that traditional kitchen garden right outside their back door. Where are the herb beds, the snippets of chives fresh from the garden shears for the morning scrambled eggs, the evening baked potatoes? Where are the wicker baskets full of tomatoes? The rows of Kentucky Wonder beans winding up the fence? The chives come packaged in plastic from the herb rack of the Whole Foods store. The tomatoes are shipped from California in their sickly, pinkish ripen-in-the bin state. And who ever heard of Kentucky Wonder pole beans anyway?

I hear you say, "Plenty of women garden." What about all the garden clubs? The cut flowers on the dining room table? The window boxes full of petunias dangling over the wooden decks? Right, but check out those garden clubs and you'll find plenty of grey hair in the room. Gardening is an aging art. And although the aesthetics of the garden are essential — the arrangements of the plants, their colors, the site of the garden in the landscape — I'm talking about gardens that provide more than decoration. Gardening means food, sustenance: the force of the spade into the dirt, the sweat trickling between your breasts in early August, the peel of the sweet corn shocks between your fingers, the smell of the ears plopped into boiling water, the explosion of the kernels between your teeth.

Sure, Martha Stewart's just trying to make money, and certainly, she's far from an ideal earth mother, but Martha Stewart gave women permission to get out there in the backyard and try gardening again. Okay, so where had all the women gardeners gone? I was introduced to gardening by my grandmother. We lived in an extended family in a large white Victorian house in a tiny white Iowa town. "Boo," as my brothers and I and then most of the other children in town called her, had a small ten by ten foot vegetable garden just outside her kitchen door. There she planted her seed potatoes every spring on Good Friday, the eyes facing upward in the dirt to ward off evil. A month later the vines billowed out of the rich, loamy soil, only to shrink back toward mid-summer in preparation for their excavation and eventual storage in burlap bags in the cave — a cool, moist, brick-lined mound dug into the ground in the side yard. Thick, juicy Wonder Boy tomatoes hung from wire cages and Kentucky Wonder pole beans wound up the side of the garage that had once held a horse and buggy. In that small plot, Boo worked compost into the soil — chicken manure, sawdust, and vegetable scraps. From solid Shanty Irish stock, she didn't care if her rows were straight and clean. Weeds and dill sprouted everywhere. Fair-skinned, she did care about sunburn, so she wrapped her legs in newspaper and rustled through the crabgrass to snip off her chives with her kitchen shears. She buried my dead goldfish on the edge of that plot, and our two beloved dogs, and even a tiny fetus from my mother's miscarriage.

I was the youngest of three children, the only girl. After my mother trained me never, ever to cross the street, I was allowed the freedom, in the safety of 1950s small-town America, to wander through our large yard and into the neighbor's, or to occasionally take a spin around the whole block. Even at four years old, I was content to be alone with my own thoughts, to observe the grip of the sparrows and finches at the feeder, the chattering of the squirrel as it scurried up the trunk of the silver maple tree, and the opening of the marigold blossoms around the edge of our garden plot.

The garden was my "Wild Kingdom." To be thrilled by the power of nature, I didn't need Jim to hold open the jaws of an alligator in the Louisiana swamps. I was awed by the sharp pointed leaves of the irises and the velvety purple tongues of their flower petals. I was fascinated by the flight of the hummingbird, with the never-ending flutter of its wings, its beak stuck in the red blossoms of the scarlet runner beans. I loved to tag along with my grandmother when she carried her ripe tomatoes in her wicker basket to the house, but even as I reached my early teens, I was still just an observer in the garden. My grandmother grew up in a pioneer family, the youngest and only girl in a family of ten. Her life was one of constant work. Perhaps she never even thought to ask for help, or perhaps she wanted to spare me the workload of her own youth. Unlike the other neighborhood children, I wasn't drafted to do much real, hard labor. As my grandmother reached her eighties, her days and plot narrowed, but I carried the wonder of its transformative cycles with me throughout the rest of my expanding life.

Eventually my grandmother died and we moved from that small town to a larger city, settling into a new housing development devoid of trees, bushes, bird feeders or vegetable plots. My mother planted a flower garden at one end of the patio and my father seeded the backyard with Kentucky bluegrass.

"Why don't we just dig up that space and plant a garden?" I asked, but my mother chose to buy me ballet and piano lessons rather than a spade.

I loved to leap and twirl across the stage, to take on the role of Tinkerbell's fairy and Puss and Boots' supporting cat. I loved to learn to read music — the time signatures, keys, whole and quarter notes, the depression of the pedals — to hear the baroque melodies of Bach tinkle from our little upright piano. But I never gave up on the garden plot. In high school, I tried to convince my mother that I needed to cultivate a garden for a science project. My mother, who was fearful of most animals, tolerated all my other experiments and entrepreneurial endeavors, from the cages of mice in the basement to my week-end dog boarding business, when I kenneled a dachshund in the dining room, a poodle in the garage, and a German shepherd in the laundry room. But she drew the line on tearing up the lawn to plant vegetables.

During World War II, 20 million Americans tended Victory Gardens and produced up to 40% of the food consumed during those years. Even though America had no food shortage, self-sufficiency was promoted as a way to aid the troops. After World War II, backyard Victory Gardens yielded to consumerism and "Better Living through Chemistry." The food of the 1950s and 1960s found its way into cans, cardboard boxes and plastic bags dropped into pots of boiling water. The patriotism of the time called for the building of backyard bomb shelters rather than root cellars. As our block began to fill in, one new house built after another, not one yard had a vegetable plot. People dug up their sites to put in small kidney bean-shaped swimming pools and bought canned chili at the Jack `n Jill store on the corner.

Many in my generation got a taste of gardening in our early childhoods, but drifted away from the notion later, choosing a more "sophisticated" life. I clung to the desire to have a garden of my own. In my twenties, I began my career, dancing across the stage of my early adult ambitions, holding the long whole note of city life. I ate my share of fast food, and purchased produce wrapped in plastic from major supermarkets. But when I glanced out my apartment window, I imagined a tiny plot of land, soil cultivated, empty seed packets staked to the ground, marking the rows. Then at the age of thirty, at a time when Martha Stewart was still an unknown homemaker, I chose to stand with spade in hand, ready to turn the earth.

Mary Swander xxx.

Graphics Credits

  • scarecrow, image courtesy of Belinda Gallagher.
  • beans, image courtesy of Gracey Stinson.
  • Victory Garden Poster, image courtesy of wikipedia.org.
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