At least there’s one thing that COVID-19 can’t take away from us this year, and that is our ability to grow things. Gardening, that is.

This has been a particularly good planting year thanks to the long, mild, relatively wet spring that we enjoyed. The extra time many of us found on hand left little excuse to not get those plants in the ground this year. Most gardeners that I know are enjoying a bountiful summer as a result, including us.

It is usually around this time of the year, as the produce starts to flow, that I reflect on gardening adventures from the past. “Remember that year when …” is a common conversation starter for many gardeners. Anyone who gardens or grew up with gardening families can complete that sentence in any number of ways. Whether it leans towards feast or famine, there is usually a good story told from a deep memory of experience.

This year will forever be, “Remember that year when there was a pandemic and we all had to stay home and the spring lasted for months rather than days?”

My parents kept a big garden in our relatively large suburban backyard. If I didn’t know better I would speculate that we picked more bugs and slugs and weeds out of that garden than vegetables, but that’s not really true. There was plentiful harvest, too, and thanks to Mom’s expertise and hard work, the chest freezer and canning shelves held the spoils well through the winter each year.

I don’t like growing my own strawberries to this day for the number of slugs I had to pull from the berries and douse with salt over the years, though it was oddly satisfying to watch them writhe under the attack. It sounds so cruel now, but those kinds of things were interesting as a kid. That and shooting at birds in the cherry tree.

We had a peach tree, banana trees, fig bush and cherry tree and those tart cherries were my favorite. They made such delicious pies, but we had to vigilantly guard the tree to salvage just enough cherries for just one pie each year. Don’t worry, it was a low-powered BB gun and no birds died in the course of the war.

My dad’s sister and her husband had a bona fide farm, including a goodly stretch of corn rows, tomato cages, okra and more, as far as my wee eyes could see. It seemed to go on forever, but I’m sure if I sought out that field today it would seem much smaller than I recall.

Many of my summer memories on their farm involve sitting on the carport or under the big oak in the front yard shelling peas, snapping beans or shucking corn to put up in the big chest freezer that claimed most of one wall in the kitchen.

Many a meal was spread out for the family on top of that freezer, and the irony of food served on top of stored food has just this minute struck me. Fresh hot biscuits, ham, chicken and dressing, meatloaf and so on and so on were accompanied by steaming bowls of veggies from that garden; all loaded with butter or pork fat and cooked to within an inch of recognition. It was delicious.

Aunt Carolyn was a lunch lady by day, so she knew how to cook up some hearty and delicious food in a hurry, a labor of love and necessity with two towering teenage boys and their passel of cousins often running in from the yard at meal time. Not to mention their friends, who always seemed to have some pressing reason to stop by about the time the aroma was beginning to waft from the windows.

As a newly married adult, I couldn’t wait to get some plants of our own in the ground and we were able to manage a pretty good spread on the land that is now home to the Pear Street neighborhood.

I also got excited about canning and freezing as much of our own bounty as I could and a funny habit developed. My sweet young husband had a “no air conditioning” policy. We had central air in our apartment, but he didn’t want to use it. I struck a deal with him that if he would let me turn on the air conditioning while I did it, I would can the tomatoes and beans and peppers and such from our garden.

Suffice it to say that I won numerous ribbons at the Coosa Valley Fair those years. Spend a little on cold air, save a little on food for the winter. As silly as that all seems now, it was so satisfying to open a jar of our hard earned and preserved food in the heart of a cold winter’s evening.

If there is one thing that a garden has taught me over the years, it is that you have to put in the labor from seedling to shelf to reap the reward of a season passed. I make all kinds of mistakes in the journey, but as long as I at least try, there is always something good at the end.

This year’s biggest mistake was thinking we could solve our problem of more tomato plants than cages by just putting two plants per cage, spaced as far apart as we could fit. The cherry tomato vines are like movie monsters, sprawling as far as they can reach. We had to tether them up with rings of panty hose in hopes of saving the plants around them. It’s kind of funny to see, but I’ll never make that mistake again.

Labor spent on building more cages could have solved that conundrum but, the reward is a lesson learned.

I hope you are enjoying many fruits from your labor this summer. Whether a garden or some other project you’ve tackled, may the rewards be bountiful and decadent.

Monica Sheppard is a freelance graphic designer, beekeeper, mother and community supporter living in Rome.

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