Empty-garden blues

Lamenting a wasted season in the fertile North State

My garden this year is pathetic. It’s just a bunch of cherry tomatoes—probably Sweet 100s, my favorite variety—that sprang up voluntarily from past years’ grows.

Arts Editor Jason Cassidy gave me a watermelon start a few months ago. Sadly, I didn’t get it into the ground before a heatwave hit and scorched it into oblivion.

Meanwhile, the scrub jays destroyed the plums and apricots dangling from my backyard trees. I did manage to snag one peach before they got it. What remains—aside from the aforementioned tomatoes—is the unripe bounty of a lone dwarf nectarine tree.

Typically, I love digging in the dirt. For years after buying my house, my husband and I put in a decent garden and shared the produce with our neighbors. In addition to the tomatoes, we almost always had basil and squash to give away.

My earliest memories of the concept of growing food are of my dad’s artichokes in the backyard of our house in south San Jose, where I was born and lived for the first few years of my life. Better ingrained in my memory is the garden tucked next to the pool in my mostly concrete backyard in Livermore—the place I consider my hometown. There, my mom tended a little patch of raised beds. That’s how I came to love cherry tomatoes—ripe off the vine, like candy. Mom would plant just a few things, typically including rhubarb, which she’d mix with strawberries and bake in a pie.

Up here in the North State, in the orchards outside of Hamilton City, my grandmother always put in an impressive summer garden at her almond and walnut farm along Stony Creek. Not only was it large, but it also had a fairly wide variety of produce: tomatoes, beans, watermelons, strawberries, pumpkins and several types of squash and cucumbers.

She grew blackberries on metal trellises made from leftover T-posts and hog wire. I’d pluck them and eat them straight from the vine. We’d step ever so lightly while harvesting asparagus spears that seemed to appear out of nowhere.

Grandma was the person who introduced me to a tomato sandwich. Only good and ripe fruits will do. Just a little salt and pepper on lightly toasted bread with a dab of mayo. Maybe add some cold slices of cucumber and thinly sliced red onion.

All of those memories are good ones for this city kid with country kin. Later, when I lived by myself on that farm during my college years, I put in pretty decent gardens. I’d cut down giant bamboo-like Arundo grass stalks that lined the creek and fashion them into trellises for beans and cucumbers, for example.

Sometimes I think about what it would be like to go into farming. Admittedly, I probably have romanticized that line of work over the years based on my gardening experiences. But I’m enough of a realist to know that it’s not all happy harvesting. Agriculture is risky and difficult, as our special Farm to Table issue conveys.

It also is rewarding. Most of the farmers I’ve known personally or have interviewed over the years have a deep and abiding affection for what they do. Not everyone can say that about their profession.