Lessons we learn from our mothers

Posted: Friday, May 09, 2008

There are few things more satisfying in life than being able to do something well, and being able to do it.

We find satisfaction in the work more than the rewards. We all need the rewards, to live and prosper, to care for our loved ones and to build the infrastructure upon which our society endures, but as individuals we need the satisfaction of a job well done.

There could be no happier people than the ones who can look at their days work and tell themselves that they have done a good job, it is all it could be, and if they were able to do it over they would do it just the same. That is a rare state, and one to which I rarely ascend, but I have known it a few times.

One of those times was when I stood in a field of my own produce, all healthy, maybe not all weed free but so vigorous that weeds were not a problem. I picked from the ground my own carrots, ate directly from the plant green peas, and nibbled a few leaves of succulent butter lettuce. As a 4-H gardening project, my own plantation gave me endless satisfaction.

I learned to love the garden from the teachings of my mother. She showed me every day how the joys of the earth could become mine. It was not the way I practice it now, but it is still the foundation upon which I live.

We lived in a fertile area of California, as had her parents and grandparents. We all worked the land to feed ourselves and to sell at market. The top of our driveway had a series of small wooden signs declaring what was ripe: blackberries, walnuts, figs, apples. And we had a huge fresh vegetable garden.

We raised a cow, some rabbits, a couple of horses, some sheep, a few donkeys and endless chickens, but the real basis of our family's efforts was the garden. We began our year's activities while the ground was still too cool to plant, with the filling of the hotframe, a low sloped plastic topped wooden box, with the bottom filled with fresh manure scraped from the cowpen. The next layer was the soil into which we sowed the seed of the cabbages, broccoli, cauliflowers and Swiss chard. The heat given off by the composting manure would warm the soil and speed germination of the seed, and daily I would lift the top to ventilate and cool the tender seedlings.

Once they grew to transplant size, we would till up the garden space, again with a copious supply of manure from all the animal pens. We would make the furrows and rows and crawl along planting and watering as we went. It took only a few days for the little plants to stand up on their own, and they never looked back.

Dozens of families would live out of our gardens, and their weekly trips to the Lendrums with paper bags to pick the fresh vegetables was how many of my early friendships began

My mother showed me how to divide iris, to separate massive clumps of narcissus, and how to plant flowers in the yard as if they had grown there before the house was built. She planted in masses, and does still today. There are no small tidy arrangements of disciplined individuals for her. Her gardens rush over the ground, wave after wave. When the daffodils bloom they come by the thousands, and when belladonna lilies wave they are in such abundance that it amazes. She has a lily pond with goldfish that need to be guarded from the herons, and her driveway is bordered by chest-high roses, the multicolored "Josephs Cloak," an old-fashioned favorite with an incredible, sweet aroma. This home is like every home she has lived in, every inch is planted, and every year more is added.

My parents are older now, and my mother no longer sells fresh produce. But whenever visitors leave, they still take some fruit from the trees, a few oranges, some plums or apples, and maybe a few pomegranates. She has moved on to raising birds; doves, parakeets, banty hens and those weirdly colored birds called guinea fowl all live in a huge aviary. Underneath all the twittering birdlife is a layer of guinea pigs, rabbits and ducks, and when we spoke yesterday it was with the comforting background noise of all these lives that she still supports.

I know times in Juneau are tough for many families. Money is tight and the access to the great outdoors we have taken for granted has become much more expensive. I want to encourage families to look a little closer to home for some of their outdoor pleasures. Planting a garden is fun, and shared experiences of planting, raising and picking your own are treasures more precious than the produce or flowers you harvest.

• David Lendrum, with Margaret Tharp, has operated Landscape Alaska for 25 years in Juneau. They design and build landscapes on every scale and have won numerous awards both locally and nationally. They have a weekly call-in show on KINY and can be contacted through their Web site at www.landscapealska.com.

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