Planting my 1st vegetable garden, thinking of Dad

betty ming liu Food, Health, Money 8 Comments

Once upon a time, gorgeous yellow lillies bloomed in my front yard. Then, I ripped them out to grow veggies instead. The urge to try farming in some small way brought a surprising bonus. Of all things, I’m making peace with my control freak dad.

More on that in a minute. First there’s the tale of the kale…

I kept a few lillies; my neighbor adopted most of them. Happiness now means getting beyond pretty for the down & dirty realness of tending a rather unattractive patch of soil. How amazing to watch (some) green sprigs eventually burst into mature bunches of lettuce, kale, basil and more. gardenThe summer brought juicy, delicious tomatoes. tomatoesWhat a thrill to step outside my door and nonchalantly pluck a few zucchinis for dinner. zucchiniGrowing kale made me feel like a superwoman because we were eating our trendy leafy greens for free. To get the most from these moments, I’ve become passionate about zero waste. This means eating the stems that others usually throw away. We chop them very small, cook them until soft, and then, add the leaves.  kaleThe stalks, picked clean, are sprouting new leaves for a miniature palm tree look. A second pinky-purple kale variety is doing well too. As for my daughter’s old toy dinosaurs, they’re a note-to-self. Next year, we’ll plant lacinato, aka dinosaur kale. dino kaleSome veggies loved me back more than others. The kohlrabi only sprouted two lumpy turnips. A few odd-shaped, rock-hard eggplants stayed too long on the vine. I don’t have pictures to show you; in working on this post, I suddenly realized that I only took photos of the success stories. This is what happens when you’re a daughter raised to be perfect. Let’s not memorialize the failures! No one needs to see that!

Which brings me to me and my dad. Growing vegetables is gloriously messy and unpredictable. Bugs and critters feasted on the tomatoes. The weather could be too hot, too cold or too dry. I found a new kind of patience because a garden grows at its own pace.

I even slowed down enough to reconsider this framed picture which sits on my desk:Dad and meThat’s me, with Dad. Until I was nine, we lived in a crappy little house in New Jersey. (Then we moved across the Hudson River to Manhattan’s Chinatown.) My father, the stressed-out son of farmers from South Vietnam, found peace in tending his rose bushes.

Lately, I feel like I’m seeing this photo and my past through fresh eyes. After all, I also know what it’s like to plant and harvest, whether we’re talking about vegetables, roses or children. It’s time for me to acknowledge his struggle because what goes around comes around. If I want my daughter to cut me some slack for all the, ahem, mistakes I’ve made, then I must show some generosity of spirit too.

Speaking of compassion, a word about the book in front of the picture of me and Dad. The full title is “FOOD, Inc.: How Industrial Food is Making Us Sicker, Fatter and Poorer — And What You Can Do About It.”

This paperback classic is the companion to the hit 2009 documentary by the same name. I assign this book in many of my courses and it usually goes over quite well. Each chapter is an essay by a different author, each of them sounding off on an issue within our troubled food production industry. The chapters always end with a call to action. One of the suggestions is to plant a vegetable garden in order to get insight on reality. The advice certainly is working for me.

Comments 8

  1. Congratulations on your new garden! I have been organically gardening the same plot since 1986, and have the obnoxious habit of passing tips on to new gardeners, so here goes and sorry if it is inappropriate. But do plant arugula if you have not – it grows extremely easily and unfailingly, even easier than kale. Ditto for garlic chives (same as Chinese chives) – they are the first perennials up in the spring (appearing in March!) and will provide a nutritious additive to stir-fry, scrambled eggs, korean pancakes, and you name it till well into the fall. Parsley and sage are also real winners, and the sage will dependably winter over year after year. There are lots of other fun veggies to try, but these stand out as being among the truly fail safe. Happy gardening!

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      Lee, I totally welcome advice! Definitely, I will try the arugula. Love arugula. What do you think of peas? I tried parsley this summer but it grew so slow. I used to have one garlic chive but it got HUGE. If you have ideas on trimming it, I can use help with that too. I’d also like to go organic next year. So thanks for that reminder as well. :)

  2. Betty,
    I’ve been away from this blog too long. I’m sorry for what I’ve missed…I need to catch up with you and this dear blog.

    This post is quite beautiful. I love your taking action with the garden and I love the photos of the harvest. I appreciate that even though there are no pictures of the “messy” or the “failures,” there are hints and descriptions. Not showing the pics, to me, might be a part of your being perfect upbringing, but it’s also your way of protecting us. Sometimes we don’t want to see the ugly. We’re not stupid. We know the garden didn’t happen by magic, but the final product gives us a mental image to retain when one day we are down on the dirt. We can keep digging and pulling because we envision juicy tomatoes on our future. So thank you!

    You definitely have learned more about your father with your green thumb. You’ve learned more about yourself, too.

    I’ve watched Food, Inc. several times, but would like to pick up the book now. I wanted to see you in um, September (sorry), but maybe I’ll have to shoot for the end of the year. Saturdays are busy. I’m sorry that my comment sounds like a long text or e-mail, but I just wanted to say hi, I miss you and am touched by this post for many reasons. Thank you:)

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      Skye! Thanks for stopping by. I need to catch up with my blog too. My posts have become so erratic this year. I’m glad this one moves you. And that point about the agricultural failures? Next time, I take pictures of everything!

      Some years back, I was at super-duper deluxe Union Square Greenmarket and staring at the a box of truly ugly-looking tomatoes. That’s when I learned about heirloom tomatoes. They’re supposed to be lumpy and oddly-colored. These qualities are part of what makes them delicious and expensive. Just another example of the need to get past pretty. (Although, I still love prettiness too.)

      I like the “FOOD, Inc.” movie. The book adds to the experience. And we will find a way to figure out a way to connect soon. Over a meal. With fresh veggies. :)

  3. My neighbor always has a small but intense vegetable garden. This year a woodchuck that lives under our garage ate every bit of it except one solitary tomato plant. The woodchuck can be seen taking the sun and surveying his domain like a contented, rather Dickensian country squire on pleasant afternoons. My neighbor’s comment was “well, he HAS been here longer than I have and he has to eat too,” which I thought was very broad minded of him. The leaving of the one tomato plant was perhaps a form of quit rent in the woodchuck’s mind.

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      Toby, haha! Everybody’s gotta eat, right? Plus, the animals have been there for many more generations. Of course, I’ve got a fence around my property, so I’ve done has been minimal; just a tomato here and there. But seriously, this garden has made me more aware of being part of an eco-system.

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      Toby, haha! Everybody’s gotta eat, right? Plus, the animals have been there for many more generations. Of course, I’ve got a fence around my property, so I’ve done has been minimal; just a tomato here and there. But seriously, this garden has made me more aware of being part of a larger eco-system.

  4. Pingback: Accepting my dad for who he is | betty ming liu

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