In part, it's my heritage that requires me to dig in the dirt. My mother's English lineage is one of colorful, chaotic gardens; my father's German roots married order with beauty. In part, it's my belief that we are of the land, so it's my desire to serve it in the ways I am capable.
Every summer of my youth produced memories of coaxing young plants in my grandmother's and father's gardens -- nurturing their development; frustrated by their occasional temperamental outbursts; amazed by their ability to shine forth with one radiant blossom or bear a single fruit in the most adverse of conditions; hopeful that they would be all I envisioned; proud of their maturation; sad when their time under my care was finished.
My father's gardens were organized into communities and inter-planted with structures and art. A backyard "playhouse" (built when we were young and the play was imaginary, used later by hormonal teenagers to explore the senses) was surrounded by a cottage flower garden.
Nearby lived a tidy vegetable and herb garden. A short path led to a spiritual simplicity of rocks, stones and water. Not so unusual in the present climate of landscape architects and garden designers, but quite unorthodox in '60s and '70s suburbia.
His most impressive garden was anchored by a majestic 12-foot totem pole that he personally carved and painted. A teepee (and more teenage activities) soon followed. Gardens flourished and died around them for years.
My grandmother's garden was a wild mix of fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers that somehow managed to cooperate harmoniously despite their diverse needs. A dedicated gardener with a visceral understanding of companion planting, she knew that a tomato could be at its most flavorful surrounded by basil, that neighbors of beans and potatoes would complement each other long before they ever shared a pot.
Her faith in the process was so unbending that a humble, bare stick -- peeled of its bark, stuck in the ground and given nourishment -- grew into an elegant hydrangea. I learned that a hard winter was sometimes necessary for a glorious summer bounty.
My grandmother's relationship with the garden was never compromised with potentially toxic quick fixes: She discouraged squirrels from stealing more than their fair share of the tomatoes by hanging tin foil "mirrors" (she was certain they were frightened by their own pirating image); clippings of human hair made rabbits think twice before devouring the young lettuce; acid-loving blackberries were fed with gallons of tea to reduce the alkalinity of the soil.
Her gratitude for the garden's yield was apparent in the kitchen. Juicy slices of tomatoes and crisp onions accompanied every meal. Apple strudels, pies and sauce were the work of September mornings.
Influenced by such magnificent gardeners, my connection to the table is rooted in my connection to the soil. In the garden lies the imagination with which I perceive the world. In the kitchen are the gestures that honor it.