Lessons From My Grandfather In The Garden

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GrowthMy paternal grandfather has been a great inspiration to me in my life, from the interesting adventures he had early in his life to the amazing frugality he showed in his later life.

He passed away when I was very young, in the middle of a harsh winter, but most of my memories of him come from the summer before that. He was an avid gardener and he would spend his days out in the middle of the garden. He’d often corral one (or more) of his grandchildren into helping out with various tasks, from planting to mulching to weeding to picking vegetables. He’d stand out there in the garden in his denim overalls and straw hat with a bemused look in his face, watching at me mangle the process of picking cherry tomatoes.

I learned so many things about that summer, about life and money and everything:

The best tasting vegetable of all wasn’t one that you bought, but one that you grew yourself from a seed. I still remember the taste of those cherry tomatoes rolling over my tongue as my grandfather playfully chased me, chastising me for gobbling down those sweet fruits. And they were so sweet and delicious, far more than the ones you would actually pay money for in the store. Why? They were as fresh as you could possibly get, pulled from the vine and directly put into my mouth, the product of months of love from my grandfather, myself, and the rest of the family we all shared.

Weeding was the best time to figure out the world. He used to get into this trance when he was weeding. I could walk right up beside him and talk to him and he would often not even notice I was there. I remember him telling me once that when he started weeding, sometimes he went to another place where he could figure everything out. I didn’t know what he meant then, but as I grew older, I began to understand – weeding can be a form of meditation. I often get into that meditative zone when writing, and when I come out I feel completely peaceful.

The best fertilizer of all? Table scraps mixed with water and earthworms. He used to keep a giant barrel behind his house, covered up with a cinder block on top of it. He’d scrape wasted food, yard waste, and so on straight into this barrel, and occasionally throw earthworms that would come out after a nice rainfall in there as well. About once a month, he’d go out there and stir it around a bit, and then twice a year, he’d stop adding new stuff for a week, then harvest it and cover the entire garden. His philosophy was that if you’re throwing something away, you’re probably truly wasting it. I didn’t really understand what he meant by that until I got much older.

Love smells like wet dirt. Whenever it would rain, he would take me outside and we would wander around in the garden, the water splashing all around us. He’d lift up the leaves of the cabbages and make sure the rain got underneath and I would run excitedly up and down the rows. One of my most vivid images of him was when he was kneeling beside a cabbage plant in the rain, lifting up the leaves, getting drenched. His grey hair was plastered down to his head and he was looking straight at me with that toothless grin of his. More than anything, though, I remember the smell of it. Even to this day, the smell of fresh dirt in the middle of a rainstorm or right afterward puts me at peace.

Tap water is manna from heaven on a hot day. My grandfather used to fill old wine bottles with tap water and put them in the refrigerator, which he always kept as cold as he could get it. After working in the garden with him, we’d go inside and we’d all sit down, each of us holding a wine bottle with cold, clean water inside (and often just the faintest hint of the flavor of the wine) and drink it down.

What did I learn more than anything? They were some of the best memories of my childhood, and none of them cost a dime. I remember flavors, smells, experiences, people, places, and things from that summer in the garden. I remember being happy from the tips of my toes to the top of my head. I remember feeling genuinely loved and cared for and not wanting to be anywhere else in the world. And it didn’t cost anything at all. Money isn’t the source of happiness – it’s people you care about, thoughts in your head, and things that you share.

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21 thoughts on “Lessons From My Grandfather In The Garden

  1. …but my maternal grandfather was the one with enough money to leave a good nest egg to me.

  2. I too learned to garden from my Grandpa, who was very good at it and grew most of the vegetables he (and we) ate throughout the Spring, Summer, and Fall in central Missouri. Even today, almost 40 years later, I can still see him sitting under the old pines in his yard, shelling peas or silking corn or rubbing the dirt off fresh-dug potatoes for the dinner my Grandma was about to prepare for us (our house was just just down the road from theirs and we spent a LOT of time with them). They survived the Depression and knew that the skills they’d acquired during those tough days were just as valuable now as then, and they made sure all the grandkids understood those lessons learned. This afternoon, as my young son and daughter helped me pick sugar snap peas and wax beans and loose-leaf lettuce for dinner and we laughed and talked and threw earthworms at each other, I thought back once again to Grandpa and gratefully remembered the wonderful times we spent together. I hope my children feel the same way in 40 years.

  3. Very meaningful post. I like such kind of metaphors and the feeling that I can get the idea in my gut. Thank you for the Garden Lessons. :)

  4. Thanks for sharing such personal memories, you took me right there with you :) Love don’t cost a thing!

  5. I’m totally with you on the “wet dirt” part of the post. Back in 2000, when I was working in Botswana, I walked by a construction area where they must have been running water because there was a small puddle. It was very dry when I was there, so a wet ground was unusual. It didn’t occur to me until I had walked by how much I missed the smell of mud!

    My old neighbor, who I’ve become quite good friends with, says she knew we would get along when one of the first things I said to her was, “I love the smell of dirt!”

  6. Wonderful. Reminded me of the times I spent with my paternal grandmother. She always smelled like talc and vanilla.
    I treasure the memories of her singing songs, telling stories and rocking me in the squeaky old rocking chair.
    Everyone should have a a wonderful grandparent.
    jp

  7. as a gardener myself i completely understand you. i also share similar memories from my grandmother. right after it rained i also visit my garden and marvel at the lively plants and lovely wet dirt smell

  8. Thanks for the reminder. I grew up on a farm in Minnesota and they were the best years of my life. I would not trade them for growing up anywhere else. As an only child even tho a girl I did everything. Started driving tractor at age 5. There was so much to do and kept a person busy from morning to dark. Yes that was 55 years ago but even today a child can still learn alot about life on a farm.

  9. Beautiful post. The best memories are made using all five senses– not lots of money. Thanks for sharing.
    ~Millionaire Mommy Next Door

  10. I sort of wish I had a childhood like that. My mom grew up in rural Taiwan, and, wow, the stories she tells- hitching a ride on water buffaloes to get to school and catching locusts in the fields to sell in the market. But, well, I grew up in suburbia, far away from all our relatives. My mom wasn’t comfortable letting me go outside to play, and there was always homework to be done anyway.

  11. This post reminds me a lot of my gardening father. He loved to drink ice water after hours of toiling in the heat. He thought the icemaker was the greatest invention by mankind.

  12. Wondeful post… I share many of the same memories, and values. We’re trying to lead a similar life in many ways, living on our small acreage in the Missouri countryside. My greatest joy is watching our 6-year old running through the grass and garden, learning about nature and growing things. Thank you!

  13. Picking up on the gardening metaphors… An old man (probably as old as my grandfather) told me once that that the art of pruning trees taught him a lot about raising children… sure it hurts, though it’s not meant to; but at the end of the day the tree looks really beautiful.

  14. This post was very beautiful to me and has really helped me in this moment of reading it. Thanks. It also reminds me of my grandfather who was also a passionate vegetable gardener and gave everything away to family, friends, strangers.

  15. Thank you for month’s of thoughtful post’s regarding life’s improvement out of the fast lane.Started a veg. garden 6 months ago,learned what will and won’t grow in my postage stamp garden,and both I and my dog enjoy the veggies (the dog prefer’s her veggies straight off the bush,on demand ,also !)
    best wishes,dori

  16. That was beautiful. :) Reminds me of wonderful (and yes, cheap) times spent with my relatives in my childhood as well.

    And yes, I adore the smell of wet dirt! :D

  17. I think back on all my grandpas memories, and i nearly cry. he was a good man who never got mad, and raised lots of corn, peas, squash, etc. He survived the depression, taught his children, but didnt have time to teach his Grandchildren. my best memory of him is sitting under the trees, whistling, while peeling corn. Every time i smell the garden at his house, it makes me sad, yet happy at the same time.

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