Go Play in the Dirt


“Because I’m an old Southern woman, and we’re supposed to wear funny-looking hats and ugly clothes and grow vegetables in the dirt.”~Ouiser Boudreaux in Steel Magnolias

I first started gardening when I was a young boy, visiting my grandmother O’Quinn’s house during the summer. My grandmother, or Me’mom as I called her, never, ever, let me inside the house during the daytime. She would bring lunch outside to the back porch, Coca-Colas and popsicles could be found in the old Sears-Roebuck fridge that stood as a sentinel tucked into a corner of the boathouse, and of course if I needed to pee, I was told to find a tree. Most of the time I could be found on the dock, pulling crab traps or fishing for sheepshead with fiddlers around the barnacle-encrusted pylons. However, every now and again, when it was hot, the fish weren’t biting, and I really just wanted to come inside for a nip of air conditioning, I would sneak inside.

I’d usually find Me’mom leaning over a steaming pot of lima beans or collards for the night’s dinner or tomorrow’s supper. The kitchen was a mélange of wonderful smells. A mingling of sweet cornbread, the acetic sting of canned chutney, and topped off with the meaty aroma of the pot roast in the oven. As I would slide open the kitchen door, Me‘mom would look over her shoulder and say, “You need something to do?” Usually I’d just shrug my shoulders and try to mosey into the den when I would hear her say, “Let’s go outside and see what’s going on in the garden.”

We’d go outside and on the way, she’d grab a basket, put on a big hat, and give me one of those funny-looking garden forks. It was that moment, with garden fork in one hand and trowel in the other, that I was inducted into the world of gardening, becoming Me‘mom’s apprentice. That’s when I also learned my first lesson of gardening: Weeds must be pulled out by the roots.

back yard

This was dogma.

Me’mom would admire her tomatoes and cucumbers, pull off random leaves, identifying pests and have me underfoot pulling weeds. By eight years old, I could identify more weeds than anything else: dandelions, nut sedge, dollar weed, crab grass, white clover, chickweed, purslane, thistle, and pigweed, just to name a few. From those first days of weeding and mulching, I learned about when vegetables were ripe, what type of sun exposure is good for a vegetable garden, different soil types and proper drainage.

My pinnacle of gardening was actually when I was a freshman in college, and my mother, also an excellent gardener and now my go-to for all gardening questions, rented one of the little garden plots by the airport. I dug deep, no pun intended, back to my agriculture tutelage with Me’mom to prepare the little plot. I pulled all the weeds, amended the soil with topsoil and peat moss, then finally added a nice layer of mulch to deter weeds. Mom and I laid out a grand garden of raised beds with one side consisting of tomatoes, cucumbers, melons and a trellis of peas. On the other side we planted flowers for picking, including a variety of zinnias, daisies, and a row of sunflowers.

tree and garden walkwayEven through medical school and residency, I always took care of my yard and had a little plot of vegetables in a sunny corner. Even if I was coming off of a 36 hour-straight shift in the hospital, it was nice to walk around the yard and decompress. I always felt a sense of accomplishment looking over a newly mowed lawn or seeing the first blooms on a tomato plant. These days, I live out at the north end of the island, so anything I grow becomes deer food regardless of fences, nets, surveillance, sonar, radar, unmanned drones—you name it I’ve tried it to keep the deer from eating my plants. Yet, I still enjoy working in my yard.

The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes of physical activity per week. Gardening can help satisfy this requirement. It has both mental and physical health benefits. The planting, mulching, pruning, and all of the other aspects of gardening increases heart rate and allows for some strength training. Mental benefits include getting outside, communing with Mother Nature and just letting everything else go.

Gardening should be enjoyable. Start with something small, like a small vegetable garden or flowerbed and expand based on your ability to maintain your garden without causing anxiety. A good friend of mine walks around her yard every night with a glass of wine in one hand and her pruners in the other. When she is out of wine, then she is done for the evening. Don’t get upset if something fails. My mother’s philosophy is to rip it out and try something else.

Going to Ace Garden Center is a great place to get advice on what to plant and where to plant it. And for the record, deer will try everything. They might not eat something down to the root, but they will taste everything. I mean EVERYTHING. Gardening is about being able to just get outside and enjoy. A little dirt under your nails at the end of the day is a good thing.

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