I COME FROM A GARDENING FAMILY. My Italian grandfather was a landscaper on the north shore. His vast yard in Kenilworth was a sea of vegetables, flowers, and other greenery. Unlike most people’s yards, not a patch of dirt was to be seen. Every inch of real estate was covered by grass or some type of plant—and it was beautiful. As a little boy, I loved crawling through and hiding in the dense underbrush, climbing his plumb tree for a snack, and picking gargantuan cucumbers, tomatoes, and onions. My grandfather also made his own wine from grapes grown in his yard. Some of my mom’s favorite memories are of she and her cousins stomping grapes to make wine.
My mom has won awards for her gardening and has been profiled in the Chicago Tribune. At one time, she was gardening our own house and, as a volunteer, the Metra train station next door, and the grocery store, cleaners, and coffee shop across the train tracks. When my dad got home from work, he used to have to go down the block to search for her amidst canna lilies, hastas, and decorative grasses to see how her day had went.
My grandfather’s family owned and tended vineyards in Italy. (The family story goes that a king offered one of my forefathers the choice of a title or land, and he smartly took the land. Is it true? I don’t know, but it’s a good story.) The occupation of farmer occasionally appears in census records from both sides of my family, but that was really nothing unique a hundred or so years ago and more. Before Americans were engineers, public relations specialists, fashion stylists, social media stars, astronauts, and software designers, most of us were farmers, or craftspeople, or perhaps, if we had a formal education, doctors, lawyers, or teachers.
Farming Was as American as the Stars & Stripes, Apple Pie…You Get the Idea
When it came down to it, most of us were connected to the land in some fashion. We either worked the land or directly benefited from the fruits of others labor in the fields because there were no Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and Jools (as we called it on the south side growing up). If not farming, perhaps we hunted or fished to survive. The seasons provided a rhythm to life. Spring = planting. Summer = tending. Fall = harvesting. Winter = rest and preparing for spring planting. Seasonal festivals helped people celebrate both the planting and harvesting of the crops.
The Industrial Revolution, mass migration to cities, the rise of computers and the Internet, and countless other trends caused a decrease in the number of farmers. Today, fewer than 2 percent of Americans are directly employed in the agriculture industry. In 1850, 64 percent of Americans worked in farm-related careers, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
A Disconnect Fuels Indifference
With each passing decade, an increasing number of Americans have become disconnected from the land and nature. Farms, forests, and prairies were once almost a part of our DNA but, today, most of us get our food from supermarkets, only encounter nature at zoos and nature centers, and do everything possible [air-conditioners (no complaints from me on really hot days), fitness clubs, indoor climbing walls, bus tours of national parks, etc.] to avoid getting out in the great outdoors.
Some of these choices are understandable because the American population has gravitated toward cites because that’s where the jobs are, the good healthcare is, and the “action” is. This, of course, is not all bad; many Americans now work far less-demanding jobs and live longer. But this disconnection from the land has negatively influenced the way some people think about the environment and nature. Some city-dwellers don’t take seriously the drastic reductions of environmental regulations by the Trump Administration because they don’t see firsthand the effects that pollution has on our air, water, and soil (or they’re too busy living hectic city lives to link reduced regulations with serious damage to the very things that keep us healthy and alive). And people in rural areas perhaps think that because there is so much land, it can’t be irrevocably damaged by chemicals and other pollutants (but it can). With that mindset, some people believe that the produce and other food we buy at supermarkets will always be safe because that’s the way it’s always been (at least in the modern era). They think, “if our drinking water is safe now, what could possibly change?” They’ve been convinced that the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food & Drug Administration, and other government agencies are hindering the freedoms of people and hurting business development even though, in most instances, they are just trying to protect the American people from the pollution of our water, air, and soil, as well as the end product of our food.
This disconnect also exists when it comes to animals and animal protection. Coyotes are cute until they become a nuisance in our suburban backyards. Endangered or threatened animals must be protected until their protection affects our personal lives, the profits of our businesses, or our personal freedoms. For many, an animal has to be cute or have some financial value to be worth saving—regardless of its larger, important role in an ecosystem or its simple right to live. But I would argue that humans have so drastically altered the environment in just 160 years or so since the Industrial Revolution that “if you broke it, you fix it.” We have a responsibility to protect the plants and animals—and even ecosystems—that we are in the process of wiping from the Earth because of greed, ignorance, fear, and what not.
Why Do I Garden?
So, what does any of this have to do with why I garden? The obvious answer is that I garden so I have healthy food to eat, and because it keeps me connected to nature and what’s important in life (at least as I see it). But there’s so much more to why I “till” the soil, laboriously water my “crops,” and eagerly anticipate the rich (and sometimes not so rich) rewards of a “harvest.”
Gardening has been part of my life since I was a little boy. I grew up gardening with my mom and grandfather, and continued into adulthood. In my first apartment, I began container gardening on the back deck of our second-floor unit. One or two containers turned into a dozen, and I had my own little stretch of green paradise—and some tasty vegetables—just a few blocks from Wrigley Field. I worried that my landlord would disapprove, but she embraced me as a fellow gardening traveler, even if the back deck could be mistaken for the Amazon.
When we moved to a second-floor condo in Jefferson Park, I had two decks to work with, but my wife shamed me into using just the big back one. So, we used the back deck for gardening and the front deck for grilling, guests, and family fun.
Since we do not have a house (we bought our condo “high” in 2005 right before the Great Recession and the real estate crash…thank you, U.S. mortgage-backed securities), the decks are like two extra rooms in our home for six months of the year. We spend hours on both decks enjoying the fresh air, the crazy throng of humanity passing by on Lawrence Avenue from our front deck, and a good book or beer on either deck.
Each spring, my son and I fill the containers with seeds of exotic and not-so-exotic varieties of kale, lettuce, spinach, peas, and broccoli. It’s usually cool and damp in Chicago at this time of the year, so we embrace being outside for a bit, but quickly head back into the house to warm up. The days gradually warm, the trees sprout leaves, seeds germinate, early flowers bloom, and we begin to spend time on the deck—tending the garden and watching the world go by.
By early summer, we plant tomatoes, herbs, eggplant, and other fruits and vegetables that I either started out indoors in the spring or that we bought at a garden center. (At the center, Liam loves to stand top the big flat cart like a ship captain on his deck, pointing out plants to buy.) Bean seeds harvested and dried from last year’s purple, yellow, and basic green beans—as well as other seeds—are gently dropped into the ground and covered with a thin layer of soil. And then we wait.
And by mid-summer, we are off to the races…the plants growing higher and higher, or snaking wildly around the deck as they are wont to do. And this is when—each year—I fall in love with gardening and this year’s garden, because:
- I love both the uncertainty and the promise of bringing something to life in the garden.
- I love the sheer act of getting my hands dirty and getting away from the computer.
- I love teaching my son about the joy and benefits of growing your own food and taking responsibility for the well-being of the garden.
- I love hanging in the garden with my son after he returns from summer camp or school, sitting together in the sun as we both eat popsicles.
- I love teaching him how to prune plants, pick beans and tomatoes without ripping off half the plant, and appreciate what we have although it’s not a real garden in a backyard like many of his friends have.
- I love just sitting in the sun when everyone’s gone from the house with a good novel, a pile of proofreading that’s a lot more fun to read amidst sunny skies and heat than in the house, or simply doing nothing, but leaning back in my chair and soaking up the warm weather, the sun, and the sky.
- I love watching the occasional bird, bumblebees and butterflies, and praying mantis visit the deck. Squirrels—takers of more than 20 big, beautiful tomatoes this year—are not welcome on our deck!
- I love trying to grow fruits, vegetables, and legumes that most people think would fail on a deck. Successes: potatoes, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, watermelon, and raspberries. Failures: garlic, corn, and peanuts.
- I love letting the garden grow wild and dense—so much that sitting amidst it makes one feel as if you’re in a dwarf forest. In addition, to fruits and vegetables, we have several evergreen trees, tall decorative grasses, and even a few mini oak trees, which seeded themselves from tiny seeds blown by the wind into planters on the deck.
- I love sitting in the dark amidst the plants, prairie grass, and trees late at night—watching the moon, stars, and planets.
- I love watching crazy storms roll in that seem like they might take us to Oz.
- I love watching the “harvest” come in. I count my crops—everything counts as one—whether it’s a tiny blueberry, a 10-inch purple bean, or a big fat Beefeater tomato. I started counting on a lark one year, or because I’m Rain Man, and I don’t know it. I just wanted to see if all my watering, plant tending, carrying 50-pound bags of dirt up two floors, etc. added up to anything, and yes, it did. Last year, I grew 1,628 items on my deck. This year, with the same effort, I’m at 777 items with a few weeks left in the growing season. Who knows what went wrong, but I’m happy for what we have. A garden provides a good lesson on life. Sometimes your efforts pay off, and sometimes they don’t, but you have to keep going because you never know how things will turn out.
I continue to plant all summer, calculating germination/harvest times for each type of fruit and vegetable. By mid-August, it’s too late to plant tomatoes and many other warm-weather-loving crops from seed. On the other hand, I plant beans as late as September and, of course, a second round of fall crops such as kale, spinach, and peas.
It’s early fall, and our garden is dense and beautiful. Bean vines climb around tomato plants and onto sticks placed for their exploration. Cucumber plants send snakes of vines and leaves around the deck. Liam and I pick beans, tomatoes, a handful or two of kale, and several kinds of peppers. He pokes around in the dirt with sticks. He begs to dig up the carrots and sweet potatoes we planted, but I tell him it’s too early, although I let him pick one smallish carrot and, looking at it, he agrees with my assessment.
The cicadas become an insect choir in the trees around our house. They are so loud it feels like they are on the deck itself, but they’re nowhere to be found.
It’s now October. The first three weeks or so are glorious, with daytime temperatures in the 70s and 80s and mild evenings. It’s like we’re having bonus summer, and no one I know complains. Our two bonus deck “rooms” are available for longer than expected.
The Beginning of the End
But then the real fall comes along. Heavy rains drench the plants, followed by a sharp temperature drop and strong winds that feel almost like a mad giant exhaling. Nighttime temperatures fall into the mid- to high-30s, and I begin covering the remainder of the garden to try to squeeze out another month or so of fresh fruits and vegetables. It becomes a game to see how long I can protect the plants from the biting cold, although I gradually cut down warm weather–loving plants (such as the peppers and tomatoes) that are done for the year. Last year, our new global climate change reality allowed me to grow hardier types of beans, kale, Brussel sprouts, and spinach until December 3, the day before our first big snow. (It was fun eating vegetables from our garden as we watched the snow pile up outside.)
But before the garden gets put away for the year, Chicago weather usually bounces back for a week or so in early November. The highs reach the 60s and maybe the low 70s, and swarms of ladybugs fly around our back deck, alighting on plants and our building walls to soak up the sun and have a few last meals. When we first moved here 12 years ago, there were literally thousands of ladybugs on our deck each fall. The number slowly declined each year, and thousands became hundreds, and now dozens. But seeing these beautiful insects always puts me in a good mood. Liam and I sit in the waning sunlight an hour or two before it gets dark. The sun looks sad in the sky; it’s lower angle at this time of the year makes me miss its hot direct rays of the summer.
And then the deep freeze and snow come, coating the stalks of the remaining plants, resting like a crown atop the evergreen trees, and ending the growing season. Once green and supple leaves and vines become crunchy and frozen. During the winter, our home loses two rooms, Liam and I occasionally venture onto the back deck to play in the snow, or just soak up a little weak sunlight—but it’s not the same.
But in just four months or so, we’ll be back outside planting, waiting for the fruit and vegetables to grow green and thick again, the homegrown peppers, peas, tomatoes, beans, and berries to return to our dinner table, long summer days filled with popsicles and Liam-fun on the deck, the songs of the cicadas, the return of the lady bugs, and another cycle in the story of our deck top garden.
Copyright (text/photos) Andrew Morkes