The Ukrainian garden

Spring has once again rolled around, and for many of us Ukrainians in the diaspora, that means it is time to get the garden in order and get planting underway. Coming as we do from a long line of tillers of the land, I would go as far as to say that it is probably embedded in our genetic makeup. As winter fades away, we are driven to get our hands dirty with turning over soil and sowing the seeds of produce that in centuries past kept our ancestors going through the bleakness of winter.

Of course, doing so in our modern age of large scale agriculture and the proliferation of well-stocked grocery stores everywhere might seem a little bit unnecessary and superfluous. Yet, we continue to do so, no longer out of necessity, but more as an homage to our traditions and to assuage some subconscious instinct that draws us to this communion with the fertility and bounteousness of Mother Earth.

Those traditions were strongly inculcated into us by our parents. No matter where they lived or how much or how little land they owned, they would always plant a garden. When I say garden, I don’t mean the standard modern suburban decorative plots consisting of mostly manicured lawns with some ornamental flowers on the fringes. Ukrainian gardens were functional and practical, intended to produce food in sufficient quantities to feed large families through the winter and spring. My mother always did indulge in planting some pretty flowers at the front of the house for decorative and esthetic purposes, but the back yard was totally dedicated to the intensive cultivation of fruits and vegetables.

I have tried to continue that tradition, albeit on a more modest scale, since I only have a small yard behind my house. My sister has a much larger backyard (and a much bigger “green thumb”), and her gardening efforts put mine to shame. The same is true of my brother, who lives out in the country and actually has some serious acreage. His gardening “hobby” has driven him to invest in a small garden tractor and an assortment of mechanized attachments that place his gardening efforts into a higher, almost semi-professional category.

Nonetheless, I take great pride and derive no small measure of satisfaction in my own humble garden, which until this year consisted of a plot of land measuring approximately two metres by six metres in size. This spring, I have decided to expand it and am doubling it in size, as well as increasing the varieties of things I will be planting in it. It will still fall short of what my parents used to cultivate, but I am content to remain in their shadow.
What they chose to grow was determined by the basic elements of the typical Ukrainian culinary repertoire. There were certain mandatory items – onions, garlic, potatoes, carrots, beets, cucumbers, cabbage, peas, beans, dill, peppers and horseradish. If there was room and the inclination, other optional choices could be included such as tomatoes, melons, turnips, strawberries, pumpkins, raspberries and eggplants. If there was room, various fruit trees were planted, with apples, pears, cherries and plums being favourite choices.

My own garden reflects more modest ambitions. Typically, I have planted garlic, onions, a number of varieties of tomatoes, some salad greens, basil and some hot peppers. This year I will be adding beets, peas and beans. I have made valiant attempts to grow horseradish in past years, but for some unexplainable reason, it has spurned all my best efforts. It has become a source of great amusement for my cousin Hryts in Pidkamin, who is a master at producing outstanding horseradish. He insists I am missing the essential chromosome in my genes that is required to properly grow horseradish.

Be that as it may, this past week, I retrieved my shovel, hoe, rake and wheelbarrow from the garage and broke ground for a new planting season. As we are still experiencing some freezing temperatures overnight, I have planted a variety of seeds in small planter boxes that line the window sills inside my house. These I water and tend to each day, being rewarded by seeing small green shoots peeping out of the soil. Soon it will be time to transplant them into the garden in my back yard, which is being prepared by shovel and muscle power and the application of copious amounts of composted manure.

And so another growing cycle begins, following an ageless pattern that stretches back into the distant past when our ancestors first forsook the hunter-gatherer lifestyle in favour of settling down in one place and developed agriculture. I am glad to be part of that continuum.