If you are a first or second generation descendant of Ukrainian immigrants, then I am pretty sure that your childhood memories will include your parents having a large garden. Whether they had a big yard or not, they would have undoubtedly taken great effort to plant as much as they could each spring in whatever land they had available. There would be neat and well tended rows of cabbage, lettuce, beets, carrots, potatoes, onions, garlic, tomatoes, peas, beans, horseradish, and perhaps some sunflowers. If there was sufficient room, there might also be some strawberries and raspberries, and if they had a truly large yard, they would plant a little orchard of apple, cherry, plum or pear trees.
Dedicating one’s yard space to just having a lawn was unthinkable. Land was meant to be productive and not merely ornamental. Of course, concessions were made towards having some colourful flowers and other decorative plants, and there might be a small well-trimmed lawn out front, but essentially, land was viewed as functional rather than decorative.
I have always been drawn to carry on this tradition in all the properties I have owned, though I must admit that my efforts are considerably more modest than those of my parents. When they retired and sold the family farm, they made sure the property they bought had a huge back yard so that they could indulge in their passion to grow stuff. Although some of it was lawn, the majority of it was dedicated to planting vegetables, as well as at least a half dozen fruit trees. The end product of their gardening endeavours wound up being canned or preserved in some way and stored in the freezer or on endless shelves in the basement. Even in adulthood, a visit to my parents always resulted in my coming home with numerous Mason jars full of preserved goodies.
In contrast to my parents, my gardens have always been more symbolic than significant contributors to my food supply. My current garden situated in my back yard measures some eight metres by three metres, and is but a minor feature of my backyard landscape. The variety of things planted is also considerably smaller than what my parents would consider adequate. This year, it includes just onions, salad greens, garlic, tomatoes and basil. My mother would undoubtedly categorize it as “скромний”, or modest.
That may be so, but I am wise enough to recognize my limitations. My parents and most of their peers inherited a knowledge and a skill for farming that went back generations. They grew up working with the soil from an early age, and knew its capabilities and needs almost instinctively. They understood the effects of soil makeup, geography, climate and local pests and plant diseases. They devoted a lot of time and effort towards ensuring the garden was well-tended and able to flourish.
Sadly, that gardening lore and ability did not get transmitted very successfully into my set of skills and talents. I recognized this from my earliest attempts at gardening. Yet the urge to get my hands dirty in the soil was strong, and I persisted until I eventually learned what I was and was not capable of. Although my gardening repertoire is limited, I take a great deal of satisfaction in getting my gardening tools out each spring, and planting those things that I know will yield a decent crop in spite of, rather than because of my best efforts.
My favourite and most dependable crop, one which my cousin Hryts from Pidkamin would be particularly pleased with, is garlic. In contrast to being planted in the spring, it is planted in late fall just before the first frosts set in. The planted cloves hibernate over the wintertime and are one of the first wisps of green to break the ground after the snow melts. They require very little attention and grow robustly regardless of the weather, type of soil or amount of sun. Even better, none of the local wildlife even dream of nibbling at them while they are growing.
The majority of my garden is planted with tomatoes, because they too are hardy, easy to maintain and produce large crops. Over the years, I have managed to acquire a variety of heirloom seeds and each year I get a colourful crop of tomatoes of all sizes and hues, including red, yellow, purple and black. I can testify to the fact that they are far richer in taste and flavour than anything you can get at the grocery store.
This year, being isolated at home because of the coronavirus epidemic, I have spent more time than usual in the garden, and correspondingly have gained a lot more pleasure in the process. Gardening is a zen experience that engenders peace, tranquility and a sense of accomplishment that few other endeavours can match. I should not be surprised; we are part of nature, and when we spend more time in and with nature, we are duly and satisfyingly rewarded.