By Christy Schweikhardt
For a kid growing up in Houston’s suburbs, my early love of vegetable gardening was an unusual passion. The gardening “bug” was sparked in the summer when I was about 10 years old. I traveled with an aunt and my two cousins to Oklahoma where we stayed about two weeks at the country home of my Great Aunt Joy, my grandmother’s sister. When we arrived, Aunt Joy showed us around the place, which included a tour of her massive vegetable garden. It was certainly massive to a kid whose family grew a few tomato plants in the backyard where the oak tree did not cast too much shade, but even today I would consider Aunt Joy’s garden an impressive in-ground home row garden. It was luscious green, with large and small yellow blooms on plants I had never seen before and vegetables ready to harvest. As we wandered up and down the rows, Aunt Joy identified the plants, talked about how to grow them and whispered loving encouragement to them. She showed me her compost piles and explained how they worked. I was fascinated.
While there, every day, sometimes before breakfast, I went out with her to survey the garden and harvest. This is still my routine in my garden now; out in garden first thing in morning. The bush green beans in Aunt Joy’s garden were coming in like gang-busters so over the first few days of our visit, we harvested bushels of them. I had never seen such piles of fresh green beans. Since most of my green bean-eating experience consisted of beans from cans, I was not a big fan. I usually dosed them with apple cider vinegar because I preferred the taste of vinegar to the beans. But even though I was not planning to eat many of the harvested green beans, anticipating how many beans would be ready to harvest each morning and picking them from the bush was just down right fun. We also harvested cucumbers which seemed to double in size every night.
When Aunt Joy cooked a pot of fresh green beans harvested that morning with onion and little bits of ham; boy did my impression of green beans change! They were fabulous, no vinegar needed, and so dramatically better than store-bought canned beans. Even a 10-year old could taste the difference and say “yum” while eating green beans. I thought I betrayed kids everywhere by suddenly loving green beans!
As good as they were, with all of the cucumbers and green beans piling up to more than we could possibly eat right away, it was time to preserve. The beans were dumped out on yesterday’s newspaper (yes, we actually had paper newspapers in those days) on the kitchen table and we snapped them for hours it seemed; telling stories and laughing together while we worked. I then stood by the stove watching Aunt Joy pour hot liquid over the beans packed in jars and we set the lids and rings. After the beans were canned, next came slicing and pickling cucumbers. When we were done, jars of beans and pickles where stacked all over the kitchen.
A neighbor dropped by the house early morning the next day, before breakfast. Her family were beekeepers and harvested honey a few days ago. She left Aunt Joy a few jars of honey and Joy gave her a few jars of green beans and pickles. After she left, we made some toast, spread it with butter and drizzled that fresh sweet honey on top. I had nothing but toast and honey for breakfast that day and was full of energy. Toast, butter and honey is still a special treat for me that will take my mind back to that specific moment. I thought it was really cool how my Aunt traded produce from her garden with the beekeeper neighbor for honey. I learned that not only do vegetable gardeners enjoy showing off their garden and eating the produce, they enjoy the special pleasure of sharing it with others even more.
When we left for home, I had a few jars of green beans and pickles to take to my mother. I was excited explaining to her how we pickled, snapped, sliced and canned. I begged for a little sunny spot in the backyard to grow some vegetables. My mother, who is a childhood polio survivor, had a hard time getting down on the ground and gardening due to the ravages that cruel disease did to her leg muscles but she nonetheless helped me get a little garden plot going. I did not really comprehend then how physically hard it was for her to do this but I know now and appreciate so fully what she did to help me explore my new found interest.
Over the years, life and responsibilities got in the way of allowing me to pursue my gardening interests, but once I had a home of my own in Houston, the first project was starting the vegetable garden behind the garage. I read every gardening book I could get my hands on and had some great success and some failures. I dreamed of taking the Master Gardener classes offered in Harris County to learn from gardening experts but the classes did not fit into my work schedule.
One summer, I had to introduce myself to the neighbor who lived behind me because his teenage kids were hopping the fence to smoke cigarettes and joints in my garden, hiding from their parents. I knew because they were also leaving their cigarette butts and other paraphernalia behind in the garden. But what got me angry enough to take action was that the kids did not respect the plants in the garden and trampled them. Before going to the next block to discuss the problem, I peered over the fence into their back yard and I spotted a few tomato plants in a bed. I then went to their front door and rang the bell, a little nervous about how the parents would react to what I had to say. When the dad answered, I first mentioned that I could not help but notice his fine-looking tomato plants covered with fruit so I hope he would understand my situation. I then told him that I could care less about their kids smoking cigarettes and joints, that was not any of my business, and they could even do it in my backyard, but trampling my garden I could not tolerate. I said I hoped as one gardener to another, he would understand and speak with his kids. I don’t know how he felt about the kids smoking but we saw eye-to-eye as gardeners on the trampled plants – problem solved!
Many years later, after my husband and I retired and moved out to Washington County, Texas, I finally have the time and space for a proper garden. I completed the Master Gardener Training Class in 2016 with the Bluebonnet Master Gardener Association. I thought I knew a lot about gardening before the class, but I learned so much more and changed how I garden. My success and enjoyment improved as well. As a Master Gardener I continue to learn and refine my garden practices.
I was surprised that the Master Gardener program gives me not only the opportunity to share produce from my vegetable garden with family, neighbors and friends, but it gives me the joy of sharing fact research-based gardening knowledge with others. Our lives have become more tech-heavy, hectic and with hand-sanitizer seeming to replace just plain soap & water sometimes, simply getting one’s hands in the garden soil refreshes the spirit. As a Master Gardener, if I help spark a passion in one child, teen or adult for gardening like my Aunt Joy did for me and help them to do it more successfuly, I will have shared the finest gift of all from my garden.