One thing I missed when we lived in Texas was having fresh fruit growing on trees in our yard. I had planted a couple of citrus trees in the backyard the winter before we left, but they were so small I had to take the green oranges and grapefruits off the branches so as not to damage the trees. So we never had any fruit from our trees there.
Here in Utah it’s a different story. In my yard, I have two apricot trees, a small peach tree, an Italian plum tree, red and green grape vines, and several Pottawattamie plum trees. And I have planted a small garden with melons, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, and peppers. In the spring, the back yard was completely in bloom, from the pink peach blossoms to the stunning white of the apricots to Hostas and Asian lilies.
Now it’s July, and the apricots are nearly ripe. Everything else is poised to be harvested soon afterward. I’ll be getting out my canning implements and my steam juicer. For some reason, these looming tasks remind me of home and childhood and are somehow like putting on a comfortable old shirt. My parents always had something to can, from boysenberry jam to guava jelly to spaghetti sauce and mustard pickles.
Part of this urge to grow things and can them comes from my Mormon background. We were taught from early childhood to grow and store our own food items, to have gardens and emergency stores of food. But I think it goes beyond that.
Both of my parents grew up in relative poverty, my father having grown up in a government housing project in Ogden, Utah. Finding and growing food were essential for them to make ends meet. My father and uncle would go out picking wild asparagus along the Weber River in the summertime, and my grandmother would blanch it and freeze it for the winter. Dad would also take his trusty .22-caliber rifle (with short bullets) up into the mountains to hunt snowshoe rabbits for food. Naturally, they supplemented their diet with food grown in a large backyard garden.
My maternal grandfather was a grocery-store manager on a rather limited income, so they too grew food in a large garden. When I was a young boy, we would spend a week or two at my grandparents’ house in Spring Lake, Utah, where we would feed the lambs, gather eggs from the henhouse, and help my grandmother in her enormous garden at the side of the house. One fond memory I have is of picking and shelling peas with her in her kitchen. My mother was a little miffed that most of the fresh peas had ended up in our mouths rather than in the bowl. But Grandma just laughed and said, “What good are peas if you can’t eat them?”
When I was born, my father was working part-time and was in a Ph.D. program at USC. He had moved our family of 8 into a tiny house (barely 900 square feet), but the main attraction was the deep yard stretching behind the house. We used to sing a song in church that I thought had been written especially with our yard in mind:
In the leafy treetops, the birds sing “Good morning” …
In my pretty garden, the flowers are nodding.
We had two large fig trees in the yard: an old black mission fig tree that every year was loaded with sweet fruit, and a larger tree bearing golden figs. Dad had built a multilevel treehouse in the larger tree, and I would lie down on a pallet in the top of the tree, staring at the sky as the branch swayed in the breeze. The garden was in the back left corner, and there my father grew tomatoes, corn, squash, peppers, artichokes, and radishes. To one side were a passion-fruit tree and a large hedge of boysenberries. Canning produce from the yard was a part of my early childhood, and it continued on after we moved on to a larger house.
My parents bought a house out in the suburbs in 1971, and the yard was completely bare: no grass, no trees, not even weeds. Eventually, they put in a swimming pool, and Dad began building the yard around it. He planted boysenberries and raspberries along the pool fence, and they came in such abundance that my cousins tell me that their fondest memories of our house are of eating boysenberries in between trips down the pool slide. Each year the garden he had planted got larger, and the lawn got smaller.
I resented having to care for the garden and the fruit trees, but somewhere along the line I absorbed my parents’ love for growing things and having food of my own creation. This year will be the first in a long time that I’ve had anything to harvest. But it feels good.