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Natural Perspectives: Gardening is in my genes

While Vic prepared for class one day last week, I transplanted some strawberry and bell pepper plants into one of my three raised garden beds. Then I watered my vegetable garden with a watering can, using stored rainwater from our rain barrels.

I know that doesn't sound like much work, but it took me most of the morning.

Done for the time being, I sat on my deck and looked out over my backyard, satisfied with what I saw. My vegetable beds are all planted for the season, my fruit trees are loaded with the promise of a record harvest, and all three hens are laying eggs again.

While I was resting with my cup of coffee, I thought about why it is that I love to grow food.

I garden in part because I have to. I don't mean out of financial necessity, because Lord knows I spend far more on my garden than the food is worth, from a strictly financial point of view. I mean that I am driven to grow food.

I garden because it is in my genes, deep down in my DNA.

For thousands of years, my ancestors tilled the soil instead of manufacturing shoes, working in silver or weaving tapestries. If you look at my family tree on my father's side, it is farmer, farmer, farmer all the way back. On my mother's side, there were doctors, lawyers, preachers, and — a lot of farmers.

My ancestors first arrived in the New World in 1644 at Jamestown. Mostly, they settled in the states of Virginia and North Carolina, with succeeding generations moving west to Kentucky and Tennessee, then north to Indiana in the 1800s.

My ancestors were pioneers, often the first white settlers on their property. Generation after restless generation moved onto virgin land. They cleared it, plowed it and planted it.

My father lived on his uncle's farm until he was 16. Growing things was in his blood. We often went back to the farm where he was raised to visit his cousin, who had inherited the farm. My childhood was filled with talk of growing corn, making silage and raising hogs.

When I was 12 years old, my father showed me how to plant a vegetable garden. I didn't pay much attention to it, which must have been a disappointment to him. But the lesson stuck.

I planted my first vegetable garden back in 1962 at the community gardens at Purdue University, where I was an agriculture major. Like a good farm wife, I canned the surplus produce.

But that garden was a short-lived, one season effort. I switched majors and moved to Colorado to finish my degree in environmental biology. There was no place or time in my life for a garden.

I didn't grow vegetables again until 1976, when Vic and I moved to a 7-acre farm in Higganum, Conn. We had a vegetable garden the entire time that we were in graduate school. My inspiration was Jim Crockett's "Victory Garden" on PBS out of Boston.

We got our doctorates in 1981, moved to Southern California and began stressful lives as college professors. I gardened then to de-stress.

I had a garden at our first house in Huntington Beach, then a plot at the local community garden after we moved to our present house in 1988, with its pathetically small yard. The community garden at Golden West College went defunct not too many years later, and that ended my gardening once again.

My mother died in the summer of 2005, and my son Bob died three months later. I went into a blue funk and didn't climb back out for a couple of years. I neglected the yard entirely during that period.

Then I read Barbara Kingsolver's "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life."

That book describes Kingsolver's effort to grow her own food and eat only locally grown meat and produce that was in season. The idea was to help combat global warming by reducing the distance that food had to travel to their table. People who eat locally grown food are called locavores.

That book changed my life.

I vowed to do my bit to fight global warming and to eat locally grown, organic food as much as possible, preferably home-raised. That was the year I began planting my mini orchard in earnest.

It is now five years later and our 23 mostly-dwarf and semi-dwarf fruit trees have matured. This should be a banner year for fruit production in our yard.

Another reason that I garden and put up excess produce is for food security, or at least the illusion of food security. It means that we can provide for ourselves.

Another reason to garden in today's modern world is food safety. Bulk prepared foods can cause widespread epidemics of food poisoning.

Another issue is organic versus nonorganic food. I don't want herbicides and pesticides on my food. If I grow my own, I know what has or has not been put onto it.

Practicing organic farming also supports good stewardship of the land. Going organic promotes soil health and is better for the environment. Organic gardening or farming is safer for wildlife and people, especially small children.

Vic doesn't garden. But he is very much in favor of my gardening effort because he says that homegrown tomatoes, green beans and peas taste so much better than those found in the stores. And for once, he's right!

So why do gardeners dig in the cold, miserable mud at the first sign of spring? Why do we swelter over a hot stove during the humid days of August to put up tomatoes, pickles and preserves? Why do we mourn the passing of each growing season and rejoice when we can plant again?

Maybe it's because we love to see those first tiny green shoots poke up out of the rich, brown soil. It symbolizes hope and renewal.

So there you have it. That is why I garden.

Genetics, a connection with my ancestors and the land, relaxation, fresher produce, greater food security and safety, and protection of the environment.

Bottom line — gardening makes me happy.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY and Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. Readers can reach them at loumurrayphd@aol.com.

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