Gardening with a Spoon

By: Nilsa Garcia-Rey

I first started gardening with my grandmother in the Bronx where she lived with my grandfather in Kingsbridge Terrace. They lived in a fine old apartment house made of fieldstone that faced the Hudson River. The building may have once been a grand stone mansion, because it also had a nice sized backyard shaded by tall trees where my grandmother had several small garden beds mostly with herbs. She also kept box turtles there that she would bring back from visiting us in “the country.”

Our family had moved from Queens to Croton-on-Hudson where we lived in a newly built house on an acre of land, 4 miles from the village in a woodsy setting on Mt. Airy. Croton was famous for its Dam, the second largest “handmade” structure in the world after the Pyramids of Egypt according to local lore, built by Italian masons in the early 20th century, that held the water supply for New York City in a large reservoir behind it. Croton was also a railroad hub, a major stop on the Penn Central Line, and my father joined the legion of mostly men that commuted to the city every day. On weekends my grandparents would visit us and sometimes we would visit them. I loved visiting them in the big city, a concrete neighorhood with a large public playground and lots of kids. Their neighborhood was in a hilly section of the Bronx and we had to climb long cement stairs to go anywhere. It was such a different world from our quiet life upstate.

My grandmother’s garden seemed haphazard to me and semi-wild, unlike the landscaped yard my parents were carving out of their hillside in Croton, butressed by retaining stone walls my father helped build on the weekends, and lots of evergreen shrubs as was the style in the 50’s. My parents weren’t interested in growing vegetables, that was the domain of first generation immigrants, but they allowed my grandparents to have a small kitchen garden in our backyard, where they grew tomatoes and peppers. Abuela didn’t have many tools, a shovel, maybe a hoe. Her hand tools were all old kitchen utensils, a large spoon and a dull carving knife. I loved helping her dig in the dirt with a spoon that I could easily hold in my small hand. I learned to plant seeds, mostly cilantro and basil and all kinds of beans. I now find it ironic that I first learned about gardening in New York City, even though I lived in a rural setting an hour away. It wasn’t until I left home that I had my first garden, during the “back to the land” years, and I never stopped gardening, whether in a backyard in Cambridge, or a rooftop in the South End of Boston or a plot in a community garden.

I now find myself on this unique and wonderful farm in South Dartmouth where I am growing herbs and flowers, mostly for medicine but also for the many pollinators that are so important to our local eco-system. I came to Round the Bend Farm as a volunteer helping Ashley grow produce, and I fell in love with the land and what they were all doing there. All of our activites are interrelated, all organic waste is composted or fed to the animals.There is great attention paid to what grows wild and naturally and we try to follow the principles of permaculture using no-till methods when possible. As the season finally begins I am excited to be planting new beds of plants I have just learned about. I will experiment and find out what grows and what doesn’t. I will discover which perennials will thrive and come back next year. I wil dig up burdock and dandelion roots to make aromatic decocotions. I will forage for St. Johns Wort in the woods behind the tiny houses. I look forward to sore muscles, a good tan and dirty fingernails. And I still have my grandmother’s spoon.