Monica Bielanko
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Look Ma! I Done Growed Stuff

My grandpa on my mom's side grew up on a farm about an hour south of Salt Lake City. Consequently, he and my gramma always had a garden in their backyard. Nothing fancy, just your garden Although, now that I think of it, a large, glass greenhouse took up residence in their backyard for most of my formative years and folks investing in greenhouses generally aren't messing around...

What I remember most about their garden, though, are the strawberries. Rows and rows of bright, red strawberries. Sometimes, when we'd sleep over at gramma's house she'd serve up a bowl of those bad boys for breakfast. Strawberries, a splash of milk and a sprinkle of sugar. But most of the time I'd park my bony 8-year-old ass on the lawn next to a row of the berries and just go to town. Heaven.

The strawberry flavor has been whored out to everything from licorice to Pop Tarts and shampoo and, as a result, has been so bastardized that I'm willing to bet a good 80% of folks don't even remember the real flavor of a strawberry. In fact, most of the strawberry items you purchase don't even contain real strawberry, just a creepy concoction of vowel-less ingredients (read: chemicals) you can't pronounce.

When's the last time you bit into a garden strawberry? Not one of those mutated, fist-sized jobs shilled at grocery stores. That deformity of nature is an overly sweet, watery, pale imitation of the tangy berries that pushed their way up through the earth in Gramma's backyard. What I mean is, when's the last time you tasted a berry fresh off someone's vine? A petite, flavor-packed, zingy home-grown number?

And so it is with most fruits and vegetables these days. They're bloated, watery versions of their former selves. Kind of like Elvis at the end. Who would you rather see in concert? Bloated, sweaty Elvis or the young, gorgeous badass whose slight tweak of the knee heralded a goddamn tsunami of worldwide adoration? I'm going with young Elvis and Gramma's strawberries every fucking time.

I guess memories of Gramma's garden are what inspired dreams about planting my own garden. There's just something so fabulously primitive about stepping out your backdoor, plucking an onion from your earth along with a jalapeno and a red pepper and whipping up an omelet generously sprinkled with your own cilantro. Now I just need some chickens...

This red onion is on the small side because SOMEONE got a little too excited and pulled him out of the ground early. Someone may or may not have incriminating dirt on their face and hands. I can't blame her, though. We planted these bulbs together back in April and she's been excitedly waiting to see what happens ever since.

Everything just tastes superior, the way it was meant to taste. Eating food you grow yourself is powerful, but, truly, the most mind-blowing aspect of gardening, at least for me, is to plant a seed or bulb in the ground and watch it grow. This tiny seed turned into this? It's magic.

Seeing these tomatoes and peppers popping into existence seemingly overnight makes me feel like Tom Hanks in that scene from Castaway when he finally gets a fire going. Except instead of fire, I created food.




Although we've grown some tomatoes, peppers and a few herbs in little plots of dirt in the various homes we've rented, we have never full-on squared off and tilled up a good bit of earth for a garden. So this is my first, real garden. Henry's too.

I must admit, it's a steep learning curve. I didn't realize how big zucchini bushes get so they're totally creeping on the eggplant I planted too close like horny fraternity boys circling the hottest chicks at the party, but, like most chicks who know they're hot, the eggplants are fending off the zucchini nicely. I planted too many onions, but I can always share the bounty with neighbors. But all this fine-tuning after each year's harvest is part of the fun. Next year: more broccoli, less onions. And fruit. Blueberries, raspberries and, of course, strawberries.

The most important part? We're having fun. Violet and Henry helped plant everything, they're with me when I weed and water each day and now they're seeing how it all works as we welcome each new vegetable into the garden. "Mom! Lookit the baby zucchinis! So cute! Mama! I found another tomato! When will they turn red? Can we eat them yet?"

Henry helps tie up a tomato plant as Max looks on:

Are you into gardening? What's your favorite thing to grow? What can you never get to grow?

Reader Comments (18)

Your garden looks fantastic and I'm so glad you're enjoying it! The kids will have such great memories of helping you grow food.

I haven't had trouble growing anything, but I do have trouble keeping the zucchini alive. Some sort of asshole worm gets inside the stems every year and destroys them from the inside out after we've had one round of zucchini. I've read that you can slice open the stem and pull the bugs out, but no thanks. Too gross.

June 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKat

I have my first garden this year! After 3 years of living in a apartment with no outdoors space, we finally have an apartment with a yard and a small garden bed. I am sharing the plot with the other tenant and we are attempting sugar snap peas, tomatoes, kale, lettuce, arugula, peppers and a kohlrabi, plus lots of herbs. I feel the exact same way you do when I see things actually growing.

June 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLindsey

@Lindsey - I really wanted to grow kale and lettuce but didn't look hard enough to find some I could plant!

June 24, 2013 | Registered CommenterMonica

One of the best things about gardening if you have kids, I think, is that kids LOVE to eat stuff from the garden! It's a wonderful tool to get them to love vegetables...except I still can't get my daughter to like cucumbers or green peppers.

I planted really late this year - we had frost round these parts three weeks ago. I'm growing tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, yellow squash, peppers, sugar snap peas, pumpkin and watermelon (which I'm sure won't work out). And I have a strawberry patch in another area that I really need to fence in - not only are they our favorites, but the chipmunks really like them, too. I also have a nice stand of raspberries that were passed down from my grandfather (my mom has taken plants everywhere she's gone to keep this strain alive) - I freeze tons of them so we have yummy berries all winter. We have tons of wild blackberries around, as well, which are SO good. I love this time of year!

PS If you want some of my heirloom raspberries (they're not "picky" so easy for kids to pick), let me know and I'll send you some this fall...

June 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHanni

One warning: Dogs like tomatoes.

Our tomato garden here in zone 9 has to survive these predators, in seasonal order: leaf miners, caterpillers, stink bugs, mockingbirds, black labs.

Some years I was amazed at how little fruit I actually got.

Now I wrap my tomatoes in plastic netting that keeps out the birds and the dogs. We did have to rescue one adolescent mockingbird that got tangled in the netting last week but so far I've been the one to eat all of my tomatoes.

June 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKaren

@Hanni - I hate cucumbers too! I would love heirloom raspberries! I was tempted to try watermelon but passed at the last second... I have pumpkins too! But I put them on the other side of the yard because they take over. Do you plant yours with your other veggies?

June 24, 2013 | Registered CommenterMonica

Not only are you creating wonderful memories for your children, you're educating them in the best way, planting the seeds (pun intended) the will lead to healthy eating and future gardening pros. Brava to you! Your garden looks beautiful and I'll bet its output tastes spectacular.

June 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCarole

Your garden is beautiful! And your kids will have great memories of helping with it. Makes me want to try it, but I have trouble remembering to water things. When I was little my mother always planted an enormous garden and it was a lot of work, but it really was awesome watching everything grow and having garden-fresh vegetables. I remember how proud she was when the asparagus she planted came up because apparently it takes forever and is hard to grow. Mom canned a lot too. One year we discovered there were tons of sand plum trees about a mile down the road, so we all helped pick them and mom canned about 100 jars of sand plum jelly.

June 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth B

@Elizabeth B - Don't laugh, but I've always wanted to can stuff too. Jams, tomato sauce etc. just like my gramma did.

June 24, 2013 | Registered CommenterMonica

After moving to our off the grid property two years ago in the mountains of BC, we finally started our garden. We plowed up 1/3 of an acre with our ole Massey Ferguson and I started most of our plants from seed in the winter down in our warm basement. And man! What a ride. We have over a hundred heirloom tomato plants, fifty heirloom squash, rows and rows of beets, carrots, cucumbers, peppers, red and yellow onions, spinach, peas, corn, leeks, kale, eggplant, potatoes and cabbage. And of course, STRAWBERRIES! They were the first to go in, and we lucked out because our neighbor was drowning in them and gave us hundreds of little plants- so we have two big rows already producing those sweet, grandma's berries you speak off! Oh, and red and yellow raspberries around the perimeter of the garden, and a few blueberry plants to start. It has been a real love hate for me- with three kids and a husband working out of town, things can get pretty overwhelming. But we work on it together, and after a couple of weeks of glorious rain things are really looking up. This is also our second year doing meat chickens, and we just got our new chicks, who reside in the nursery we set up on our deck until they're ready to move down to the coop with the peacocks and other random birds we have acquired. So 150 meat chicks on the go, plus ten turkeys (who are total punks) and twenty new laying hens ( sweet little caramel coloured fluff balls). I have been reading since you were in Brooklyn and have been meaning to write to you for some time- we have much in common :) Maybe one of these days I'll finally find the time to do that- until then let me just say I've really enjoyed watching your journey, and am so stoked for your move to countryside. You guys have made some serious shit happen, mama, and you should be proud!

June 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLindsay

Monica, I love your garden and your sweet overly excited onion puller, and your blog, it's all so refreshing and lovely. What kind of camera do you use for these great photos? thanks for all the writing, xo!

June 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJulianna

@Julianna - Thank you so much! Just a cheap Canon point & shoot. A "PowerShot ELPH110HS" is the exact model. I love it. It's smaller than my phone and I carry it everywhere.

June 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterThe Girl Who...

So cool, love how your kids are so involved. I grew a few things this year seeing as we'll be here this summer, tomatoes, zucchini, squash, herbs. I'm a bit miffed as my one zucchini plant was being eaten by something, went out in the dark with a torch one night as I couldn't see any snail trails and turns out it's earwigs. I actually like earwigs but they've destroyed the whole thing :-( Currently trying to fend them off with various oils that are supposed to deter them. Don't want to use pesticides if I can help it. I'd love to grow from seed in the future, plants are expensive!

June 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAlison

Wow....what a garden! Loving your photography...and Yes, I much prefer the juicy and organic home grown Elvis to that commercially formulated washed out and watered down version, kind have forgotten what a real strawberry

June 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGina

I love Your garden! This year for the first time I also have my own. And I guess it just comes with age and children. And it also makes me madly proud I made my own food too! Good job!

June 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNika

Swoon. I love your garden posts. And you take such magnificent photos of your kids/pups in the garden. :)

I'm still stuck to container gardening on the upper deck due to too many trees/too little direct sun in our yard. Year after year the most reliable thing I've been able to grow are hot peppers. I harvest dozens and dozens of the little guys. I am trying my hand at both cherry tomatoes and green beans this year and so far they've been fun: Seemingly out of nowhere those plants are totally covered in little flowers, so that's getting me excited.

My grandmother used to garden (although hers was ginormous and took up her whole yard), and she passed when I was a very young teenager. I feel closer to her and better able to conserve her memory by taking on the gardening tradition, even in my little container way. :)

June 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterConnie

I did plant my pumpkins in with my other veggies, but at one end of the garden so I could try to lead them away from everything else. My garden is enclosed on three sides with our chicken coop (the other side is dog yard), so I'm going to have to move my fencing to make my garden larger to accommodate larger plants! I only planted one or two pumpkin plants, though, so we'll see how it goes.

Last year we had something weird happen, and I still haven't figured it out. We had lots of larger plants blooming (like pumpkins, zucchini), but then they didn't produce fruit at many blooms. Maybe a lack of bees? Not sure what caused this. But, because our pumpkin plant only produced a couple fruit, we got one HUGE pumpkin, which was really cool.

I'll gather some raspberries for you this late summer/fall as they spread - you'll want to have a designated area for them that you can mow around easily (along a sunny spot of your fence?). They spread like crazy! But they're SO worth it...

June 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHanni

@Hanni - Yay! So excited!

June 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterThe Girl Who...

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