I have always found gardening to be one of life’s most rewarding pursuits. I was introduced to it at a very young age, growing up first in the city of Camden where everyone had gardens in the open area that led to the Delaware River behind our row homes, and then later in the suburban town we moved to when I was six. My parents were fortunate to again have an empty field at the back of their property that my father quickly transformed into a huge garden. My own gardens that I grew as an adult were much smaller in scale, but they still seemed to produce a bumper crop every year. My dad and I differed in our ways of doing things. I like raised beds, and he preferred gardens that stepped down. He saw no use for flowers among the vegetables, and I liked to intermix the two, sometimes even according to color. He’d reach for the strongest spray in his lean-to behind the garage at the first sign of pests or fungus, and I preferred organic methods that made him laugh. I felt very close to him when we talked about ideas for planting, or when I consulted him for help. By the time I was growing things of my own, he’d given up his own garden and enjoyed spending time in mine as a result. HIs parents were gardeners too, as were my mom’s parents, so there was also the feeling that we were continuing a tradition that had started many years ago. I share that same sense of connection with my son, Zachary, who also loves to garden, and I’m pleased to say that my daughter, Wendy, has also taken up the practice in the last few years. It definitely feels like something that runs in the family in a very deep way.
This summer, I returned to gardening after a long absence from it. Although I continued to weigh in on my children’s decisions about the whats and wheres of planting over the last few years, I found myself wanting something of my own again. Zach and I decided to share a rather large plot in the community garden in town. I found that returning to this practice that I loved so much made me think about why gardening means the things that it does to so many people. What lessons does it teach us that we can apply to our everyday lives? For starters, it helps us to develop our sense of vision. We lay out these plans in the dead of winter when there’s snow on the ground, in the hopes that we’ll see them all realized in mid-July when temperatures are soaring. It takes a great deal of faith to believe that it will actually happen in the exact way we’re imagining. The truth is that the more time we spend in the thinking phase that occurs when there is not a green thing in sight, the better and bigger our end results will be. This teaches us patience and trust, and it reminds us of the way nature moves in cycles that we can either embrace or resist. In fact, the entire growing season serves as an example of how one stage of life must give way to the next in order for there to ever be anything to harvest. The early part of the season is all about lushness, but those beautiful green leaves must eventually take a back seat to the tomatoes, eggplant, or zucchini hiding beneath them. Even when the leaves themselves are the harvest, as in the case of spinach or kale, there’s always a window before bitterness sets in. Finally, there is something that happens while working in the garden that quiets our minds and makes us more receptive and open to recognizing that not everything is within our control. For the most part, we live and work in worlds that are fast paced and hectic, and we often find ourselves struggling to keep it all together. The natural environment follows its own timeframe and sets its own rules. Any time that we spend in it will help us to learn the importance of letting go and moving at a slow enough speed to still be able to keep our eyes open for what is unanticipated and joyful.
At this point in this post, I really wanted to use a quote about gardening that would perfectly summarize everything that I’ve been trying to write thus far. I did not have one in mind, and so I went on a search. I found many things that were both beautiful and profound and would most definitely have worked, but then I came across something written by Alice Walker that truly surprised me in its relevance. “In search of my mother’s garden, I found my own.” This quote appears in Walker’s first collection of nonfiction essays entitled In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, in which Walker presents the concept of womanism, or the subset of feminism that focuses on women of color of her mother’s generation and the particular oppression they suffered because of the twofold impact of sexism and racism. Because the majority of these women were so overworked and exhausted by their circumstances, as well as bound by external restrictions, they had no outlets for creativity as we know them today. Their gardens, and similar pursuits such as quilting and cooking, offered them both a means of creative expression, as well as an opportunity to generationally connect with their mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers who came before them. They did not “take up” hobbies as we do. They answered a call that came from somewhere deep within themselves, as well as from the collective consciousness of their ancestors. This looped me back to my father and his garden and this same means of expression and connection that it provided for him. He was a man who had moved from a city row home that he loved where he was surrounded by friends and family into the isolating wilderness known as American suburbia in the 1960s. His garden helped him regain his sense of self and reestablish the connection to family and tradition that he was desperately missing. He did not see gardening as a hobby. He saw himself as a gardener, in much the same way that he saw himself as a husband, a father, and a provider. He answered a call coming from somewhere deep inside him, the same call we all hear when we give ourselves a moment’s respite from the frenetic pace of our modern world, the one in which such calls struggle to be heard, yet remain persistent and pleading all the same. Are we listening?
For today’s cocktail, I began with an ingredient that turned up as an unexpected visitor in my garden this year, in much the same way that Alice Walker’s quote appeared for me. This surprise guest was purple shiso, otherwise known as red perilla, or beefsteak plant. Technically a weed, and originally from Japan, purple shiso can grow to the point of being considered invasive. It has a definite herbal flavor, along the lines of mint or basil, but there’s also a warming quality to it that you find in spices like cinnamon or clove. I created the simple by steeping the leaves briefly in water that was boiled before adding sugar, but a cold method of blending them with equal parts sugar and water would work equally well. Just remember to strain out the tiny bits of leaves that are left behind. In terms of its symbolism, shiso is thought to reawaken our connection to the natural world and to our deepest selves, making it an absolutely perfect ingredient for this post’s cocktail. For my base spirit, I decided on vodka, so that I could allow the drink’s flavor profile to really shine. I added in a half ounce of Dolin Blanc vermouth, which has just a bit of sweetness, and then went with lime as my citrus. The other truly magical thing about using shiso syrup in a cocktail is that when the citrus component is added in, the shiso turns from brownish maroon to soft pink! I finished off the drink by floating an ounce of Fever Tree lime and yuzu soda on top. Not only was its flavor a match, but the yuzu fruit is also Japanese in origin just like shiso, and it is said to represent our ability to resist even the harshest of winters so that we may see spring return once again. Isn’t that the very definition of gardening in both the literal and metaphorical sense? Cheers everyone. Happy Friday! I wish you a bounteous harvest from your own gardens this year.
1.75 oz of your favorite vodka
.5 oz Dolin Blanc vermouth
1 oz purple shiso leaf simple
1 oz lime juice
Pour into a tall glass.
Float 1 oz Fever Tree Lime & Yuzu soda on top.
Garnish with a thinly sliced lime half and a small shiso leaf.