Written By: Armand Celentano
In both simple and fancy restaurants, in grocery stores, and in homes, what’s old is new again: local gardening is recognized as an important and tasty food resource. A walk through the neighborhoods of Bristol reveals an abundance of backyard gardening enthusiasts, and I count myself in that group!
I live in an older established neighborhood in Bristol, Tennessee in amongst large and small houses built 50 to 100 years ago (some much older). My family’s modest bungalow-style home was built in 1928, and the yard is the standard size for the neighborhood. When my wife and I bought the home 33 years ago, the landscaping was minimal and even the grass was sparse and weedy. Although the kitchen and bathroom needed major repairs, and style changes had to be made (interior paneling, lowered ceilings and shag rugs all had to come out!), we spent the first year working in the yard. Over the next few years, we put in some of the usual evergreens, a pair of white Dogwood trees out front, as well as a row of forsythias along the street, but our main objective was to create beds for herb and vegetables. For the first several years of our marriage, we had lived on a large farm in Friendsville where we had access to large garden plots and where my wife’s father—who had raised a garden to feed his family almost to the day he passed at age 91—helped guide us. This experience hooked us early on! So when we arrived in Bristol and chose a home close to schools and jobs, we had to have a garden.
While my wife and I both love to garden, she is the flower person and I do the vegetables and herbs, though we do overlap, especially with herbs. The earliest beds we established mainly featured basic herbs—parsley, basil, sage, rosemary—with a few tomatoes and peppers thrown in for good measure. Over the years the garden beds have evolved and enlarged to include a variety of hybrid and heirloom tomatoes, squash, bush and pole beans, sugar snap peas, cucumbers, pumpkin, peanuts, Swiss chard, hot and sweet peppers, nasturtiums, arugula, lettuce, mustard, radishes, green onions, beets and carrots. As we both like to cook, our herb variety has also grown over the years. The perennials such as rosemary, thyme, oregano, parsley (a biennial), chives, sage, lavender, fennel, and mint, once established, can be enjoyed for many years. Basil varieties feature prominently in our cooking and all of the herb flowers are edible as well. There is something to enjoy every season. Cilantro plays its part in spring before the heat of summer. We pick the arugula and mustard throughout the winter, and the rosemary and sage do not die back, allowing us to enjoy their pungent herbaciousness through the cold gray days of winter. My wife pickles the green beans and beets and makes a stout hot pepper relish to go with winter pots of cooked dried beans, bringing the colors and heat of summer back to mind. Of course we dry excess herbs, especially the annuals like basil, to use and share as well.
These small 8 x 8 or 5 x 5 garden beds provide us much enjoyment and nutrition as well as help with our food budget (have you noticed that green and other vegetables cost more than chicken and pork??). Also the abundance allows us to share with neighbors and family, something my father-in-law always did. The passion we have for gardening started when we were young adults being mentored by him, and now, watching successive generations catch that passion, we are reminded of that time and remember the bounty and pleasure of each garden we’ve had over 45 years. Seeing the love of gardening grow in our grandchildren brings pleasure as well. The greatest reward, though, is the simple satisfaction of eating a meal made from things we’ve grown in our own backyard.