“At the end of a sunny day, you should smell like dirt.” – Margaret Atwood
Summer time at my house was always the magic season. Not only were my five siblings — two brothers, three sisters — and I free from homework and cafeteria lunches for three whole months, we also spent most of our days and evenings in the backyard. Ours was no ordinary plot of earth. We had an awe-inspiring 10,000-square foot expanse with four –at least! — distinct gardens. And that was many thanks to my father, who had spent his childhood in urban Los Angeles, in an apartment above his father’s trading company. He always longed for the day when he would have a lawn to call his own.
When my father finally did lay claim to a piece of the planet, he spent hours every week planting fruit trees and pulling weeds. In the summer evenings, we always knew where to find him – outside in the garden, a water hose in one hand, and a cup of green tea in the other.
His obsession with all things green paid off. Our backyard overflowed with life – not only the shrubs and blooms that he tended, but also the butterflies, raccoons, squirrels and sparrows that came to rest in this serene and fragrant place. Just outside the backdoor was the “red patio” where we had created a container garden overflowing with purple, blue and green succulents. My father taught us early on that even if you snapped a branch off its host plant, you could place it in moist dirt and it would grow into another bush on its own – a wondrous magic trick, courtesy of Mother Nature.
On a rectangular patch of green above that, we had all rolled our sleeves up and built a small fishpond (amusingly shaped like a goldfish with a large marble for an eyeball). It was shaded by a lovely Mulberry tree, and lots of leafy taro and towering bamboo – like the plants that grew in my mother’s village in China. It was there that we farmed small vegetables – radishes, sweet peas, potatoes, green onion, bitter melons. We grew so many wonderful vegetables, and we children harvested them for our family dinners, shrieking with delight as we ran through across the red patio into the kitchen holding a radish or a green onion stalk aloft.
The white concrete patio in the middle of our yard was home to a cactus garden, with specimens collected from all parts of the United States. Whenever our travels took us someplace hot and dry – Joshua Tree, Palm Springs, Baja — we always kept watch for exotic-looking cacti we could capture and take home. My personal favorite was a cactus with long prickly fingers. Its official name was Arrojadoa rhodantha, but I named it “Lop Cheng,” after the Chinese word for sausage. We did most of our roller skating and bicycling on the white patio, and I recall many, many accidents involving a fallen bike, a flattened spiky cactus, and a wailing child.
In the farthest yard, we grew lovely fruit trees: fig, apple, guava, kumquat, avocado and even a banana tree – although we weren’t exactly giving Dole a run for its money with that one. I don’t remember the fruit from that tree ever turning yellow; Los Angeles weather was simply not tropical enough to produce tasty, or even roughly edible, bananas. Our persimmon tree, however, was a different story – it was as prolific as my mother, with her six kids, and her many, many sewing projects. My parents planted that beautiful tree in the 1954, the first year they had moved into our house. But one day, a gardener, instructed to cut down a diseased cypress, chopped down the persimmon tree instead. That was such a profoundly sad moment, as if a beloved great aunt had been murdered in her sleep. I remember that my mother, upon seeing the fallen tree with its coral-colored fruit scattered everywhere on the grass, ran into her bedroom and cried all night.
Mostly, our garden was a place of great joy and discovery. Once we plucked rose petals off my mother’s favorite bush and placed them in a big bowl of hot water. We took turns stirring this concoction for what seemed like hours. Our mission: to make French perfume. What we made: a mess!
One night, we placed card tables on the lawn, covered them with sheets and snuggled into sleeping bags with the intention of watching the sunrise. I think I lasted one hour before I ran into the house and jumped into my own bed. On another summer night, we invited neighborhood friends over to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival, under the apple tree. On that occasion each year, the moon is supposed to be at its fullest — we called it the moon’s birthday. The Chinese have a saying, “The Moon is Bigger in America.’ And I will never forget how huge and luminous it was that evening, how lovely the Night Jasmine blooms smelled, or how delicious our simple dinner tasted just because we ate it under the star-filled sky, in the garden.
We spent long summer afternoons playing hopscotch under the shade of the palms, and mornings sprawled out on the grass, drawing mazes. The garden was our reality, and our escape. So, is it any wonder that my sister, Carole, became a botanist (see her tips on composting and creating a garden with your child) and my brother, Peter, is now an artist who specializes in painting lotus blossoms?
Today, my own little family – my husband, our kindergartner, Anais, and I — has a beautiful garden of its own, filled with lemon trees, Chinese lantern flowers, daisies and a swaying palm or two. Every year since she was two, Anais has planted cilantro, Serrano chilies and mint in terra cotta pots outside the kitchen. Throughout the spring, she watches her seedlings grow and flower. And then, when the plants are ready, our daughter delights in harvesting the leaves and chilies for our taco nights, replete with the occasional Mojito (adults only, of course!). As if through genetic inheritance, Anais treasures her time in the garden. On weekends, there’s no place she would rather be than turning cartwheels, watching butterflies glide from bloom to bloom, or reading a book right there in our own backyard.
We like to think that a love of the garden is one of the greatest gifts we could give to Anais. For us, it’s pure joy watching our daughter – who, just like our garden, was first a dream, then a seed, then a sproutling, and now this blossom of a girl — as she kneels in the dirt, shovel in one hand, package of arugula seeds in the other, bringing new life to our home.
Alison Singh Gee is Modern Mom’s editorial director and the author of Serena & Lily: Nursery Style, and the upcoming memoir, The Peacock Cries for Rain. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Ajay, and daughter, Anais. You can contact Alison at email@example.com
Alison’s Organic Lemon Tart
This delectable tart, adapted from an Epicurious.com recipe, has become a tradition in our home, thanks mostly to our prolific lemon tree. If you don’t have a backyard tree, source lemons from a neighbor or your local farmer’s market. This recipe is super easy, especially if you cheat by using a Keebler graham cracker crust (it’s not organic). Have the kids squeeze the lemons and grate the zest, and plan to chill the pie overnight.
Servings: Makes 10 to 12 servings.
5 large free-range organic eggs
1 cup organic sugar
3/4 cup organic heavy whipping cream
2/3 cup fresh lemon juice , using lemons from a homegrown tree 3
tablespoons grated lemon peel
For filling: Whisk eggs, sugar, cream, lemon juice, and grated lemon peel in medium metal bowl to blend. Set bowl over saucepan of simmering water (do not allow bottom of bowl to touch water); whisk slowly but constantly until mixture thickens and instant-read thermometer inserted into mixture registers 160°F, about 30 minutes. Remove bowl from over water. Cool mixture to room temperature, whisking occasionally.
If you have time to make the crust . . .
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted organic butter, room temperature
2 large free-range egg yolks
1 tablespoon organic sugar
2 1/4 cups organic unbleached all purpose flour (available at www.kingarthurflour.com)
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
3 tablespoons (about) water
Using electric mixer, beat unsalted butter and egg yolks in large bowl until fluffy. Beat in sugar. Beat in flour and salt just until blended, adding water by tablespoonfuls if dough is dry. Transfer dough to lightly floured work surface. Gather dough together.
Shape dough into ball; flatten into disk. Wrap dough in plastic and refrigerate 1 hour. Soften dough slightly at room temperature before rolling out.
Preheat oven to 350°F. Roll out dough on lightly floured surface to 13-inch round. Transfer dough to 10-inch-diameter tart pan with removable bottom. Fold in dough edges, forming double-thick sides. Freeze crust 15 minutes. Line crust with foil; fill with pie weights or dried beans. Bake 15 minutes. Remove pie weights. Bake until crust is golden and cooked through, about 30 minutes longer. Cool crust in pan on rack.
Spread filling evenly in crust. Chill overnight to allow filling to set.