My love of gardening starts way back in my childhood when my mother decided to teach her children a little bit about where food came from. We lived in an urban area but had a sizable yard with a garden area already marked off with railroad ties which we suspected were simply a large condominium space for termites. But a garden patch did exist in the back 40 (feet) of our yard and one summer, it yielded a delightful surprise.
My mother has never really loved gardening. Her mother can grow anything, literally. She recently threw an avocado pit out in her compost pile and now has a healthy avocado seedling rooting itself into her Arkansas backyard. But for my mother, gardening has always been a little harder and the process less rewarding, but she would have done anything to give her children a good learning experience.
We already had wild strawberries that grew along the side yard; these strawberries really only taught us to hate slugs. We would see the alabaster berries setting on and were giddy with anticipation of that first juicy red berry. Inevitably the slugs could smell the gathering sweetness and move in overnight to claim half of the berries, generally the bottom or side of each one, for themselves.
So this was to be a more concentrated effort. We chose what we wanted to plant: tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers, and went to the store. We chose our happy little seedlings and went home to watch the magic happen.
If you’ve ever stared at flat after flat of seedlings at a Wal-mart or Home Depot, you know that there are several different plants that look startlingly similar at their most nascent stages. They have one, maybe two leaves and you’re solely relying on the haphazardly placed plastic spike to tell you what it will someday be.
Such was the case with one of the cucumber plants that we purchased. It said it was a cucumber. It had two leaves like all the other cucumbers. We planted and tended it like a cucumber. Logically, we expected it to produce cucumbers.
We watered and weeded, watched and waited. The plant grew and vined and set on flowers. Similarly, a lot of vining vegetables have similar looking flowers. It was not until the fruit had set on and started getting much larger than we expected that we realized that it was not a cucumber plant at all. It was cantaloupe.
When the tell-tale webbing appeared, we laughed and said that it was a good thing that we liked melons. And it really was, because that one single vine, mismarked at the store, produced heavily all season. And we watered, weeded, watched and waited. And then we tasted.
Dear Readers, that melon is the melon that I have been trying to grow ever since in my own garden. I’ve grown from seeds of French heirlooms, tried the tried and true American hybrids, worried and waited and watched and weeded… to no avail. I have no idea what type of cantaloupe it was, mainly because it was supposed to be a cucumber. I’ve even trying planting cucumbers, but they’ve never magically transformed into delicious melons. I can’t grow a melon like that to save my life.
It was medium-sized fruit, not these Miracle Gro ad-sized monsters that you see in the store. It was achingly sweet and made sweeter still by the giggly realization that we were trying to grow something to go on our salads. I can still remember the flavor and surprise of the first taste of that cantaloupe decades later and the delight it gave to my mother and me.
I guess the point is that as long as you prepare and tend, with the expectation of learning and growing, sometimes you are surprised with something even sweeter than you expected. For my mother and me, we got much more than we bargained for and I’ve been chasing it ever since.