Mid October, 2012. The leaves shift into yellows and reds. I harvest the perky green Brussels sprouts and fill a basket with end-of-season tomatoes, a couple of late pattypan squashes, an armload of poblano peppers, parsley, kale, Swiss chard, heirloom carrots, and the last of the zinnias for the kitchen table. I live on the South Side of Pittsburgh, up in the hilly hills called the Slopes, where the steel workers once lived. Now, amazing views rise up beyond our little houses. There are narrow streets here that wind up and down, often leading into dead ends. There are neighbors who share stories over fences, argue about parking and tomatoes.
Behind my house, a long skinny yard slopes upward, packed with garden. From March to November each year, we eat from this garden. I can jams and bake zucchini bread. I cook vegetable soups and freeze broccoli and tomato sauce. But it wasn’t always this way.
Back in 1995 I had just met the man I would marry. Rick, in graduate school at the University of Nebraska, visited my apartment for the first time. Pots of plants lined my sunny windowsill, every one near death, turning toward crispy brown.
He said, “Were you away for the summer?”
I said, “No, why?”
“Your plants are dying,” he said.
“I know,” I said. “It’s just too much work. You know, keeping them green?”
Rick took on the job of nursing both my plants and me back to life.
These days Rick likes to tell that story to people as they stroll through the maze of our five vegetable gardens. I had always been interested in food—I worked as a baker through my undergraduate and then wayward years post college. I knew how to bake and cook and loved to eat and eat out, negotiating even expensive restaurant menus in the Bay Area, where I had moved to be a poor, starving writer after undergraduate work in New Hampshire. But I had never grown my own food even though both of my parents grew up in rural Tionesta, Pa., my mother on a dairy farm. I hadn’t considered a garden. Ever.
In 1998 we moved to the Steel City. A real estate agent showed us our first home on Stella Street. A little blue house, also perched on the South Side Slopes. We walked through the house, out the screened-in back porch and into the yard: a stunning view of Oakland popping up across the river. No garden, only grass, but the moment I stepped out, I thought: I’ll plant a garden. I’ll learn to compost and save seeds and grow perennials. It hit me in one giant thrust of nesting, right at that moment. I wanted this house and this yard, and even though it was the only one we looked at, we bought this house. At the closing I talked with the previous owners about tomatoes and cucumbers: Had they ever grown them? The grown son, who was about to put his mother into a nursing home, leaned forward, suddenly earnest and interested. He said: You can grow anything in that soil. Anything except cucumbers.
I checked out books on composting from the Carnegie library. I bought gardening books from the now defunct St. Elmo’s bookstore on East Carson Street. I wrote notes in the margins of the books; made lists of what I wanted, what I needed. I kept a garden journal. I made so many mistakes in those early years, not understanding the kind of sun my yard received or where I should place the compost bin or plant the basil. But slowly a beautiful, colorful garden grew.
It was a hard time for me, those first years in Pittsburgh. I didn’t yet have friends or a real job. The garden, I can safely say, saved me.
Fifteen years later, I believe in eating local and in being generous and efficient and creative with the food I grow and cook. Our second Slopes home is an equally small house, but has a much bigger garden. Last week I harvested my 14th butternut squash from the back yard. It had been curled behind some marigolds, nestled against the chickenwire fence, hiding. I carried it inside and made butternut squash soup with ginger and coconut milk. Just like that. Field to table, in the city of Pittsburgh.
These days, it’s Rick who asks me gardening questions as we live our lovely sustainable lives on the South Side Slopes.