My grandfather could grow anything in the little 9x12 plot of earth in the back yard of our Brooklyn brownstone. He didn't believe in gardening books or fancy tools. This is what he believed in:
Never, ever throw away an old broom or mop: the wooden sticks make great tomato stakes
Tomato cages are a waste of money: scraps of chicken wire, garbage bag ties, and old chopsticks are just as good
Only suckers buy fertilizer: dump your old egg shells and chicken bones in the yard in the Fall, and you'll be able to grow anything, come spring
You can grow anything in Brooklyn - ANYTHING
Every year, his ramshackle garden delivered, too. We had more tomatoes, peppers and herbs than we knew what to do with. Most years, he'd experiment with something new: potatoes that we forgot all about, and which rotted underground, carrots that, once we dug them up, turned out to be only two inches long, eggplant that, picked young, was spicy and delicious, sunflowers that grew four feet tall, and filled our yard with bees for an entire summer. The sunflowers looked great, but the bees were so many and so territorial, they kept us from being able to use the rest of the yard for sprinkler play or bar-b-qing that year.
He loved his garden, and I loved tagging along behind him with a watering can, a little, rusty spade, and spray bottle full of DDT. (Hey, in the early 70s, it was still a miracle pesticide.) As we worked in the garden, my grandfather told me great stories abut his childhood and taught me to swear in Spanish - a skill he firmly believed everyone should have, and no one was too young to cultivate. He made up funny, rhyming poems about everything around us - my grandmother's clothesline, the ferocious dog on the other side of the fence, the family up the street whose BBQ stunk to high hell of lighter fuel. Those were some of the sweetest days. They always ended the same way - with us climbing over the small, stone wall in the back of the yard, overto the other side, where grandpa's crowning glory was planted: the peach tree. Right there, in the middle of Brooklyn, we had a peach tree. A tree we'd planted, ourselves, from a cutting.
I remember the day we planted it - nothing more than a branch with a bit of green on it. Someone told us it probably wouldn't take and, if it did, it would never bear fruit. Someone told us we needed something called rooting hormone. My grandfather said that was nonsense. I dug a small hole in the ground and grandpa stuck the cutting into it, adding a bit of water and building up a little barricade of soil around it. As we planted that cutting, grandpa told me in Spanish it was plain stupid to bother with anything called rooting hormone. A plant plus dirt plus water equalled a tree, he said. He taught me an insulting name in Spanish for the person who had made such a suggestion. When we were done planting he smiled at me and said, in Spanish, "This will grow and there will be peaches and, one day, when I'm dead, you'll come out here and pick the peaches, and you'll be a little sad because I'm gone, but you'll remember me,"
The peach tree cutting did take root. Without rooting hormone. It took root and it grew. And grew. As the years passed, the tree grew to over seven feet. I grew to be a teenager, and still I enjoyed spending time in the yard with my grandfather, who was growing older, but who was still strong and energetic. One summer, the peach tree bloomed. Just one flower. My grandfather was thrilled. It meant we'd have fruit. We had a peach that year. One peach. It was small, but we picked it and cut it in half and enjoyed it more than anything we'd ever eaten. As we ate it, my grandfather said what he always said whenever we talked about the peach tree, "One day, when I'm dead, you'll come out here and pick peaches, and you'll be sad because I'm gone, but you'll remember me."
The next year we had lots of flowers, and lots of peaches. Peaches we had to compete with a family of squirrels to get at. It was a fierce competition, but we were the victors. The peaches were sweet and juicy. Peaches grown in Brooklyn - imagine that.
Year after year we had lots of peaches. I learned to make peach jam. Grandpa's peaches become as normal a part of summer as his tomatoes and peppers and herbs.
In the summer of 1991, I went out to the yard, to the garden that had fallen into decay since my grandfather had died the year before, after a stroke had rendered him immobile. For a whole year, I hadn't had the heart to even clean it up, but the time I had come. I filled bag after back with dried leaves and weeds and dead, rotted tomato plants. I pulled old broomsticks out of the earth and got rid of rusty chicken wire and garbage bag ties. I laid down ground cover to avoid weeds. I planted rows of tomato seedlings I'd bought at a hardware store, and surrounded each one with a tomato cage, using twine to train the plants. I sprayed the plants with garlic-infused water to repel aphids. When I was done, I climbed over the stone wall and found the peaches from the last year, those the squirrels hadn't taken, had fallen to the ground and decomposed. In two or three places, the pits had taken root and started to grow. Right there, in my grandfather's garden in Brooklyn, where you could grow anything - ANYTHING - a tiny peach grove had started to take shape. I sat down, felt a twinge of sadness that he wasn't there to see it, but I remembered.