Maybe it’s the slow melt of those dirty snow banks that have guarded the edges of the road for the last two months. Or perhaps it’s the smell of old leaves and earthworms, preparing and restoring the soil underneath for another year of growth. It might be the seed catalogs that have been piling up this winter, teasing you for another great summer harvest. Or maybe it’s a memory that continues to draw you back to another season of challenging days of watering and weeding. We all have different reasons. What brings you back to the garden?
For me, a home garden is more than a hobby. It is a ritual, a family tradition, a way of life. Every home we had, we had a garden. My parents were new immigrants, and while they had grown up in an urban setting, their hearts were tied to greener sanctuaries.They taught us to love the outdoors: We camped, we hiked, we gardened, and we foraged. My grandmother was the green thumb in the family, and when I was a child, we spent most summer days in the backyard, planting and tending our garden of cucumbers, radishes, red leaf lettuce, and hot peppers. Nearly every summer meal included something fresh and homegrown. The vegetable garden was also an opportunity for my family to grow food that we couldn’t find at the local Jewel. We were fortunate to have friends who gardened and saved seeds so we could grow gaen-nip, the leaves of a sesame plant, and napa cabbage. We’d marinated the sesame leaves in soy sauce, hot pepper flakes, and vinegar, and convert our cabbage heads into a stinky but wonderfully fermented kimchi.
As an adult, I’ve had my share of heartaches in the garden. I wish I had my grandmother’s intuition for gardening, but I accept that reality. The urge to return to the garden is a strange phenomenon. Even when the previous year was full of disappointments, regrets, and failures, I always choose to return. Regardless of the past year’s production (or lack thereof), around spring, the excitement rebuilds. I forget all about that unidentifiable mold that grew on my zucchini last July, the blight that devastated my tomato crop, or the incessant battle with pests. All of it disappears, and I’m left with hope for the new season. I dream of that beautiful cornucopia full of the season’s harvest. I anticipate finding the elusive mountain ginseng for the first time and that first taste of the season’s kimchi. There’s so much to look forward to in the garden, and for my first year working for The GardenWorks Project, I am honored to have the opportunity to share that love and anticipation with others who also plan on returning to the garden. More importantly, we as a community hope to nurture a love that draws our clients back to the garden, year after year. Whatever it is that brings you back, may it be a harvest that supplies you with physical and soulful nourishment this year.
Jeannie Chang Iseman is the new Executive Director at The GardenWorks Project. She has a MPP from the University of Chicago and a BA from Bowdoin College. She has worked extensively in the social service arena, most recently in refugee resettlement, and has additional experience in public finance. She served on the board of The GardenWorks Project for a year prior to coming on board as staff in October 2017. Jeannie and her husband have three children, are planting an orchard on their property with friends and neighbors this year, and for fun (and for sanity), she teaches yoga.