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It's Poison, Don't Touch it!

For The Herb Companion magazine
Copyright© Jim Long, 2006

I've always wanted to garden. From the time I was old enough to walk, I would follow my father as he used the old push tiller, "helping." I began to pester my parents by the time I was four years old, to let me have my own garden. I would spend hours looking through seed catalogs, learning about plants and asking questions.

My questions led me in interesting directions. My paternal grandparents were quite old by the time I, their only grandson, came along. My grandfather had been born right after the Civil War, in a sod house on their homestead in Kansas. My grandmother had come from Tennessee after the War, in a covered wagon. Both of them had suffered difficulties, worked hard and witnessed tragedy. And so, when I came along, full of questions and excitement about life, they worried. Boy oh boy, did they worry. Worrying was their full time hobby in their old age.

They lived on a farm and whenever we visited them I was constantly bringing in whatever new plant or fruit or flower I had found, to ask its name. The naming of plants was always important for me, but whenever I asked what this or that was called, my grandparents, both of them, had only one response.

"It's poison. Don't touch it!"

It didn't matter whether I had just picked a bouquet of poison ivy (which I once did) or a handful of grape leaves, the answer was always the same. I was taught always to respect my elders, so I didn't challenge my grandparents' answers. One day, though, I was very curious about the vines I saw growing along the fence rows and had asked my grandfather what they were. His pat answer, "It's poison, don't touch it" was all he gave.

But later that day I saw my Grandma Harper, my mother's mother, and out of curiosity, asked her the same question. To my surprise, she didn't tell me it was poison. She didn't share my Grandad and Grandma Long's view that children should be protected from everything, at all costs. Instead, she believed that the more a child knew, the better prepared he might be for life. She told me the vines were grape vines.

Grandma took me to the cellar and showed me rows of jars of grape jelly, the deep purple color showing through the glass. Then she directed my gaze to quart jars of dill pickles. Picking one up, she turned it around and said, "See the grape leaf? I put one leaf in every jar of pickles to keep them crisp."

After that I quit asking my paternal grandparents questions about plants. Anytime I wanted real information, I knew that my Grandma Harper would tell me the truth. And so, as I reached my fifth birthday, I again started asking my parents to let me have my own garden.

My father finally agreed to till up a little plot of ground for me, about six feet by six feet square. My mother would let me choose the seeds and help me order them from the seed catalog. The agreement was that I would plant the garden exactly like I wanted, with the seed I chose, but if I did, I had to weed and hoe my garden, just as they did the big garden.

I was beside myself with excitement. I made a list by tearing out the pictures and descriptions of every plant I wanted to grow. To my disappointment my mother explained that there wasn't room for everything and that I must cut the number of seed packets down by half.

I worked hard on my selections. I wanted to grow corn and radishes. I wanted a row of touch-me-nots as I liked popping their seed pods. I chose onions and lettuce, a row of zinnias, peas, carrots and sunflowers. I wanted a clump of mint and some sage, too. When my mother suggested I still had too many things for the small space, I insisted I would make it work.

When the seed order arrived in the mail I could hardly stand to wait for the package to be opened. I spread out the packets and looked at the colorful pictures on the front, imagining what my garden was going to look like. I barely slept that night as in my mind I kept arranging and rearranging the rows of plants. Next day, as soon as breakfast was over, I took my child sized hoe and rake and began making rows in my garden.

It felt like magic to me, putting little shriveled up seeds in the ground, knowing that in a week or two, they would emerge and grow into living plants.

The first plants up were the radishes, in about five days. Then the lettuce next and the carrots. Peas and corn took a little longer and I grew impatient, checking several times a day.

At first keeping the weeds out of my little garden was easy but soon, as the weeds grew faster and the other plants began to crowd each other, it became a harder job. The weather grew hot and it wasn't fun to pull the weeds everyday.

Within a few weeks I had realized my mistake. In my effort to get everything in the garden, I had planted the rows too close together (about eight inches apart). That meant the corn was overshadowing the zinnias. The mint on one corner of the garden was overtaking the peas. But no one said, "I told you so." Instead, every time I harvested a radish or an onion or a pod of peas, my mother would compliment me and make it a part of the meal. (Once, the three of us split the five peas out of one pod with both of my parents declaring they were the sweetest peas in the garden).

My parents let me make mistakes in my first garden. They didn't discourage me, or even chastise me for letting the weeds get out of control. Instead, they encouraged me and let me learn from the choices I had made.

I'm grateful for that, for their letting me make mistakes with my first garden and to learn from them. I credit them for encouraging me into an occupation that has sustained me for my entire lifetime and look back fondly on my first garden.

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