Given my love for cities and their downtowns, some people are surprised to learn that I come from a family of farmers. Though agriculture skipped my parents, all of my grandparents and great-grandparents planted crops to make a living or cook the night's dinner.
On my mother's side, both great-grandfathers farmed tobacco in Robeson County, N.C., a poor area filled with farms and factories in the early '80s. After my great-grandfather died, my grandmother lived adjacent to the fields. I spent a lot of time wandering through the fallow soil, kicking my soccer ball while wondering what those acres looked like when teeming with leaves. Many times, my grandmother showed me the first dollar she made while working her father's tobacco in the summer heat. It dated to the late 1800s.
Another grandmother lived alone in a small post-war housing project after her husband, also a tobacco farmer, passed away. Every day, she cooked cornbread, played her organ, watched Jeopardy and did the morning's crossword. Outside of her corner unit, she kept a garden plot almost the size of the apartment. Those tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, collards and potatoes served as her staples. Sunday lunch started when she sent me to the garden to pick a veggie or two.
I spent my summers with my father's parents in the North Carolina mountains. Their yard was half-garden, too. After my mother remarried, we spent many Saturday and Sunday afternoons in Red Springs, cooking meals whose ingredients had just been picked. My mom kept a small plot of tomatoes, but we didn't depend on it.
Four years ago, Stacy and I moved into a new house in downtown Raleigh. It was big enough to start our family in, sure, but the seven raised garden beds on the adjacent lot became a prime selling point for me. One of our first tasks as homeowners was to harvest the crops that remained; our counter overflowed with eggplant, squash, peppers, tomatoes and more.
As we cooked these gracious hand-me-downs, we relished in the idea of having our own garden. A year later, despite not knowing much, we dug in and planted our first seeds as a family. I had spent enough time in gardens to know they needed constant work and care. Plus, Stacy was pregnant; gardening, I reckoned, was a fine lifestyle to bequeath.
Now, just four years later, Lane Street Gardens has become a huge success. We've incorporated different friends to help, rotated crops and experimented with interesting methods. Oliver, our son, digs in the dirt, searching for worms and watering the seedlings. He gets a thrill from picking a cherry tomato off of the plant and popping it into his mouth.
Our generation, I think, sees some virtue and value in home gardens; multiple co-ops and community gardens exist just blocks around our house. It's my hope that future generations, Oliver's included, will see that, with constant care, you can grow good food—organically, autonomously.
Last week, I called my grandmother to ask her about that dollar, the first one she made in the tobacco field. She told me more about the story and revealed that, a few decades ago, she had replaced the original dollar with a silver dollar. That's OK, as the story behind the money is more important than the actual dollar. I asked her if I could give it to Oliver one day. She replied, delightedly: "I'll put it in a safe place for him."