Gardening means a lot of different things for folks, but for me, it has always been about connecting to my past and staying grounded in the present. Growing up, no matter how much space there was or wasn’t offered by our then home, my mother always found her sunny patches and filled them with veggies and flowers. I think gardening helped her to feel connected to who she was–a descendant of Appalachian Kentuckians, but who now knew all too well the stretches of highways from the Carolinas and Tennessee, up to Kansas, Indiana, and, eventually, Pennsylvania. It was only when I began to live life on my own during college that I too turned to gardening. Despite the lack of a substantial yard, just like mom, I began filling up any sunny patch of rooftop, balcony, porch, and windowsill with flowers. At our apartment in Kingsessing, sunflowers, and beans on the balcony, a small but mighty patch of tulips in our 5×5 yard out front. At our apartment in West Philly, the cutest little palette and container garden full of petunias, lantana, morning glories, even a couple foxgloves. I didn’t realize how much a garden defined my home until those homes started becoming farther and farther away. During my semester abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina, I bought flowers at our neighborhood’s mercadillo and planted them on my homestay mother’s balcony. When I moved to Granada in Southern Spain, I filled the house’s upstairs balcón and windows with geraniums, asters, daisies, and jasmine. On programs in Brazil, South Africa, Costa Rica, Scotland, I was drawn to the flora around me, and I never passed up a stop in a local gardening shop. Even if I didn’t have a home to grow anything in, I wanted to know about local growing and foodways so I could mentally plan my dream garden for wherever I was. Gardening was a way for me to learn more about the place I was in and the people around me, and it was a way for me to remember who I was and where I came from when everything around me was constantly changing. Now that I’ve come back to the U.S., and have been fortunate enough to be able to finally come back to the mountains my family comes from, gardening has taken on an even bigger meaning and role in my life.
Here in Eastern Kentucky, agriculture has always played an enormous role. Beginning with the Eastern Band Cherokee and other Indigenous peoples who have been here for thousands of years, the people in these mountains have relied on growing and producing their own food. Today, while there still are many folks who garden, you can feel the long-term ripple effects of a long history of geographic isolation, extractive industries, and the onslaught of the fast and convenient food industry. The food deserts here are characterized by long drives to the closest grocery store, soaring prices of fresh, whole food, and an over-abundance of too-convenient, unhealthy food. Since moving here, my reasons for gardening have transformed. While it is still that ever-strong connection to my family and where I come from, it has become an act of resistance– a challenge to the limited access to fresh, healthy food that is offered to us. Today, I am gardening for the same reasons granny and papaw and my great grandparents did before them—because if we want ready access to healthy, whole foods, we have to grow them.
The best part is that I am still learning about the place and people around me through my gardening. It just happens to be home this time.