A Grad School Gardener

I wrote this on the plane while thinking about an upcoming GotScience Magazine series that will explore urban gardening. This story doesn’t exactly fit the science-focused mission of my blog or the GotScience series. But this is a story ultimately about my Mom, who inspired this blog and my desire to garden. 

My parents had a huge garden in our sprawling New England backyard where I grew up.  My mom came from a long line of farmers, so gardening was “in her bones,” even if it wasn’t in her children’s. My sister and I complained every time we were asked to go pick the green beans, zucchini, strawberries, tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, snap peas, and whatever else had ripened overnight. But firmly rooted in my memory is the taste of a tomato plucked off the vine and popped directly into my mouth or the crunch of the baby carrot cleaned off with the dew on the grass. It may be these memories that, despite our resistance to gardening, led both my sister and I to plant gardens the second that we had the opportunity.

My opportunity was in graduate school.  Living in a small set of six rooms on “The Farm,” I could look out my window and see the rows of corn grown for genetic experiments. This corn grew out of Barbara McClintock’s pioneering work in understanding transposons (also called “jumping genes”) that led to her Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1983. But right next to the corn field was a smaller field commandeered by another graduate student whose goal was to grow an award winning giant pumpkin.

The fields that were offered to the students and faculty at Cold Spring Harbor weren’t nearly as well-controlled as those at The Farm. Originally, the set of 10×10 foot plots were tucked away in the middle of a wooded area that was a short walk or drive from campus.  The only rule was that you couldn’t grow corn  – because we couldn’t risk it pollinating the experimental corn and ruining the genetic experiments.

My first grad school garden in the woods

When you give a bunch of scientists land, they tend to till it with the focus and academic rigor that they bring to the hours and hours of laboratory work. These gardens were experimental, but not in the traditional sense. I experimented with growing different vegetables – beets and heirloom tomatoes – than what my mother grew. I also tried different weed suppression techniques, in part to avoid pesticides but more to avoid the tedious (and time consuming) task of weeding. Straw was highly effective, but only if put on the beds before lots of weeds started to grow. The negatives – made a mess in the car.

The next summer, the gardens were moved out of the forest and on to a hill overlooking the volleyball courts. There was a fierce volleyball competition amongst over a dozen scientist-filled teams each summer, so this locale was convenient for garden tending post game. The garden community thrived here. It was so popular that people started to share their small plots along with their advice and vegetables. Within a small research institute on Long Island, it pulled the scientists out of the labs, into the sun, and as a side effect, put tons of fabulous food on our tables each summer.

I look back fondly on those days. Since moving to Phoenix, I haven’t yet mastered the art of urban (and desert) gardening. But I now understand why my mother toiled each spring to prepare a garden to harvest all summer. There’s something about having your hands in the dirt and crunching into that first carrot of the season that you grew yourself that makes all the work worth it.