Last summer Imogene came to live with me.
It had been an unusually hot spring that rolled right into into a blistering hot summer. Mid June of last year we were coming home from a week long trip and, as usual, I was looking forward to the vegetables that pour out of an unharvested patch. The fridge was empty but there would be enough to feed the road weary family out of the garden– a hasty frittata (with eggs from the hens) or veggies sauteed in garlic and mounded on top of pasta. But as I went from plant to plant, hastening my step between each one, I realized what I had counted on year after year–bounty– had packed her bags and headed to cooler weather. Where normally I might have harvested a basket heavy with food, I picked exactly 26 green beans (I recorded it in my journal) and a ragged handful of bolted beets whos insides were woody pulp. Even with a grocery store just blocks away, gleaming with hundreds of boxes and shiny packages of food, a primal fear gripped my stomach, “how am I going to feed my family?”
It was right then that Imogene came to me. She tapped me on the shoulder and then stepped in through the hem of my skirt. She slipped her lanky leg into mine and rested her steely mind in a corner of my own. Her hands were rougher than my own, coral hard callouses clinging to her palms, and her feet were cracked like the bed of a dried out wash. She came to me off the plains, out of the desert and in from wind swept hill country. She was from a century ago– her cotton dress weathered baby soft and her arms sinewy machines of hard work. Her voice was a bit raspy as she whispered “now you listen here, enough of this fancy stuff. You best figure out how to grow food or these babies are going to go hungry.”
I don’t recall exactly how we made it through that meal–it might have involved a shiny box of “food” but I was a changed woman. For the rest of that summer Imogene and I were lit with a fire. We threw away the fancy east coast seed catalogs and got to work on figuring out how to grow food, lots of it, no matter how hot and dry and miserable it got. It was her hand that grabbed Anasazi beans from a jar in the kitchen and threw them in the ground during the hottest week of summer –just to see how they would fare. When other plants balked these beans threw their emerald arms to the sun, and sashayed their hips as they they threw out pods by the dozens. It was Imogene at the wheel when I manically drove to Native Seeds/ SEARCH
, in Tucson, just half hour before they were set to close and hunched over the 50% off table– gleefully stuffing native varieties of beans, squash, tomatillos, chilies, melons and herbs into my basket.
If I got uppity and started thinking about planting things like sea kale it was Imogene who yanked my arm, sat me down on a stump in the garden and told me long stories about women passing seeds to each other across rough homemade tables covered in canning jars. “We learned you got to use the seeds that know the dirt where you are. Those are the ones that will feed your family.”
These last two weeks I have been planting crops that know the desert. They like it when the womb of the soil is good and hot. They thrive on less water and more sun. Imogene held my hand steady as I planted Tarahumara poblano chiles, Isleta chilies, Pima tomatillos, San Juan and Santo Domingo melons, Navajo watermelons, Middle Rio Grande Conchos squash (from Chihuahua), Colorado beans, and Penasco cheese squash. She laughed when I was amazed at how lustily the Colorado beans bent their necks out of the ground, just 2 days after planting them, and she howled as I stood dumstruck when they grew two inches on their first day out of the earth. Not to mention it was 100 degrees out. “Well of course darlin. They are no fools. They know what they are in for.”
I don’t know if we will have more food then last summer. I’m curious how the native plants with reckon with the squash bugs and other unpredictable events. I still have my green beans, strawberries, basil, cilantro, potatoes, cucumbers, sorrel, squash, eggplants, Halloween pumpkins, Hungarian peppers and Jimmy Nardelo frying peppers. What Imogene taught me was not to be a fool. Instead of cursing the sun and shouting for more rain find the plants that are already patient. Plant the old pros.
At the back of the garden Imogene and I are sipping sweet tea flecked with mint, talking about how to make salsa with roasted tomatillos, and whether skillet or oven corn bread is the best. We are waiting for the food to come, so we can feed our babies.
These books also helped me on my journey to native seeds. I highly recommend them. They will change you.
The Unlikely Peace at Cuchumaquic: the Parallel Lives of People as Plants, Keeping the Seeds Alive by Martin Prechtel
Desert Terroir: Exploring the Unique Flavors and Sundry Places of the Borderlands by Gary Nabhan
Front yard garden mid June
Colorado bean, day 1
Last carrot harvest of spring
Backyard meadow- native grasses, wildflowers and young fruit trees (peach, apricot and plum)
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