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Garden in the City: Digging Up Memories

 Dad in the garden, fielding a Father's Day call from my sister.
Dad in the garden, fielding a Father's Day call from my sister.
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DNAinfo/Patty Wetli

LINCOLN SQUARE — A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about my first experience planting seeds, which prompted a response from one of this column's most loyal readers — my dad.

Speaking of his own father, my pop emailed me: "I remember very clearly looking at seed catalogs with my dad and how excited we were getting the package in the mail. Also remember garden preparation and he would let us put the seeds in the ground using a ruler to measure.

"Thanks for striking the memory."

I've known my dad my whole life, give or take a couple of minutes, and this was news to me.

I mean, I knew about my grandparents' garden. It was the second-most interesting feature in their backyard, lagging far behind their built-in swimming pool.
But I hadn't known the plot was dated B.P. — Before Patty — or that my dad played any role in its existence. In light of my own gardening adventures, I wanted to hear more about the days of yore.

"[Grandpa] was always very good about us helping with the planting," my dad told me as I peppered him with questions during his visit over Father's Day weekend. "He'd put two-by-fours between the rows so you wouldn't get muddy."

What about the corn? I wondered. My entire childhood, the stalks their modest garden had failed to produce a single edible ear.

"Oh, we had fabulous corn. There was enough that we could run through [the stalks] and play hide and seek."

Seriously? How large was the original plot?

"About as big as this here," Dad said, waving his hand to indicate our condo's combined dining/living space. "We shrunk it back a little every year. He got older and that's hard work — a lot of digging and bending."

What else did Grandpa grow?

"We had green beans, peas, lettuce, carrots. I don't think tomatoes. We'd pull the carrots up and eat them right out of the ground. We loved shucking peas on the back porch."

This I had a hard time reconciling in my mind. Wetlis are largely a meat-and-potatoes tribe and I was raised on a strict diet of canned vegetables. (Frozen was for holidays and birthdays.) My mom's brand of choice was Freshlike, which bore no likeness to freshness whatsoever. I was well into my 20s before I discovered that peas were bright green, not pukish colored.

I was curious why something my dad so clearly enjoyed as a kid hadn't translated into his adulthood.

"I don't know," he offered. "That was Dad's therapy. I golfed."

True that. My parents winter in Florida, where my dad can golf every day, sometimes twice a day or until it gets dark. I interviewed him once, for a writing class, about his passion for the sport and he explained that for him it was a form of communing with nature.

I can see his father's influence there, same as I can see it in myself — the respect my dad taught me for trees and landscapes and other people's lawns, an appreciation for the scenic route, enjoyment in things like raking leaves and trimming shrubs that most folks consider chores.

"One time [Grandpa] told Dad and me about all the different kinds of oak leaves that existed and he had tears in his eyes," my mom said. "He was in awe of nature."

My grandpa passed away nine years ago this June and I miss him all the time. I used to think that mostly had to do with losing a piece of my childhood, but what makes me sad lately is that my finite store of memories offers a paltry picture of a man who I've come to realize shaped so much of the person I've become.

Thanks to my column and my dad's response, I have new nuggets of information to squirrel away and draw on whenever I'm feeling particularly nostalgic or sentimental: that Gramps had a "love affair with compost" (my mother's words), was a big fan of organic gardening — way ahead of his time on that one — and waged an ongoing battle to protect his strawberries from rabbits.

From my dad comes this image of my grandfather I can add to my mental photo gallery:

"To me, he was just like a little kid, watching [the vegetables] grow up. He'd come home from work and he wouldn't even take his sport coat off — he'd go right from the car to the garden."

On Sunday, my parents walked over to Global Garden with me and Dave. We picked a pint of strawberries from our plot (huzzah, they're ripening mostly pest-free now), I pruned the tomato plants and Dave volunteered for watering duty. We made it home in plenty of time for Pops to watch Phil Mickelson once again choke in the final round of the U.S. Open — all three generations of father, son and granddaughter present and accounted for.

To follow my garden's progress between columns, check out my Tumblr blog at http://gardensinthecity.tumblr.com. Note the "s" in gardens — I'll be posting photos of my non-edible landscaping efforts too.Follow the community gardening adventures of DNAinfo.com reporter Patty Wetli.