Sowing the Seeds

Guillemette Perrin and her girls find that store-bought vegies aren’t a patch on the ones they grow themselves

How can we reconcile the desire to eat healthier food and be more self-sufficient with a busy lifestyle? Day after day, we hear scientific and media reports on the importance of a healthy diet, for ourselves, and even more so for our children. We are told to eat fresh, organic produce and reconnect with the natural environment.

I spent my childhood in the French countryside, and my nanny’s garden was a magical place to me. Nanny Josette would look after me while my mother was at work and when she undertook her weekly trip to the city hospital to visit my grandmother.

Her husband was a baker and worked from early morning until lunchtime at the village. Every afternoon, after his nap, he and Josette would tend to their garden, chatting.In their large backyard, they planted herbs, fruit trees, berries and root vegetables, as well as numerous tomatoes, peppers, beans and lettuces. I would play for hours among the fruit trees, but knew not to step on the carefully weeded rows of seedlings. The garden attracted birds and provided me with a mini museum to learn from.

I would invariably return home with bags of fresh, crisp vegetables, all organically grown. These would be steamed, or simply cut up in a salad with a very simple dressing of olive oil, white vinegar and mustard, or a drizzle of walnut oil.

As I grew older, no longer needing someone to mind me, I maintained contact with Josette and her family. Now I have children myself, and I still correspond with her regularly about life, family and health. I believe that our bond was made stronger by the connection with the bountiful garden, which always rewarded hard work and patience with sweet and juicy treats.

When my children were born, I longed to give them a similar experience and an opportunity not only to experience fresh food and foster good health, but also to discover the natural cycle of life.

However, this was difficult. Living in the suburbs, working full-time, and with very limited gardening experience –in fact, challenged in the green-thumb department – my first attempts were a disaster. Seeds did not sprout; seedlings withered; soil turned to dust.

Last season, I decided to try again, and start from scratch on a small scale. We settled on growing just one crop at a time, deciding that we would increase the variety and quantity if successful. The kids and I set off for the nursery hoping for broad bean seedlings (a personal favourite), but their unavailability meant that we returned home with snow-pea seedlings instead.

We drew the conclusion that our past failures were due, in part, to the fact that our garden beds were too dry, and so we invested in a large terracotta-coloured plastic tub and  good-quality potting mix, to contain our precious water.

My eldest daughter took responsibility for watering the seedlings daily, and I made up for heroccasional forgetfulness, while always praising her efforts and commitment.

After a couple of months, our long-awaited peas appeared… and thrived.

Straight after school, my eldest would look for the peas hidden among the crisp, healthy green leaves, eating them off the plant and helping me gather a handful for dinner. We would also break the pods open and feed our toddler the individual sweet peas.

With the change in season, we decided to move to another crop. Growing up with my nanny’s tasty home-grown tomatoes, I am never satisfied with the store-bought varieties. So we went with tomatoes.

Cherry tomatoes. We read the label on the pack of seedlings we picked: “a single plant has been known to yield over 100 fruit”. ‘Whatever,’ I thought. Clearly that wasn’t going to happen at our place. We sniggered and hoped for a handful. Over our magical potting mix we constructed a teepee of bamboo sticks and twine. It all seemed a bit ridiculous at first as the tall barren stakes loomed over the tiny seedlings, ready to crush them at any moment.

My eldest impressed me with her regular tending of the plants, and the health of our seedlings became a regular discussion around the dinner table: how tall they’d grown, how much they’d spread, and how we were training them and gently guiding them up and around the bamboo stakes, giving each strand room to grow and space to receive sunlight.

Our spirits grew along with the seedlings. Our confidence grew stronger. Within a few weeks, we discovered fragile white flowers, which transformed into firm green, then red, tomatoes.

What a success!  Our efforts were rewarded by an outstanding crop – forget a hundred cherry tomatoes; we lost count after clearly exceeding that amount.

With the pot strategically placed outside the garage door, where we could not miss it as we left and returned home, we remembered to water and check on our plants (a definite improvement on our previous efforts). And the girls found a new pastime when coming home from school: eating the tomatoes off the vine. At first, our toddler would indiscriminately pick the green tomatoes, plucking them with all her might and threatening to break off branches in the process. But she quickly discovered, with patient guidance from her sister and me, that the red ones were much sweeter.

Her fine-motor skills developed, and so did her tastebuds! In fact, she soon found the perfect spot to indulge in her new pastime – hidden in the now-huge tomato plants, she would squeeze in between the large pot and the garage wall to devour any red bauble she could find, throwing us cheeky glances at intervals through the downy leaves, and eventually coming out of her hideaway with tell-tale juicy stains on her cheeks and top.

So, did we manage to balance our busy lives with a healthier and more self-sufficient lifestyle? Somewhat.

I am glad that we stuck to our goals despite our initial failures, and that we have finally succeeded in bringing more home-grown food into our diet, even on a small scale. The girls have developed skills at tending plants and now love to choose the next crop to grow.

The downside? Having tasted the sunripened, home-grown variety, they now refuse to eat store-bought tomatoes. And I don’t blame them.