All photos by Jonathan Izzo (@jonny_apple_seed_)
I awaken from my bed with the same excitement I had on the magical Christmas mornings of my childhood, but as an adult, I rise early for the gifts of August. I run down the stairs I’ve been running down my entire life, aware of the distinct creak every wood plank makes on the staircase. I have been everywhere but home this summer, and what felt like a COVID prison at age seventeen now feels like a refuge at age twenty. I can see from the family room window that the sun is just beginning to peek through the trees and illuminate my backyard. My heart sends goosebumps to my skin, as I grab the harvest basket my aunt gave to me. I slide open the screen door with no regard for shoes and brush my feet against the dewy morning grass. The cold morning ground sends a shiver through me, but I don’t care. I walk up the slight incline of my yard and gaze upon my three garden beds. I am in love with what is in front of me. August has given me a garden full of fruit, full of green, full of blossoms, full of flavor, full of life, and full of stories.
I am immediately intrigued by the raspberries and blackberries dominating the first garden box, presenting their bounty of ripe fruit from many branches. The prickly branches have outcompeted the strawberries and blueberries I planted in the same garden bed. Their strong roots broke the wooden planks of the garden box and shot out new growth. Four years after creating my garden bed, the plants have worked relentlessly to break free of the borders I created for them. Four years ago also marks when I first began to ponder and care deeply about the environmental crisis. I started to question the standard American diet I had subconsciously become so accustomed to. How it could be sustainable to import all the food we eat? What relationship do I have with the food I buy, if any? With distrust for the food system and a desire to change, I took charge of the world I could control, my backyard. A year after I set up my first garden bed, my former babysitter’s mom gave me two tiny berry bushes. I had no idea these two saplings could turn into hundreds of delicious berries three years later.
In August, the ripe raspberries called out to me with their vibrancy, still dripping wet from the morning dew. I picked the ripest raspberry the popped it into my mouth. A burst of sweetness dances on my tongue with just the right amount of tartness. Every time I eat the fruit of my labor, I am certain the flavor is better than any berry that money could buy at a supermarket. They taste so much more like a raspberry, the taste of a true raspberry. Perhaps I feel this way because I know these berries better than anyone. I gave them a nourishing place to thrive, with compost I churned, water I sprayed, and weeds I pulled. I learned how to harness their chaotic and aggressive nature through pruning and training the branches up a trellis. I have beaten the bugs and birds to my fruit and have found the berries before they spoiled. In the early morning when the sugars are transferred into the fruit, I harvest the berries at peak sweetness. For all these reasons, the berries taste and feel so sacred, an experience and flavor that cannot compare to picking out a plastic container of raspberries at the grocery store. Maybe my tastebuds are biased towards my homegrown flavors, but there is a love to be celebrated when you care for a plant, and it cares for you in return, with its nourishing fruit, year after year.
With a basket loaded with berries and a heart full of pride, I look over to the two larger garden beds. No one kind of plant dominates these beds, but rather a wide diversity of herbs, flowers, fruits, and vegetables, all dancing together. This year I connected the two large beds with an arched trellis so I could grow plants vertically, and the garden tomatoes, beans, and flowers have raced all the way up. The dahlias I received from my family friend down the street are blossoming in pinks, oranges, whites, and dark purples. The salmon-colored roses my grandma gave me for my birthday are in full bloom, climbing up the trellis. The dill seeds from my high school gardening class have come back strong as flourishing dill plants over the past three years. The wild alpine strawberries I propagated from the woods near my house blossom mini white flowers, promising ripe fruit in a few weeks. I am eager to get to work with the rest of the harvest, but part of me wants to embrace all of it. Where I stand was once a patch of monoculture grass, but it now holds a wide array of life, the story of the past four years, and all that has changed within that time. I sit between two garden beds, hidden from the rest of the world by a jungle of life.
Each plant reminds me of the history it carries in its roots. It reminds me of the people who have passed down their bounty and wisdom to help me create something worth celebrating. The seeds I sow are only here because of the generations before me, who worked season after season to breed the best possible crop. Although seeds are now often sold as one variety and lack genetic diversity, the traditional way of sharing seeds from last year’s harvest with other gardeners is important in my garden space.
My favorite plant in the garden is the oregano, which comes back more prolific each year. The herb makes its presence known with its hundreds of tiny white flowers and dozens of pollinators swarming around its fragrance. This oregano was planted by my Dad. My dad passed away three years ago, but the oregano he grew is far from gone. He chose to plant oregano because it reminded him of his Italian ancestry when most people had a garden and ate what they grew. Dad was always pulling out weeds around the ferns and the hostas, listening to the Pittsburgh Pirates games on his portable radio or some Bruce Springsteen on his iPod, and was persistent in pulling the weeds. He loved to keep up with his backyard. The year after he passed the thistles came back stronger than ever, and I knew it was now my responsibility to maintain our yard. The legacy he left in our backyard continues with me, as I find the same love for our green patch of earth, expressed in a different way. I had carefully moved some of the oregano from his original planting into my raised bed, and it took off immediately the same year. Whenever I look at our oregano, one of the only plants to produce throughout the entire year, I am always reminded of him. He will never return, but the love that he gave persists, just like his oregano. I pick off some of the youngest, freshest stems and smile knowing that his hands planted the flavor of our family's dinner tonight.
The variety of tomatoes climbing up the arches is the star of the show in my garden this year. Dozens of ripe San Marzano tomatoes dangle from the pruned tomato stems. I give them a light squeeze to feel their plumpness before adding them to a new basket. Tomatoes are supposed to be an annual crop in Pennsylvania, replanted every year, but a few cherry tomatoes always reseed themselves. I pick out the cherry tomatoes that have ripened and add them in the gaps between the San Marzano tomatoes in the basket. Looking farther down the line of my tomato crop, I come across the largest heirloom tomato I have ever grown. The giant mutant tomato looks like three tomatoes joined together to form one. In a grocery store, a tomato this juicy, delicate, and deformed would be thrown in the dumpster, but tonight in my kitchen garden, it will be transformed into Caprese salad for my friends and family to share. I harvest the rest of the ripe tomatoes, peppers, and zucchini, pick more herbs and leafy greens, pull out some radishes and onions, snip off blossoms from the dahlias and cone flowers, and head back inside. I have been dreaming about this day for months, having baskets filled with the sustenance of my backyard, ready to be enjoyed around the dinner table tonight by good company. I feel a glow in my heart because I have found a passion that will be deeply connected to me for every August to come. Growing food where there was once decorative grass gives me immense hope that our current American food system can reimagine its connection with the land.
I don’t know exactly what I want to do with my life, but I know growing food will play a role in one way or another. When I work in the garden, I lose track of time. Working with organic life makes me feel connected to something larger and puts me into the flow of an ever-changing system. When I see the subtle yet ongoing changes in the garden each day, I feel like a parent, watching my plants mature and transform within my care. This space gives me the feeling of genuine satisfaction that is so rare and precious in a world of instant gratification. These four years of gardening have taught me so much about where food comes from and has fueled my curiosity about how to change our current food system. The way we produce food in America now is unsustainable for our future, but moving towards organic, regenerative, and urban agricultural practices will set the foundation for a more resilient world for our children and all our descendants. The way we use the soil beneath our feet will be a tool to guide us to a more sustainable world. I dream that my harvest baskets will one day turn into large cartons that can feed communities. I dream to see sterile grass lawns dug up and transformed into abundant food forests. I dream my passion rubs off on future generations and more Americans can tell the stories of the life on their plates. My garden space is precious, but it is only the seed of what may flourish into a career and a new way of knowing our food.
I remember being in the hospital in 2019 with my dad attached to tubes and monitors and my mom and sister next to me. We knew that the chemotherapy stopped working and that his time left with us in this form was fleeting. He made peace with his fate and was genuinely grateful for everything he had received and earned in his life. In those sacred final moments together, he told us that he pictured heaven as a warm and sunny August evening spent together as a family eating dinner in our backyard. He pictured our dog Rosie running through the grass, the hostas shooting out flowers, good food being enjoyed, and laughter shared around the table.
I bring to the table the bruschetta and Caprese salad that I made with tomato, oregano, basil, and onion from the backyard. Before I open the screen door, I take a moment to enjoy what I see in front of me, my friends and close family all sitting around a set table. They are laughing, getting to know one another better, and sharing good memories. I see the dahlias popping up from behind the blossoming hostas and feel pleased to know that they are eating what is growing so beautifully behind them. The joy that rushes through me is also my dad’s joy. I wish he was here, but I also know he is present because this is where his heaven resides, and mine, right here in the early August evening at home.