Growing up in Florida, my mom would drag me out to the garden on the weekends the moment I woke up – pruning in bulk our tropical abundance, digging holes clear down to the limestone bedrock, and getting intimate with fire-ants and fuzzy, poisonous green caterpillars. I would fake sleep just to put off feeling hot and itchy for a couple hours. Only when I started cooking did my feelings toward the jungle outside change. I found that basil and rosemary soak up the torturous sun, I learned to love tomatoes warm and squishy off the plant, and I realized that most veggies will just plain rot in the ground in the 90-degree monsoon.
And then I moved to the Northeast for medical school and residency, where sun and abundant plant life – and even backyards – occur with a frequency inverse to Starbucks’s. My life as an ER resident revolves around keeping people alive and taking care of a whole universe of expectations. My days include the high of resuscitating a crashing patient, the drain of a man with toe pain complaining about ER wait times, the stress of talking down an agitated, potentially violent meth addict, the absurdity of removing foreign objects from people’s ears, noses, and buttocks, and the sleeplessness of calling time-of-death on a 27-year-old. My day at the office does not always lend itself to sharing over a meal, lest the listener start vomiting from disgust, choking in the midst of uncontrollable laughter, or falling into a deep despair.
During 3 years in residency, most of our leadership changed, our ER completely restructured its workflow leading to months of more than the usual chaos and confusion; a couple suicides happened in our community; and a building where many of my fellow residents live caught fire forcing us to treat, face-to-sooty-face, our colleagues and friends. I thank God that all these people I know and love survived that night.
Out of utter starvation in a cement and steel landscape, and an obvious need for therapy given my work, I suddenly ached to surround myself with plants. The pots multiplied on my windowsill: plain black plastic, ceramic rescued from the basement, rinsed yogurt container, empty peanut can from Costco. Seedling, cutting, store-bought, and gifted – my roommates number about 20-40 depending on the season. My prize is the Tabasco pepper my brother bought for me, which I nearly killed the first year, but by year 3 has forgiven and forgotten, stretching out long branches over my other plants to get ALL of the light, and sending out tiny fingers of green-turned-flaming-red peppers that bite.
My time in a cold climate in its final months, I’ll soon be moving to the house my husband and I bought in the South where I’ll continue my work as an ER physician. It’s my first real opportunity to plant in the actual ground since I was a child and this time I want, I need, to grow things. In my excitement, I bought more seeds then I can possibly figure out what to with – Alabama Red Okra, Blacktail Mountain Watermelon, He Shi Ko Bunching Onions, Sugar Ann Snap Peas. And because it’s been a warm winter, I couldn’t help but already put something in the dirt on my elective month down here, a vegetable whose voluptuous roots boast speedy yields, a plant most likely to satisfy the needs of an ER doc used to measuring time in seconds rather than seasons.
So, with the hope that my first experiment in organic, heirloom gardening will not rot in the ground, I tucked a few Giant of Sicily Radish seeds into bed at the end of January under the cover of polyethylene plastic sheets… and waited.