Let your garden grow: Here's why you should plant a garden, even if you fail

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen

I meet the end of winter with elation tinged with a pinch of panic. I imagine hibernating animals experience something similar as they emerge from their dens. After months of semi-suspended animation, it's suddenly time to get the garden beds ready, plant the seeds and clean out the shed. This year, I'll have to build or buy one. 

Of course, there's no real reason to panic. If I miss the window for planting indoors, I can bounce down to the grocery store or tailgate market and buy some produce. I could even buy vegetable starts, though they seem incredibly expensive when you're used to starting more hot peppers than you could ever need from a $2 packet of seeds. 

Those who don't particularly care about gardening may wonder what all the fuss is about, anyway. This year, I'll build some raised beds, fill them with inexplicably expensive dirt and then plant some stuff I'll spend all summer protecting from whatever plant diseases, weeds and weird insects live in my new Middle Tennessee backyard. I have no idea what I'm getting into, but I know it's going to get pricey.

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Start your seeds early indoors to make the most of your season. Involve the whole family.

Planting a garden is expensive, dirty work. But you're growing more than just misshapen fruit the bugs will eat before you do.

I garden because it's in my blood. It's part of my family's legacy. Many, many years ago, the Lunsford family built Baptist churches in rural Appalachia. Those who didn't build churches farmed and canned tomatoes for the market, including my paternal grandfather Clarence, who worked with his father in the fields as soon as he was old enough.

Planting a second round of seeds for fall vegetables.

Later, an army veteran who settled into furniture making, Clarence grew beautifully abundant gardens to supplement his income, but also for the love of gardening, which I inherited. One of my strongest childhood memories is lying on my back in his freshly-turned-soil-scented Roanoke yard, eating peas off the vine and watching the clouds in the robin-egg spring sky. 

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I also remember the sliced red tomatoes, perpetually glistening on the table in the summer. I remember the sharp grassy smell of the last green tomatoes he plucked before the frost could get them. He'd line them up in the basement near his big canning pot, now in my possession. When we cleaned out my grandparents' basement, it was among the things I elected to keep, along with Clarence's collection of antique Ball jars, his writing desk and my grandmother's milk glass lamps.

I wish I could say I used that canner to preserve my own produce. Though I had a garden, it wasn't terribly prolific because I lived in the woods where there was little sunlight, though it was a haven for animals. That meant strawberries that would be plucked by bunnies and deer and tomatoes that didn't ripen until nearly the end of August. Those on the deck fared better but prevented us from sitting comfortably without getting poked in the eye by a Cherokee Purple vine. The torrential Western North Carolina rains would often claim the tomatoes by late August, when they would give up and collapse.

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Even if it was an uphill battle that often ended in disappointment, we loved gardening anyway. My daughter also has a gardening gene, and she pores through the seed catalog with me as though she's picking out Christmas presents. 

Tomatoes, basil and other herbs under the grow light.

We'd eagerly await our seeds in the mail, and then plant them under grow lights on a dining room shelf and wait for the seedlings to sprout. As soon as the ground could be worked, we'd plant peas. When they bore fruit, always too late to be too productive before summer heat set in, we'd pluck the fat pods and eat peas while looking up at the spring sky.

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We'd plant squash, beans and corn knowing they'd yield next to nothing, just so we could learn about the Native American agricultural tradition of the Three Sisters. As the three plants grow, they support each other like family. Corn provides a place for bean vines to climb. Beans provide nitrogen for the soil. Squash leaves prevent weeds and hold in moisture. The food the plants grow then creates a nutritionally complete meal for humans. That's a whole world of lessons in three packets of seeds. That's why we garden.

Over my new yard is a large, leafless tree. I'm not sure if it will shade the garden that still needs to be built on the freshly placed sod or drop nuts on my head as I weed. But we'll plant that garden anyway. If it fails, we'll head to the farmers market and buy peaches and tomatoes so we have something for my grandfather's canner to do. Then we'll do it all again next year.

Rigatoni with Peas and Bacon

Rigatoni with peas and bacon

Green peas and tender arugula make this pasta dish a perfect early spring dinner. Use fresh peas when they're at their peak. If you can't find fresh peas, use frozen, just skip the blanching process and add them directly to the sauce as it cooks. 

Serves: 2 to 4

Hands on time: 45 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes

Ingredients

Instructions

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Fill a medium bowl with ice water.

When the water is boiling, add the peas and cook until tender, 2 to 3 minutes. Use a wire mesh strainer to transfer the peas to the prepared ice bath. Bring the water back up to a boil and add the rigatoni. Cook until al dente, 8 to 10 minutes. Drain well.

Heat the bacon in a large skillet over medium heat. Cook, stirring frequently, until crisp, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the shallot and garlic and cook until aromatic, about 1 minute. 

Add the peas, cooked pasta and cream and continue to cook, stirring frequently, until the cream has thickened, about 5 minutes. Add the arugula and Parmesan and cook until arugula wilts. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Divide among serving bowls and garnish with additional Parmesan cheese. Serve hot.

Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.

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Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com