When I agreed about seven years ago to begin writing this weekly column, I negotiated a compromise. I would write about food as long as I also could write about vegetable gardening, which was my real passion. Hence, the column was titled Kitchen and Garden.
What intrigues me more than the preparation of food is cultivating it. As those who grow their own know, there's no comparison between the flavor of supermarket produce and that which we pick ripe from the vine or stalk, or dig up from the cool, moist earth.
There's also a -- dare I say -- spiritual process that happens when we raise and harvest our own bounty. This isn't some new-age weirdness; it's a phenomenon that our forebears understood for generations, even when they had no choice but to grow food for the table.
Once you've planted a garden, you never can view grocery store produce in quite the same way. Suddenly, all those uniformly shaped bell peppers stacked in rows look like the mass-produced commodities that they really are. Most supermarket produce is picked long before its time, it's shipped from far away as container cargo, and some of it is gassed into pseudo-ripeness or waxed to an unnatural state of shiny perfection.
What I quickly discovered after taking on this column was that I was not alone in my feelings about growing vegetables. As a result, when I worked as a full-time journalist, I not only did the weekly column but during the spring and summer I also wrote features about people who grew gardens, and I learned a lot about their gardening techniques, as well as their passions.
I was deeply touched by the generosity of local growers -- both backyard gardeners and large-scale produce farmers -- who allowed me into their private worlds. A vegetable garden is not just a site of manual labor but also a sanctuary, a place of refuge from the conflict and difficulty of daily living. People don't endure the rigors of growing food in the broiling Kansas heat unless they are driven toward some greater satisfaction.
Touring other people's vegetable gardens and writing about them was, without question, one of the most satisfying things I ever did as a journalist. After I began teaching full time, I kept the column but had to let go of the spring and summer garden tours. I have deeply missed that sense of instant connection, the shared passion with people who otherwise would be strangers.
When I learned a few weeks ago that I would be undergoing some fairly extensive surgery to my torso, one of the first unpleasant realizations to hit me was that I would neither be pushing a rototiller nor bending to plant seeds or pull weeds for a good, long time. In short, the 2003 gardening season had been scratched from my own calendar.
But not from yours. What I want to do in the coming months is resume those conversations with vegetable gardeners. I want to experience the 2003 gardening season vicariously, through the people who will be tending their vegetables while I am not, and to write about what you are growing, how you do it and why you do it.
If you want to volunteer your garden for a visit, drop me a line, either by e-mail or snail mail. Send your e-mails to firstname.lastname@example.org and your letters to me at 983 N. 840 Road, Lawrence 66047. Be sure to tell me what you grow and when your favorite crops are likely to be in their prime. Also tell me where you garden and what the soil is like. Be sure to include your telephone number.
I'll be looking for variety of every kind: types of vegetables, growing conditions (sandy, clay or rocky soil), growing techniques (organic and traditional) and location. I'd like to visit gardens throughout my circulation area, which stretches, like a tornado warning, from about 40 miles either side of a line that begins west of Lawrence and continues into Johnson County.
I hope to start these conversations with gardeners in late April, when people begin harvesting greens and other early season crops. That date might move up if I hear from people who have overwintered vegetables and start their harvests early.
One thing I've noticed about vegetable gardeners is that they're often unassuming folk, disinclined to draw attention to their own gardening prowess. Many of the gardens I toured in the past came to my attention through referrals. If you don't have your own vegetable garden but want to rat out your neighbor, I promise to be diplomatic when I call up for an appointment.
-- When she's not writing about foods and gardening, Gwyn Mellinger is teaching journalism at Baker University. Her phone number is (785) 594-4554.