I've Reaped Invaluable Lessons From My Mother's Garden

When Hurricane Harvey destroyed our family pool, my mother grew a garden there instead and started a beautiful new chapter—for all of us.

Mother and adult daughter holding vegetables in a garden
Photo: Camryn J. Wells

Nearly 40 years ago, my mother Dr. Doris Forte, OD moved her young family from a small, single-family house in inner-city Houston to a spacious two-story home in the suburbs of Katy, Texas. She was a proud U.S. Navy veteran officer, and at the age of 25, she made history by becoming the first African American female optometrist in any of the U.S. armed forces.

In the years that followed that move, my parents invested in a 20x30, six-foot-deep in-ground swimming pool in our backyard. For the next 15 years, she raised my brother and me in that home with summertime bringing endless hours in the pool. My mom, Dr. Forte, is now also a podcast host, artist, and grandmother, and affectionately known as D by her four grandchildren. As a Black woman of many trades and endless possibilities, she made an art out of redefining herself with confidence, and giving us a life full of joy in Katy was no different.

My mom still lives in our family home, which she has beautifully transitioned into her home. There, the grandest transformation is happening right in her own backyard and through the lessons learned with every seed she sows.

Lesson 1: Good Things May End, But More Good Things May Follow

As my brother and I began having families of our own, my mom considered restoring the outdated swimming pool for her grandchildren to enjoy. However, as a mother herself, she has always respected the busy schedules that come with raising children and knew that we couldn't visit as frequently as we would've all loved. Over time, the notion of renovating the pool drifted away and it became more of a burden for my mom to take care of than the place of enjoyment that it once was.

In 2017, the nation watched Hurricane Harvey, a devastating Category 4 hurricane, rip through Louisiana and Texas. My mom, brother, and I sheltered in our homes as we all helplessly witnessed the quickly falling rain flood our streets across the city. Just when the water levels seemed to peak, the City of Houston released the reservoir behind my mom's neighborhood in an effort to avoid breaking the overworked system.

With less than two hours of notice, my mom had to pack a handful of her belongings and find shelter at a friend's home until she could reach my house days later. The water released from the reservoir left my mom's home and all of our family's history under six feet of murky, swampy water. The swimming pool and its mechanics were destroyed, and all that remained were distant memories. After months of rebuilding, my mom decided that it was time to say goodbye to the swimming pool for good, leaving only the large, plastic shell that once held more than 20,000 gallons of water.

She had the enormous hole filled with endless buckets of dirt. Five years later, it's my mom's sacred Spaganic Garden, a name she created from the garden's now-rich organic soil and its aquatic history, which included an attached hot tub.

These days, she rotates more than 75 different crops and plants at least 150 organic seeds every season, including between three and five types of lettuce; green onions the size of an arm; snap, snow, and English peas; and an abundance of flavorful herbs.

"I call the hot tub my salad bowl when I grow various leafy greens like collards, kale, mustard greens, and napa cabbage," says Dr. Forte. "That space transformed my grief from Hurricane Harvey into joy. We can create joy out of ashes if that's what we choose to do. My garden has given me a newfound purpose in my community and family, and I really couldn't ask for a bigger blessing."

A grandmother and child work in a garden
Camryn J. Wells

Lesson 2: When Mind, Body, and Spirit Are Connected, There Is Joy

My mom spends no less than two hours a day in her garden, planting new crops, harvesting ripe vegetables, and clearing space for new growth. Her incredible physical health can be attributed, in part, to the daily movements in her garden. "It's my daily meditation often starting before sunrise," my mother says. "It's my yoga—the stretching, reaching, pulling, lifting. I'm in the downward dog position all day."

On any given week, my mom delivers boxes full of vegetables to our families or one of two local community centers. Neighbors who once asked to come over for a swim are now asking for her vegetables, making requests for her to grow crops, or asking for her secrets for a bountiful harvest, season after season.

My mom also deeply connects with the spirit of her ancestors and others in her gardening practices. I've observed her quietly thanking the earth for providing resources and those before her who may be guiding her intuitively. In her first year of gardening, some of her crops weren't growing because the soil was too compact for the roots to grow. Instinctively—and likely connecting with ancestors—she began loosely packing the soil up the vegetable stalks in a mound formation. A few weeks later, small buds emerged, and she still uses this technique today. Her spirituality has been a major factor in her peace throughout life and there's no difference when it comes to her peace in the garden.

"I thank all the spirits of all the lands. I don't understand why I have so much joy while gardening but they're probably why," she says.

Dr. Doris Forte

"You better learn to do that in life too. Find the weeds and clean your space so you can continue to grow."

— Dr. Doris Forte

Lesson 3: Grow What You Eat, Eat What You Love

My mother has been around the art of agriculture since she was a child, visiting her grandparents' home every summer and living off the land. Her father—my grandaddy—was a meticulous gardener and would harvest collard, mustard, and turnip greens for his five daughters, a practice he continued well into my adulthood. She took on her love for agriculture through generations of shared knowledge and says that everyone can—and should—grow something. There are a few key components that give new crops and gardeners a chance to thrive.

· Identify your agricultural zone so you know which crops will grow the best in your area. For example, zones 1-2 are great for broccoli and eggplant while zones 9-10 may be best for corn, figs, and melons.

· Nutrient-dense soil can make a huge difference! Crops love organic matter like manure and composted foods. Over time, it will become an ecosystem loaded with earthworms and primed to grow almost anything.

· Plant what you like to eat. My mom loves leeks and has 57 leek plants bordering her entire garden. She also grows okra because of the expensive price tag at the grocery store and plants carrot seeds twice a year because her grandchildren love wriggling them out of the dirt and eating them right out of the ground.

"There's peace in knowing you can grow a few vegetables and get through another day," says Dr. Forte.

Closeup Shot of a child holing a basket of fruit
Camryn J. Wells

Lesson 4: Remove What Wasn't Intentionally Sown So You Can Continue To Grow

My mom has a daily habit of eating from her garden. From stir-frying vegetables to eating them in a raw salad, she honors her crops every day and is passing life lessons from the garden to her grandchildren. These lessons include respecting nature and talking to the crops as a way of communicating a vibration of love.

An unexpected but powerful lesson came from watching the behavior of weeds. They grow exactly like plants nearby so she had to cultivate a discerning spirit to "weed out" the impostors. Sometimes that means taking a pinch and smelling or tasting a weed to expose its bitterness. "You better learn to do that in life too," advises Dr. Forte. "Find the weeds and clean your space so you can continue to grow."

D's Spaganic Garden has undoubtedly transformed not only her life but the lives of those around her, including my own. It has become her purpose, reliving the joy of raising her own children through her grandchild and creating a sanctuary in the same blessed space. "I absolutely love my garden—even more than I loved the pool," my mother says. " That's saying a lot because so much joy comes from knowing how much my babies enjoyed the pool. But what I have are the warm memories that the pool provided our family and the multitude of life's lessons that the garden is providing us today."

You don't need a pool-sized space to find joy in gardening. You can grow crops in pots so they're mobile. Grow what you love and have fun! When my children pick vegetables with my mom for the community centers, they beam with pride. My son has followed her around the garden since he could walk, just like she did with her grandparents and I with mine. He is 6 now and teaching his little sister how to tend to the garden with care.

There's just nothing better than witnessing that kind of love. It was an unforgettable time with my children, and the lessons from D's garden are certainly staying in our hearts.

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