One Small Change: The First Garden

After nearly a year of beautiful, insightful posts, we’re wrapping up the One Small Change series this week with the words of one of my dearest friends. Rachel Riebe is an incredible poet and part of one of my writing groups. She’s also the mother of a toddler and new twins…so if she has time for a small change, then none of us have any excuse whatsoever.

I’m so happy to have her here. Say hello, leave her a comment or two, and then visit her funny, beautiful blog here.

first garden

I grew up surrounded by food.

My grandparents were dairy and crop farmers. My dad likewise raised crops, feeder pigs, and beef cattle. I spent my formative summers eating fresh corn on the cob, mulberries, green beans. Peppers. Zucchini. Spinach and asparagus, homemade bread.

Come July and August, my mother became a produce machine. Corn was cut and frozen. Tomatoes were canned for salsa and sauce. Mulberries were boiled with sugar and lemon and canned as sauce to pour over vanilla ice cream. And when the freezer was getting low, my dad sent a pig or a cow to the butcher, and came home with boxes and boxes of white paper packages carefully labeled in blue meat locker ink.

But when I stepped out from under my parent’s roof, food took on a different shape for me. A new, costlier shape. It was no longer just, well, available. What was worse, I started seeing it in terms of dollar bills that, as a college student, I never had enough of.

Enter: the years I ate English muffins with turkey, cheese, and mustard. When Chipotle burritos could be stretch for two, if not three meals. When frozen waffles (eaten when they were still frozen) could pass for a snack.

When healthy equaled expensive, and therefore, not worth it.

And then, it happened. The year I put in my first garden. It felt kind of romantic, and kind of like getting back to my roots. I bought of bunch of seed packets at Walmart, planted them willy nilly, and weeded the whole mess approximately twice during the entire summer.

But somehow, things not only survived, they flourished. Including my long-buried contentment of knowing where my food came from. Of not feeling like I had to wash the cucumbers with science-lab grade cleaner to get the grocery store wax off. Of reaching in between the overgrown vines to find the perfect tomatoes. Of using fresh herbs in everything because they grew, literally, like weeds.

I am not a perfect gardener. I’m not really even a good gardener. I wasn’t joking when I said I weeded, um, twice the first summer. It was a big commitment to weed every three weeks the following year. But something about it just felt right. And somewhere along the way, knowing the origination point for the food on my plate suddenly became important for two reasons.

Taste, and Trust.

I’m a wannabe foodie. I love cooking, tolerate baking, and my idea of a fun Saturday is spending all afternoon on a meal to be shared with friends. So when I say the TASTE of food is important, knowing where my food comes from means now I can tell the difference between store bought eggs vs. the local free range ones from our friends. It means I know that real carrots don’t actually grow in that manufactured “baby carrot” stubby finger shape. It means there are more different types of lettuce than iceberg and spinach, and they are surprisingly easy to grow in Minnesota.

And when I say TRUST, it means I can plop tomatoes straight off the vine into my mouth because I know the only thing I’ve sprayed my garden with is the leaky old water hose. It’s not wondering if I can rely on the expiration date on a carton of blueberries because I know they were picked three days ago. It’s being willing to pay a little more for chicken that’s been raised, ranged, and butchered by a friend whose farming practices are ethical and sound.

After my first garden, understanding my food suddenly became simple. Choosing where it came from afforded me the chance to find better flavor, and leave the table feeling satisfied inside and out. It also meant I started looking into cooking by the season, freezing extras for winter, and generally being more aware of what would taste good when.

I totally get that putting in a garden is not going to change the world. But maybe you’ll be like me – surprised at how easy it was to grow, well, almost anything. Including my own awareness.


rachel riebeRachel Riebe, wife and mother of 9 month old identical twins and a toddler, has changed approximately 2,968 diapers this year. She is a freelance writer and poet (after 10:00 pm) who blogs about faith, food, and her parenting mishaps at She and her family live on a hobby farm in Taylors Falls, Minnesota.

17 thoughts on “One Small Change: The First Garden

  1. Rachel: “But somehow, things not only survived, they flourished.” That is so encouraging to me! I am starting a garden this year for the first time EVER and am convinced nothing is actually going to grow. So thanks for the encouragement. I think it’s nearly impossible to change the world, but this sounds like a good way to change things in my tiny corner of it.

    Addie: this has been a great series. It’s so encouraging to think of ways to change small things instead of just feeling overwhelmed with earth-sized problems. Thanks for doing it! And I can’t believe it’s been going on for a year.

    1. Janice, you’ll do great. I promise. The resilience of nature can overcome a wealth of human forgetfulness and neglect, and changing the world has to start somewhere. PS- the moment when you see your first rows of happy, green little leaves starting to pop from the ground is SO gratifying.

  2. This post is really encouraging for me since this is my first year of feeble veggie gardening attempts. It’s good to hear that lack of weeding might not leave permanent damage. 🙂 I agree about the taste of non-grocery store foods. We get all of our meat and fish from either hunting or local farmers, and the quality is NOT something Walmart can replicate. Like you said, it’s not a big change, but it’s something I’m glad we’re doing all the same.

    1. Ashley – feeble attempts are all a good seed needs. Nature takes care of the rest. Have fun with it, make a few notes of what worked and what didn’t, and keep on going!

  3. This. Is. Inspiring! I have a raised bed in our suburban yard and it simply needs some prepping to be ready for a garden, but I have never done it and am seriously intimidated! Reading this makes me realize it’s probably easier than I think.

    1. Jen, I promise – it’s WAY easier that we think. It’s too easy to get caught up in doing things pinterest-perfectly, when really, growing a garden requires sun, dirt, water, and seeds. Well, and maybe a little weeding. If you’re into that sort of thing. 🙂

  4. Oh, how I can identify with this…my parents were of farm families, so when they moved to The City after they got married, they carried that farm sensibility with them and we always had a large garden. While I was reading this, though, I remembered doing a presentation in college, in a comm class, and it had to be a persuasive speech. Well, just take me out and shoot me, cause as an introvert, I’d almost rather fail than speak in front of a class. But I thought, if I talk about something I know, maybe I won’t freak out. So, I tried to persuade a class of college students that growing a garden was not only delicious, but very cost-effective. Lets just say it was not well received. They looked at me like I was totally bonkers. I guessed later that none of them had ever eaten just picked and shucked corn, still warm from the sun, or a true vine ripened tomato. It makes me so happy to read that people are connecting with where food comes from, and gives me hope for the future of our next generations emotional and physical well-being. Great post, really brought back some memories.

  5. Now if only this MN weather would cooperate so I can take my leggy seedlings out from under the grow lights in the basement and into the bright sunshine. I still have the “sun-dried” (actually heat-lamp-in-the-oven dried) tomatoes and basil in the freezer from last year’s harvest. My little suburban lot in Bloomington isn’t like your hobby farm Taylors Falls, but it works for one small change in the way I do groceries.

    … and by planting what we eat, we have the privilege of feasting on little darlings like Jelly Bean Tomatoes which you won’t find in Walmart, Cub, Rainbow, or Target any time soon.

    1. Jim, what you are doing is perfect. Any good patch of dirt works – country dirt or city dirt doesn’t matter to seeds! And I agree – love the varietals that add color and spark to the plate instead of just the same old veggies we’re used to seeing. Food should always have a hint of excitement.

  6. Love this. Every word. Wish I were a better gardener. (We do have strawberries this spring. :>)

    1. Thanks! But Ha. I wish that too. This year my husband is pledging to help me weed less (since my twins take a good amount of time to do anything with!) by building raised beds in our garden. I’m excited to see the difference it makes.

  7. Thank you for this, Rachel. I’m getting ready to move out of my parent’s home and I’m seeing dollar signs in front of my face. I may not be able to do a garden, but thank you for helping me to remember to be mindful about my choices (and get creative if I need to).
    Such a lovely piece.

    1. Thanks Cara! Best of luck to you as you move and figure things out. If it’s helpful, a lot of CSA’s will allow you to do a 1/4 or 1/2 share, which is a great way to get a lot of fresh, seasonal produce. Otherwise, stake out a few local farmer’s markets!

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