Is it cucumber or apple pie?

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My garden planning has gone crazy and so have I, as I again look forward to having an explosion of vines and a mixture of all types of plant species intermingling with one another when this year’s plot is in full swing.

Hopefully, this year’s garden will be as weird as last year’s, when I was picking green beans and tomatoes hanging together from cages because the beans went on an adventure.

I hope to defend my Roma tomato plants from being overtaken by mini-pumpkins.

And hopefully the lilac bushes will be bending over from the weight of all the gourds hanging from their branches.

My strange form of gardening reminds me of my childhood, when my siblings and I got our own special area, called The Wild and Crazy Garden.

My mother was a wonderful grower — she had to be, since all that produce fed my big family through the year. She had huge gardens with perfect rows and well-hoed walk-ways. But there was an area, set aside from the rest, right near the asparagus patch and the apple tree. She named it “The Wild and Crazy Garden” and the name stuck. So did our excitement each spring when we kids were put in charge of it.

There was the wonderful, annual Gurney’s catalog each spring. I’ve always loved that you can get any kind of seed you want, every variety of vegetable, flower, perennial and annual.

But my favorite thing in the whole Gurney’s listing was that wonderful, giant sack of seeds they called The Big Bag, which was an incredible mixture of seeds that included starters for everything under the sun — marigolds, tomatoes, carrots, spinach, cucumbers, peas, beans, giant sunflowers, radishes, corn, wild grasses and more. And each of us kids was the beneficiary of one of those containers of crazy mismatch that translated into pure joy.

My mother would send off her carefully considered order each year, with The Big Bag box checked along with the Number 5 behind it (since two of us weren’t old enough to plant anything).

The day the packages arrived, it was sheer joy. Dad had already plowed up the two giant growing areas, including The Wild and Crazy Garden where we were allowed to “farm it up.” We had already smoothed out the soil with a rake and worked the dirt until it was perfect. Then my mother would hand out the bags of mixed seed and mark perfect squares of equal size in the dirt with clothesline wire. Each of us got our own square, to do whatever we wanted, however we wanted to do it.

We were a little cramped for space, where we were — two of us had to be really close to the apple tree. So Mom would tell us to go through our bags and try to pick out the cucumber seeds, in order to plant them further away (due to the vining effect).

The way the five of us planted our seeds said a lot about us. I would always try to separate what I thought were flowers and vegetables, because I thought they each had their own place in the world. But when the marigolds would pop up next to my pole beans, I was thrilled to see them co-exist.

My brother, Terry, would try to separate all the seeds into categories, so nothing ever mixed together. He liked things orderly, in its place.

Then, there was my brother, Steve, who would pretty much just dig a hole and pour the whole thing at once, cover it up and not look at it again.

Sister Nancy would keep them all mixed together, but lovingly sprinkle them down short rows. Granted, it was a mess when it came up — but at least it was a strategic disaster.

And my sister, Maria, always had the inkling to separate the big seeds from the small seeds — so none were overpowered, and the little ones had a chance to make themselves known.

Once The Wild and Crazy Garden was planted, we’d wait . . . not so patiently. Every morning, we’d run out to see if anything had come up. Slowly, but surely, different kinds of plants started to emerge from the dirt as their arrival time came due.

It was difficult to weed our plots — with a variety of plants that didn’t resemble each other, it was hard to tell what belonged and what needed to go. But we quickly learned that weeding wasn’t necessary — there was such a mess of stuff that we’d just let it go and see what happened.

It was amazing, seeing a single bean stalk wrap around a giant sunflower, tomatoes hanging on plants with carrots in their shade. And what was even more amazing, was that for more than one summer — we could pick apples and cucumbers at the same time.

Regardless of Mom’s warnings, we always planted the cucumbers too close to the apple tree, so the vines would reach to the low-sitting fruit bearer and climb through the branches. Granted, the kids helped that along, by actually lifting vines and making sure they were attached, because it was fun and mischievous at the same time.

But there was nothing more fabulous than taking our unsuspecting cousins out to pick apples with us, and then nonchalantly pick an invasive cucumber off the branches among the leaves.

“Is that a cucumber?” they’d ask with their eyes all wide, as we’d literally pick one of each from the exact same location, over our heads.

“Yep,” we’d say, throwing the cucumber into the apple barrel.

“Are you kidding?” they’d squeal — freaked out beyond belief.

We’d take our mixed buckets of apples and cucumbers into the house, where Mom and the aunts were peeling and slicing for pie in the winter.

“The cucumbers go in this bowl, the apples in that one,” my mother would say, not even batting an eye. This was normal in our house.

My Aunt Linda would stare at the others, wondering what my mom was talking about. And then she’d see the cucumbers in the pails of apples, while her kids ran in to tell her the amazing story about the cucumbers growing in the apple tree.

“It’s just like the episode of ‘Gilligan’s Island’ where they planted the seeds that had atomic power!” said my cousin, Joe.

“There are carrots that grew into onions and flowers are part of the corn!” my cousin, Mary, would exclaim.

“Oh, you kids, that’s not really true,” Aunt Linda would say. “Quit fibbing.”

And my mother would promptly tell her that indeed, these rarities were taking place in The Wild and Crazy Garden, so the aunts had to get a look for themselves.

That garden was an expression of my mom’s life philosophy in a lot of ways — it’s OK to be wild and crazy sometimes. To be goofy and funny and a little off-track. To enjoy the possibilities no matter how strange the outcome.

And the fun would last through the winter, as my mom would put an apple pie on the table and my dad would simply ask, “Is that an apple or cucumber pie?”

She’d just smile and say, “You have to dig in to find out.”

 

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