In looking back at a year of photographs from the Cooking Light garden, the miracles of nature are Kodak-clear. We started with rocky, damp soil in February and by year’s end had rich compost, earthworms in every square inch, and hundreds of pounds of produce to show for it. We had rainy weeks and firecracker-hot July days and spectacular ones in between. And in every day spent connected to nature, you learn something new.  Such as…

1. Vegetable varieties are like children—no two are alike. In the same conditions, with the same pressure to perform(!), we got drastically different results. The ‘Pink Beauty’ and ‘Purple Plum’ radishes were pastel perfection, rivaling Easter eggs. The ‘Chinese Red Meat,’ aka Watermelon Radish, skipped the plump, cherubic state and went right to gangly teenager, bolting in the warm spring air. The good news, unlike children, is that somewhere, another farmer has written a guide on how to make it behave, and we learned from Johnny’s Seed Catalog that it doesn’t rebel when grown in fall.

2. Just like babies, they don’t like a planned Olan Mills session. You primp the baby. Plan and plot the photo dates. Get excited about the stunning backdrops (okay, that’s only in our garden—not Olan Mills). Still, no matter what, that ‘Green Zebra’ tomato might be slow to show his stripes for the planned photo session June 17th.  There’s always next Monday…

3. Try, try again. A big lesson that you have to repeat to learn. And never give it up. Cold soils, constant rain, and cutworms – they all had it in for our exciting heirloom bean crop.

Nothing germinated. I knew it was too early to plant in that damp, chilly soil but we had a schedule to meet (see lesson #2 above). Third time was the charm.

4. It’s more meaningful to put a face with a name. The same theory applies to plants. Serving a dinner of homegrown ‘Cherokee Trail of Tears’ black beans is an automatic conversation starter and makes you hungry for the history. And, it puts your face on the food when you grow it yourself and share with others. Know your farmers and your food source. It’s rewarding.

5. It never gets old. Speaking of faces, mine lights up when I knock on the test kitchen door to make a delivery. And the faces of the Cooking Light staff light up with curiosity. I feel like Mrs. Claus, and every delivery is Christmas morning. It’s that fun to share something you’ve just plucked from the soil and plopped on the kitchen counter. Don’t believe me? Sow a few carrot seeds and pick them fresh for dinner. Day after day, it never gets old.

6. Growing your food forces creativity. Remember Mother Nature? That wondrous, halo-wearing angel I spoke of earlier? She’s also a mean pitcher of curveballs. Staring at an overgrown bouquet of too-spicy arugula, I consider arugula pesto with pistachios. Looking at a ruined radicchio, roots eaten from beneath by vile, well-fed voles, I salvage tiny leaves for fresh salad mix of baby greens. (And dream up elaborate trapping schemes).

When tomatoes are ripening at rates faster than my crates and kitchen counters can hold them, we think of sauces, canning, homemade ketchup, paste, dried slices and 42 ways to improve on the tomato sandwich. (The best is still bread–tomato-mayo, hands down. Maybe spiff it up with this aioli.)

Six lessons listed, but there are so many more. Join us in the adventure of growing your own. Start with a patio pot of lettuces, or add an heirloom variety to your tomato patch. Tell us how it’s growing!