The sunflower was a surprise.
It grew up tall and fast in the perennial patch in our front yard; too confident to be a weed, so I let it grow even though I had no idea how it got there or what it would become.
When it bloomed, it was magnificent: each flower a honey-colored face framed by brilliant-yellow petals, as warm and bright as the suns my 4-year-old draws in pictures.
And then one morning, we walked outside to find the whole plant sprawled face-down in the dirt, its roots yanked rudely by the wind.
I tried to replant it, but it was gone. So I cut the two biggest flowers free and put them into water on the kitchen table, where they hung their heads, lost without their height and grace and the rest of their parts.
I suspect my attachment to the sunflower is rooted in the back yard, where my vegetable garden is having its last hurrah, and I'm already in mourning.
This spring, I decided to test my theory that you don't have to be a gardening guru to grow some food for your family. I planted a small vegetable garden, using cheap seeds and a few plants from a local greenhouse "" and reaped the benefits all summer long.
In fact, I'm surprised to admit how much I enjoyed having a garden. It was easier, more satisfying and more productive than I ever imagined.
There were a few disappointments (scrawny carrots, no watermelon and a woodchuck that sabotaged my broccoli and cauliflower.) Yet, my little plot has produced 62 cucumbers, 10 butternut squash, 86 tomatoes, 20 bell peppers, 293 green beans, one broccoli crown and two months of baby greens picked almost daily. And the garden isn't finished yet. Last time I checked, there were still a few peppers and at least 100 plum tomatoes in various stages of ripening.
There's no question that the results were worth the effort and expense.
I couldn't have done it without a lot of help from my sister-in-law and her husband, who tilled up a spot and brought me a load of fertilized topsoil. That drastically reduced my start-up costs. In fact, I spent less than $100 on the whole project: including seeds (most of which I found at a local dollar store for 20 cents apiece), peat pots, soil, plants, black landscaping fabric, tomato cages and wire fencing.
It's hard to estimate how much money I saved by growing my own food. I didn't buy any lettuce for two months, which trimmed at least $16 from my grocery bill. Ditto with cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes, which probably saved me another $30-$40. At $1.99 a pound, butternut squash is another cost-effective crop. With five seeds from a 99-cent packet, I grew at least $60 worth of squash.
Then there are the intangible benefits. You can't put a price on the quality, the convenience and the peace of mind of having your own garden. Being able to throw together a quick salad without leaving home; having access to free, organic vegetables every day; and teaching my daughters where their food comes from were all amazing fringe benefits. And there's no question: Just-picked tomatoes make the best BLTs ever.
Soon, it will be time to pull the withered plants and give the garden a winter blanket of leaves. I hope I'll have at least a modest stash of frozen tomato sauce, peppers and squash to offset the canned beans and waxy apples I am already dreading.
If there's one thing I've learned, it's that the sweetest gardening successes are those that are temporary and unexpected: my kids asking for second helpings of green beans, the sensation of biting into a fresh tomato right off the vine, the tiny head of cauliflower that appeared just when I'd given up hope.
I'm already planning next year's garden: more beans and lettuce; fewer cucumbers. I'll skip the carrots and watermelon, but I hope to add onions, garlic, potatoes and maybe some strawberries.
As for sunflowers, well, some things are best left to the wind and the birds.
Lisa Miller is a freelance writer who lives in Oneonta. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.