Jennifer May

is a food & portrait photographer based in Woodstock, NY, and Brooklyn. She has photographed over 20 cookbooks for publishers such as Clarkson Potter; Stewart, Tabori & Chang; Rodale; and Ten Speed Press. She chronicles her food and garden adventures at, or follow her on instagram @jenmayphoto

A few months after my daughter, Robin, turned one, we built a garden on our property.  It was a family event. My brother, who is 6’3” and strong, dug holes for the fence posts around the perimeter. He used a crowbar and claw and pounded 3-foot holes through rock and shale. My husband and a friend cemented in the cedar posts, nailed up the metal deer fence, and built a gate. Robin’s grandparents watched her toddle as I hauled wheelbarrows full of earth and mulch onto the new garden, setting out paths and beds.

When we began, the site was a thicket of barberries and wisteria. It took my brother and his crowbar, and finally a backhoe, to clear the land. Three seasons later, I still pull the persistent wisteria shoots. The garden grows between a forest’s edge and our house, so sun is limited. We don’t produce enough food to preserve, or even to prepare a meal, but we grow enough to entertain ourselves, and to keep alive the gardening tradition that runs in my family.

My brother showed me how to terrace the south-facing slope of the garden using logs from around the property, and we planted perennial fruits including pears, pawpaws, persimmon, gooseberries, and elderberries. I grow a smattering of vegetables, and as many herbs as I can fit in the sunniest strip. There are flowers to pick, and for the pollinators.

When my family gets together, we tell stories of our gardens. My father was raised on a many-thousand hectare farm in Manitoba, Canada. His mother used to preserve enough food to feed a family of seven, plus as many farm hands, three meals a day. My mother’s grandmother, a Russian immigrant, grew cabbages for sauerkraut in her lot in Vancouver. At 94, my grandmother still talks about how she foraged for mushrooms at the dump with her mother.

I remember so many moments of my childhood through the gardens my parents planted. One of my strongest memories is of my mother pushing a wheelbarrow around our yard atop a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. In those days, my dad dug the foundation to the house he would build, my mom sifted the earth of stones, and their relationship unraveled. I was often sent out to weed or harvest beans. The idea of the garden as a place of respite developed early.

I bring Robin into our garden as often as possible. I show her how to pick beans, and to be gentle with early shoots. She is growing up in that garden, learning about earth and food, and developing her palate. Early spring begins with tastes of sour wild sorrel and pungent chives. Mid-spring is a sampling of oregano, parsley, and thyme. Summer brings mouthfuls of black currants and blueberries, and—if we can get there before the resident catbird—raspberries. Bushes of green beans produce through summer, and the tall vines of heirloom cherry tomatoes are a late season triumph.

My daughter is three now, and she calls to the birds that circle above, and points out hummingbirds and bees. As I unload wheelbarrows full of compost onto the earth around the plants, she scratches in the dirt with her small tools. I am planting, weeding, and pruning, but mostly I am watching Robin.