Vicki Englich’s column, The Urban Farmer, begins today, despite the fact that overnight lows left a covering of ice on our gardens. Spring will come!! Don’t give up hope!!
Vicki writes about her grandmother Gussie, who taught her a love of gardening. I was touched by the article. The story is so romantic, in a “girl-loves-digging-in-the-dirt” sort of way. I have known many gardeners in my life, and envied them for their ability to make food and flowers out of dirt, seeds, sun, and water.
I had a similar experience to Vicki’s. My grandfather and father were gardeners. They had huge gardens that filled half of their backyards. Summers were celebratory times at the dining table as we feasted on vegetables so fresh that we were eating them in a matter of minutes after they were picked.
The extra vegetables — and grapes from the arbor, peaches from truck farms, apples and pears from backyard trees — were cooked up in huge steaming pots in the sweaty, un-air-conditioned kitchen and “put up” for those long winter months.
I inherited exactly zero aptitude for gardening and canning, but still have fond memories of such things from my childhood.
My paternal grandmother, Grammy Bowler, died one Friday in August. She had a heart attack while she was kneading dough in the pantry. Grammy made bread, and sometimes doughnuts, every Friday without fail. She could have watched from the pantry window and seen my Grandpa Bowler out in the garden, hoeing rows, or picking tomatoes or beans. I wonder if she tried to call to him. I wonder if she felt ill, but was too hidebound by her daily routine to stop and wonder why. When Grandpa came in for lunch, he found Grammy on the floor, still alive, but barely.
Back then, there was no 9-1-1 to call. Grandpa called the doctor on the phone, but he arrived too late. He was never forgiven for that lateness by Grandpa.
A few weeks later, I was invited to come to stay with Grandpa. He had a fondness for me, I was told, because I looked like Grammy Bowler. I couldn’t see any similarities, of course, between us. Grammy was a pretty typical woman in her sixties of the day — pleasantly plump body in a housedress, long hair in a perpetual bun made of braids, no makeup, fading red hair, sensible shoes — who dressed up to go to church, go “uptown,” and go to pick blueberries, which she did with her friend Mamie Meehan, who drove a big old black car with a cavernous back seat that could accommodate three or four of the grandchildren and many quarts of freshly picked blueberries (which were reduced in number by the time we reached the house).
So, I went to visit my Grandpa. It was harvest time, and he sadly picked the ready bounty from the garden, which grew and ripened with no consideration for the death of the lady of the house. I can’t remember what he did with it all. Probably gave it away. But he taught me how to make pickles during my visit.
That Thanksgiving, my parents and my dad’s three brothers and their families gathered, as we always did, for a great feast. Grandpa proudly brought up the pickles we had made from the cellar, the jars still cool and damp.
Grandpa and I were also in charge of “smashing” the potatoes. As he was draining them into the sink full of soap suds, the cover slipped and the potatoes got a bath. Grandpa advised me not to say a word about this little incident. We rinsed the potatoes really well, smashed them up with plenty of butter and milk, everyone raved about them, and no one got sick.
That was one of the last years of the really huge garden. There was still a garden, but no potatoes to dig. The apple trees still bore fruit, but it fell to the ground to feed the birds and squirrels. We still ate pickles, since the cellar was full of Ball jars filled with pickles and sprigs of dill.
My sisters Susu and Mary Ann and my brother Jay seem to have sprouted the gardening gene. Me? Definitely not. I did inherit the “loves to eat fresh produce” gene, and the “loves to cook” gene, which makes me a gardener’s dream — someone to dump the zucchini on.
About the only thing I was able to grow successfully was rhubarb. (I do understand that it takes no talent or work to do so!) I don’t have any at my new house. Right now I am wondering if I could ask the people who bought my old house if I can dig some up, or if I should just break down and buy a plant or two.
I saw a tree full of robins on Easter Day. It was too cold for them to hop around on the ground. Where will they find worms?