Like most of us, the Covid quarantine has kept me home a great deal more than I have been used to. All that time at home has “allowed” me to give more attention to the yard and gardening. The title of this article is more tongue in cheek than anything else…I saw it on a t-shirt on Facebook and thought about the simplicity of it all, but built on a lot of experience.
Growing things is not all that hard if you just let nature have her way. I can declare I’m going to grow the best crop of dandelions ever, do nothing, and my yard will fill with them…but figuring out how to bend nature to your will does take some knowledge and a bit of voodoo when dealing with picking seeds (surprisingly hard this year!), spacing, pruning, watering, fertilizing, powdery mildew, end blossom rot and all the other plant diseases, worms, bugs, beetles and critters, poor soil, and on and on.
As the oldest child, I spent so much time doing yard work in the horticultural chain gangs of my mother and father that some of it was bound to rub off, no matter how much I resisted. Whether by osmosis or having it beat into me, I picked up some “stuff” over the years.
Now, I have always had a love/hate relationship with yard work and gardening. Like many, I grew up being an indentured servant, doing yard and garden work for my parents for the proverbial room and board. This of course turned it into a chore rather than an enjoyable past time. I have had full gardens, herbs in pots and boxes and everything in between, but I have always, at the least, thrown a few tomato plants in the ground.
I am not suggesting I am a master gardener by any means, and the incremental knowledge gained over time was almost imperceptible…but just how much I do know started coming into sharp focus after I joined several “garden groups” on Facebook, well, because that’s what you do on Facebook.
As I read through the various posts I became aware that I know a great deal about “growing things”, in no small part due to the influence of my parents. I would read a post and think: “good grief, any idiot knows how to do that”, but it became apparent just how much I had picked up from mom and dad over the years, as well as my own experience. Much of this I have taken for granted, because “you just do it” without much thought, as it has become a part of me.
As with all of my long-winded stories, I’ll start from the beginning. Both my parents were avid gardeners. Dad on the practical side with vegetables, and mom loving her flowers and decorative plants. Even while he was in the Army with our temporary housing, dad would grow at least a few tomato and onion plants.
I remember dad coming home one night at Ft. Benning after a neighbor had hacked his tomato plants all to bits chasing a black snake off our patio. “It’s not even poisonous!” (with a few more colorful words thrown in) he said after seeing the decapitated snake. “We told him dad, but he wouldn’t listen” we said…dad had, by then, explained the differences between venomous and non-venomous snakes to us many times.
With our backyard bordering a swamp, we knew most of the local snakes already anyway. We thought dad was going to kill the poor guy because we got a butt whooping if a ball bounced into his ‘mater patch, causing damage or not.
My earliest memories of doing actual yardwork begin when I was six years old in 1965. We had just moved to Ohio from Georgia when dad was sent off to fight in Vietnam, leaving mom, me and my two brothers and sister in a brand new house, in a brand new development, mostly still under construction.
Being brand spanking new, the yard was a blank canvas…well more like a clay and limestone moonscape where nothing was growing. Mom made it her mission…our mission, to whip the yard into shape and make things grow by the time dad got back.
Making anything grow entailed having many dump trucks of topsoil delivered, to be spread on top of the insufferable bare clay left by the builders. Mom had me and my brother out there with shovels, rakes, and wheel barrows distributing the massive piles of topsoil evenly over the front and back yards.
I’m not sure how helpful we actually were, but I remember it being real exhausting work. This took many days in the hot Ohio summer of 1965…which then led to painful sunburns for all of us.
I still can’t stand the smell of vinegar as my mother’s homegrown prescription was to slap strips of vinegar soaked brown paper grocery sacks all over our backs and tell us not to move. We had blisters on our backs and blisters on our hands, but we eventually got all the dirt moved, spread with grass seed, and covered with straw to help it grow.
Mom then created her first flower bed, a small round one, bordered with broken bricks we snuck from the apartment building going up behind us. Greg and I had befriended a construction worker over there and he told us it would be “alright as long as you don’t get caught by the boss-man”.
The bare clay yard was “landscaped” by the builder with a few minuscule Arborvitae shrubs against the house and two Silver Maple twigs in the front yard…just like every other house in the development.
Of course, the servitude did not stop with getting grass to grow…when dad got back from Vietnam, my parents decided the house needed a hedge around the entire front yard. This required digging a trench a couple of feet deep in that same limestone filled clay. Since the dirt was so hard, dad’s preferred tools were Army entrenching tools, which he was very familiar with.
These could have the blade bent 90 degrees to get into the narrow trench. One of them even had a pick on it for levering the large hunks of limestone out of the trench. Little did I realize then that my experience digging that long trench would come back to serve me well digging foxholes in the Army years later.
After the trench was dug it had to be lined with peat moss, manure and top soil as the native gray clay was terrible for plants. Then all the hedge shrubs had to be planted. This hedge was to be my bane for as long as I lived there, as not only did I inherit cutting the lawn as soon as I was deemed able, but also trimming the hedge. I’m not sure what kid assumed those duties when I went off to the Army.
Dad trimmed the hedges himself for many years, as he demanded that they were perfectly level and flat and didn’t trust me to get it right when young. He accomplished this topiary perfection by pulling a string tight, from one end to the other, with a string level on it to use as a guide for his hedge trimmer. The corners and openings had to have square-cut raised platforms to set them off.
He sounded like the father working on the furnace in “A Christmas Story” when he found the neighbor kid and mailman were cutting through the hedge as a short cut and making unsightly gaps. Using his military training, he strung some hidden barb wire booby traps inside the hedge to thwart the hedge violators. After a few years though, the novelty of a perfect hedge wore off and it was handed off to me. Yippee.
In the meantime, mom was still on her mission to beautify the landscape. She absolutely loved flowers and plants and had already filled the house with Violets, Begonias, Spider plants, Dieffenbachia, Philodendrons, Rubber plants, Calatheas, Air plants, Jade plants, Aloe, Dragon trees, Bromeliads, Snake plants, cactus, Hens and Chicks and numerous other succulents, and especially ferns…of all shapes, sizes and descriptions. If she could beg, borrow or steal a start she stuck it in a jar to root and coaxed it to grow.
But she had more space outside, so she ordered the crew (me and dad) out to cut up the grass along the entire perimeter of the yard and driveway to make flower beds. Again, the entrenching tools were perfect for cutting up the sod and rolling it up to go somewhere else.
She filled these to overflowing with every plant imaginable. Canna lilies, Day Lilies, Black-eyed Susans, Daisies, Oxeye Daisies, Peonies, Primrose, Poppies, Dahlias, Marigolds, Hyacinth, Sweet pea, Petunias, Snapdragons, Honeysuckle, Crocus, Daffodils, Tulips, Phlox, shrubs like Lilac, Pussy Willow, Forsythia, you name it…but especially her beloved roses that reminded her of her mother.
Some of my personal favorites back then were Snap Dragons and 4 O’Clocks. Snap Dragons simply because they had a cool name and looked like tiny skulls when they went to seed.
The 4 O’clocks I liked not so much because they looked pretty and colorful mind you, but because the seeds were perfect for using as GI Joe hand grenades.
When the perimeter beds got full, she had us widen them a foot or two here and there…eventually adding large triangles to double the square footage. Of course, all these flower beds needed weeding, so I got double my usual rate of nothing to keep these under control. The yard had become a jungle.
Growing up a farm boy, dad’s focus was always food related. In the meager space that mom allowed him around the house, he planted apple, pear and plum trees, a Concord grapevine, Rhubarb and even transplanted a Poke plant he found out in the woods for Poke Salat (caution, you need to know how to prepare this as it can be poisonous). Every year mom put up grape jelly and jam, frozen apples, apple butter, apple jelly, and pears…but dad could never get a good crop off the plum tree. He would go down to old homesteads by the river and cut off flowering plum branches to help the bees cross pollinate, but what we got back looked more like prunes than plums.
He also liked Willow trees, and cut a small branch down by the Miami river, stuck it in the ground and soon it was a big tree in the front yard. Of course, seeing this wizardry, I started sticking Willow branches in the ground all over the neighborhood…until I learned that they make great switches to swat misbehaving butts.
Dad’s main focus for decades though, was his vegetable garden. With a family of eight, keeping food on the table was no small task. Around the house, he only had room for a small garden with a few tomato plants, a row or two of table onions, lettuce, a cucumber plant or two, a few bean plants and various herbs.
But he always managed to find a place for a big garden from a relative that had extra space and bartered back with the produce he grew. Whether it was over at the Shores by Aunt Jeans or behind my Aunt Gladys’ house, he planted every vegetable known to me and many I had never heard of, and in such quantities that the season’s bounty would tide us over until the next year with all the canning and freezing mom did.
Unfortunately for posterity, the big garden was a place to grow food and hard work and there was no phone cameras or Facebook, so I can’t find any photos.
He would buy seed packets that filled his old ammo cans and started the finicky ones off from scratch in the house when it was still cold out. He used egg cartons, butter tubs, cottage cheese containers…anything that could hold a dab of dirt to poke a seed in and filled the window sills down in the basement.
As soon as the ground wasn’t frozen I would help him load his big rototiller in the back of the station wagon and haul it over to the “big” garden.
Then he would spend several days tilling up the soil to make nice, straight rows. I got to run it once in a while, but it was a beast for a small boy and would try to run off with me. He wore out the tines and broke metal bits on it all the time.
Dad would get the cold weather crops seeded…lettuce, peas, spinach, carrots, radishes, cabbage, beets, turnips, garlic, leeks, onions, broccoli, collards, and so on. Then, when he was sure the frosts were done, he would plant row after row of corn, beans of all kinds, squash, peppers, cucumbers, pumpkin, cantaloupe, tomatoes…all of many varieties.
Then he had stuff that I didn’t even know what you did with it, until I saw mom do something with it and she had to learn from Mamaw for some of it as well. Plants like okra, dill, mustard, chard and horseradish. What the heck is an okra? Something that mamaw and mom put in vegetable soup and pickled, that’s what.
Dad also had his failures, but they were few and far between, except for two crops. Watermelon and peanuts. He tried them many times, but always to disappointing results compared to the rich bottomland results he knew as a boy.
The watermelons turned out the size of grapefruit and he would barely get enough peanuts to put in a box of Crackerjacks. I remember him dumping bags of sand in the peanut rows to loosen up that clay, but nothing seemed to help.
Once all of this was in the ground it was a daily grind to go to the garden and hoe each row for weeds, pull the horn worms off the tomatoes and dust the cabbage and broccoli to keep the cabbage worms off of them.
In the driest parts of the summer he would haul water over in 5 gallon army jerry cans and dole the precious water out like it was gold to each plant. If I got sloppy with the hoe or water dipper I got chewed out, so I learned quickly that our food was serious business and to be respected.
As veggies grew to a pickable size there was a continuous flow of them while in season. Every night for dinner there was a bowl of cucumbers and onion slices in vinegar water, a plate of sliced tomatoes and another dish of small table onions and radishes.
This was in addition to the ever present giant green Tupperware bowl salad of fresh lettuce, tomatoes, cukes, radishes and whatever else was good that day. You could have any flavor Italian dressing you wanted…and this was always already mixed in… kids couldn’t be trusted to dole out their own.
Once the crops started coming in in large numbers mom was soon overloaded with all the work involved with canning and freezing all that produce. Stuff piled up in the kitchen everywhere: hundreds of pint and quart Ball-Mason and Kerr jars, torn paper sacks full of jar rings and lids, pressure cookers and giant pots for cooking and blanching, paraffin and pectin for the jelly jars…it happened every summer.
Tomatoes were probably the king crop…dad would bring home bushels and bushels of them, so many we ate them like apples with one of those big silver salt shakers.
They would soon be covered with zillions of gnats, driving everyone crazy. The ‘maters were processed whole, turned into sauce or paste and fried up green before they turned red and after the frost hit the vines.
They were the foundation of the ever-present kid food: elbow macaroni with tomato sauce and hamburger that seemed to be served every other day.
Greenbeans were probably second in stature…they accompanied almost every meal during the winter from the jars mom put up. It was a typical chore in the summer to be sitting watching TV and snapping beans in the big Tupperware bowls. If they had runners you’d have to have a paring knife to slice the end enough to pull the runner off and then snap them into bite size pieces.
Green beans were canned and also frozen in quart freezer bags. Once you had a big bowl or two they would be dumped into the big blanching pot for a quick dunk then either put into the freezer bags or jarred up to put in the pressure cooker. It was a common and reassuring sound to hear that pressure cooker relief valve dancing around all day long…it meant we would be eating that winter.
While I liked green beans, especially with a hunk of bacon or pork in them, I liked other types of beans as well…kidney beans meant big pots of chili, so I wanted as many jars of these put up as possible. But there were also white beans, lima beans, pinto beans, black beans and so on.
These dry beans were easier to work than snapping green beans: you just ran your thumb up the dry hull and spilled them into your bowl, you didn’t even need to look away from the TV.
A pot of soup beans with a ham bone might have been my dad’s favorite food. He would pour some pepper juice in them from a jar and be in heaven with a big hunk of buttered corn bread.
While I ate them just fine, I was not a fan of sauerkraut and pickling season. As mentioned, I had a negative Pavlovian reaction to the smell of vinegar from mom’s sunburn treatments, still do. And the entire house smelled like vinegar for days when mom processed the dozens and dozens of cabbage heads into Kraut. I still have nightmares about shredding the skin off my knuckles and fingertips from grating the cabbage for kraut.
Cucumbers were turned into every kind of pickle mom could find a recipe for from mamaw or other relatives. Dad provided all the dill and other pickling spices from the garden. Mom then made the cukes into brine pickles, bread and butter pickles, dill pickles, sweet pickles, relish, you name it.
She left them whole, hacked them into spears, sliced them into chips and other ways. Add to this pickled corn and okra, pickled peppers and beets and assorted other pickled vegetables and I tried to stay out of the house as much as possible…to avoid the work as well as the smell. But I did enjoy eating them, except for the beets and sweet pickles…blecht!
With a big family, we always had two freezers down in the basement: one filled with a side of beef and a whole hog from Uncle Chet and Aunt Shirley’s farm, and the other filled with all the frozen produce and store bought stuff. If there was a power outage you were not to open the freezers under penalty of death lest all the food thaw out and spoil.
We also had a pantry room in the basement to serve as a root cellar. It was full of shelving for all the jars of produce, empty jars and canning equipment as well as cool storage for potatoes, onions and squash.
Thinking back on it all, our primary sources of food were relatively unprocessed, but hardly entirely organic. While he did use a lot of manure and composted everything, I remember dad powdering tomato, cabbage and broccoli plants with Sevin, but he probably also used other insecticides to combat the various types of pestilence that descended on his precious plants. Hornworms were the devil…they could chew an entire tomato plant to dust overnight.
You knew when he found one as he would cuss up a storm and graphically squish the daylights out of it. One of my early tasks was to systematically go down each row and check closely for these spawn of satan, but while I was a dead-eye on these vermin I was also prone to putting one or two of them in a jar to see if they turned into moths, which grow quite large.
This of course, was consorting with the enemy in dad’s eyes, after all, he was raised in the tobacco fields of Kentucky where these things took money from the family’s pockets and food from their mouths. His decree was “show no mercy”. After all, it was about feeding his large brood, not feeding the critters.
Whew, that took a while...so?
That long-winded summary is an explanation of how gardening seems to come fairly naturally and makes sense to me, even as I have studiously avoided it over the years for more adventurous pursuits.
Whether by repetition by watching my parents, unconsciously by gradual osmosis, or perhaps there really is a genetic element from so many years of ancestors growing their own food, I somehow know what to do to coax life out of the earth, and it still brings much satisfaction.
As mentioned, I joined a number of Facebook groups having to do with gardening, partly out of boredom, and I have realized just how much I do know by watching the endless hordes of new gardeners failing to get anything to grow and the amazing amount of bad information given out on social media.
Some of this researching and navel gazing over gardening was also caused by not being able to buy seeds and plant starts from the usual suspects this year due to Covid. Everyone seemed to be sold out or on a huge delay by people doing the same thing I was.
Wanting to get plants going sooner rather than later, I bought some seeds on Amazon. One set of seeds was supposed to be for an entire garden of 20 different vegetables for $18.00. Open-pollinated, heirloom, non-GMO…such a deal!.
I was not thinking for a moment that every Amazon seed pack I got would come from China. Most of these arrived with all the information written in Chinese, or with no information at all. Some I still have not received, even though I paid for them.
Not to be thwarted, I got out my trusty iPhone and Google translate app to decipher this mess. Some of them were straight forward translations:
Other translations were a bit more concerning…I decided maybe I wouldn’t plant this one:
Others intrigued me, but not enough to plant them…at least not yet:
In any case I ordered them all in March and April and they didn’t start showing up until late May. I was pretty sure my season was a bust until a friend (thanks Terri P!) offered up some tomato, pepper and pumpkin starts. I hastily accepted and I’m very grateful. I did plant a bunch of starts from the Chinese seeds though, as I didn’t have many options at the time.
Meanwhile, among many other Covid projects, I had wanted to build some new raised beds for several years. The ones I had were rotting out and it so happened I had a pile of cedar 2×14’s that have sat unused since I decided on a gazebo rather than a pergola for my deck.
It took no time at all to cobble 4 big raised beds together, but getting them filled with soil took over a month for delivery due to Covid. I ordered the topsoil/mushroom compost mix and waited. And waited.
I wasted no time in planting my starts once I filled the beds up.
While gardening is, at its most basic, a straight forward and relatively simple endeavor, toss seeds in dirt, water, weed…I am a nerd at heart and need to reach the Nth degree with most things I do. I read voraciously on whatever subject or glittery object has caught my eye…every single time.
So where dad just piled everything in a heap, called it compost and turned it once in a while, I bought one of those “fancy” compost tumblers to keep the critters away from my inviting kitchen scraps and recycled Liam’s old playpens into compost bins. Very colorful.
But that wasn’t enough of course…if I’m going to do it I’m jumping in with both feet. These tomatoes are going to cost $100 a pound by the time I’m through.
So I also bought soil test kits, PH test meter, watering timers, more soaker hoses, hose manifolds and splitters. Doing my part to support Amazon, FedEX, UPS and the Postal Service.
I have long looked at yard work and gardening simply as necessary work, something you just do to maintain your property or get some better tasting produce, or because that’s “just what our family does”…but the situation this year has given me the time, wanted or not, to get back to my gardening roots and again find enjoyment from simply watching all of it grow.
I have never bothered to take photos of my garden in the past, and neither did my parents. It was just part of life. It seems crazy to me that so much of my parents time was devoted to growing things, and there is so little record of it other than these memories.
So snapping photos of my efforts along the way to serve as a record of what happened for next year has been a bonus…it’s pretty cool to look back and watch it all come together and compare then and now pics. Maybe it will serve as motivation for next season when this pandemic is over and life returns to “normal”…whatever that might look like. If nothing else I have done more than my part to feed the bees and squirrels.