Saturday, June 14, 2014

Growing What You Can Is Part of Being Crunchy

I grew up in the country in the generation between self-sustaining and completely unable to raise food, one of the baby boomers whose world was transformed by corporate farms, mega stores, and eventually the Internet.

Despite the availability of virtually anything a person would want to eat in a wide range of stores, my grandmothers and mother always raised and put back virtually all the vegetables their families consumed in a year's time.

My paternal grandpa slaughtered a steer each fall, dividing it with his family and filling all our freezers with organic, pasture fed angus, long before it was the meat to eat. My paternal grandmother had milk cows and made real butter and cottage cheese and supplied us with the skim milk we drank (our vitamin D was entirely from the sun). Many falls there was also a pig, converted into hams and sausage in Granny's basement.

Ma's garden boasted towering rows of sweet corn where we could hide on hot summer days and there was always a pot of green beans ready to eat at someone's house. She made mashed potatoes with condensed milk and lots of real butter. They didn't have livestock, but I remember how sad she was when she was no longer physically able to put out a garden. She was probably in or near her 80s.

We ate Sunday dinner at Granny's and before we went home she always loaded us down with food. In the summer, that meant a trip to the garden with a knife and a paper sack -- fresh tomatoes, corn, whatever there was to gather. In the winter, it was out to the stone cellar for potatoes, or apples, or even a wilting cabbage.

My childhood memories include organic pest control (picking potato bug and Japanese beetles off of plants and drowning them in pop bottles) and harvest from shelling peas (I still love raw sweet peas) and shelly beans (pintos, kidneys, Octobers), to stringing green beans and gorging on blanched corn cut from the cob for freezing (I wasn't allowed a knife). I was often the third generation on hand, helping out at a grandmother's home where there was real work, or at our house with Ma or Granny on hand to help my mom.

Among all the things both of my grandmothers left when they died, they left food: cans of tomatoes and green beans lining pantry shelves, bags of fruit and cartons of freezer jam packed away in the dark cold of basement freezers. They were still prepared to feed a family, to take care of themselves and their own.

My mom's garden is a treasure to behold. While my grandpas always helped with the garden preparation, our home garden was her work. I do remember my father helping dig potatoes. It must have been extenuating circumstances, because on that instance we children were also on hand, raking the turned potatoes from the ground to be collected, dried and stored. Usually, however, the garden from tilling to harvest was her domain and I remember her wrestling her big monster of a tiller until I was in my teens (which given her early motherhood put her in her 30s).

At that point I had read an article about raised bed gardening and convinced her to change her garden method. Don't be too horrified, but we used chestnut rails, which were still plentiful in the 1970s, to put her garden in beds. Those timbers have long ago been replaced, but her garden is still in beds and her tilling days behind her. Ironically, my soil is still being tilled and enriched although I dream of the time when my small garden plot will also be the easier to maintain beds.

When I first had a home of my own, one of the things I had to have was a garden. I remember the shelf and small chest freezer that I added in my mobile home to put back my own food. Although never on the scale of my grandmothers and mother, it was something I always did until I moved to North Carolina and my yard was too hard, the soil too poor, and my time too limited for a garden.

Part of my life changes in the last five years has included talking one of the neighboring tobacco farmers into plowing a section of my back yard and beginning the difficult task of turning red Carolina clay into something plants will grow in. Lots of composting and tilling involved and it's still a hit or miss thing depending on the weather and whims of the season -- there was nothing to harvest last year but butternut squash, which volunteered and didn't mind the wet summer.

I've been proud this year to see my daughter with her interest in crunchy living erect a small raised bed in the sunny side yard at her home and begin growing a few vegetables. My granddaughters have been fascinated by the process at her house and my own, "helping" with planting and eyeing the growing plants although their enthusiasm for the early crops (radishes and lettuce) has been lacking. E2 especially likes to get her hands in the dirt and may be the most promising future gardener, but we'll see.

I'm sad to realize that my daughter didn't grow up steeped in home gardening like I did because the move to N.C. came at the same time she would have started paying attention to such things. Still I'm glad that she's beginning while I'm still around to advise her on staking peas and thinning carrots, when to harvest radishes and lettuce, not to worry that first blooms don't produce tomatoes and squash. I'm hoping for a good growing season so we can "work up" tomatoes and other foods together and put them back. And I'm aware that not only her generation, but much of my own has already lost all that knowledge that was once part of our heritage and now must be gleaned from books and the Internet.

I want my granddaughters to begin to have those memories of Mommy and Ma working together to save the food they've grown, the magic of pulling a can of red tomatoes off the shelf, a package of yellow corn or green peppers from the freezer, or a potato from a cold bin in the basement, and remembering the plant that it grew on, the labor and love that went into having it as part of a meal.

In our busy world where we've lost the ability to take care of ourselves, from beauty and cleaning products to the food we eat, this is a lesson we need to relearn. Whatever land we have doesn't need to be about zero turn mowers and paying a crew to come in and keep it pretty so we can drive to the store and buy everything we need, because we work all the time and have money for those things. Even if it's just a four by four plot, our land should be growing things that are better for us than the food we can get at a grocer's.

More importantly, our children need to know where food comes from and how it comes to our tables, because we don't know what the future holds and we may not always be a short drive and a good paycheck away from everything we need and want.


  1. You had me at "organic pest control"--my first smile of the day!

    1. Any time I can bring a smile, it makes me smile as well.

  2. Wonderful post!
    Heehee! We paid our kids a nickel a bug. Those were the cleanest plants ever!

    1. I don't think we ever got paid! Ruined a lot of pop bottles though. YUCK!. Just noticed Japanese beetles on the new cherry trees and grape vines so I may have to try a cash incentive and see what the girls can do!