The soil of my childhood home consisted of rich black dirt. Yellow and gray clay lay under the dirt, as I found along the banks of the creek. The topsoil was fertile, capable of supporting a wide variety of fruits and vegetables.
My grandparents, my parents, and my uncle and aunt and cousins lived in three houses on three acres of land. Each household owned part of the land, and the property lines were known to all of us. All three households cultivated land in the center of the three acres. Although it looked like one garden, each household planted and tended and harvested from its own part of the land, according to the property lines.
Standing in my back yard, I would see the right side of the garden with a flower bed in front and vegetables behind the flowers. To the left were two grapevines, as old as the house. Behind the grapevines was a bed of strawberries and then some more vegetables. Further left, toward the creek, was an orchard. There were two apple trees, a pear tree, and a cherry tree. The cherries from the orchard were sour, not good for eating raw, but good for pies and jellies. The orchard also had a bed of rhubarb and some bushes which produced currants, gooseberries, and blueberries.
Late in the winter my father would start some tomato plants and pepper plants. These he would keep sheltered until after the last frost. By the time those plants were moved into the garden, rows of seeds were being planted for other vegetables. He would plant lettuce, peas, beans (green, yellow, and lima), carrots, beets, parsnips, and onions—usually one row of each vegetable. He would also plant several short rows of sweet corn, because the corn would not pollinate well if it was planted in one long row. He would plant small beds of zucchini, cucumbers, and sometimes pumpkins. The pumpkins were a particular challenge, because they would trail in various directions all over the garden, so we never knew where the actual pumpkins might ripen. There was also a bed of asparagus that renewed itself every spring.
Needless to say, weeds also thrived in our fertile soil, so pulling weeds was a task we all shared. It’s not enough to pick weeds—if you leave the roots in the soil, they will grow again, stronger than before. When pulling weeds, though, one must be careful not to harm the desired plants. Some vegetables were hardier than others; cucumbers, I remember, were one of the most fragile of garden plants. They would seem to wither if someone merely looked at them the wrong way.
I did not enjoy pulling weeds, but as my father and mother both said, “It has to be done.” When the three of us worked together on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, we would usually have a transistor radio in the garden with us, tuned to the baseball game. From experience, I learned the seasons of different fruits and vegetables: asparagus and peas in the spring, before the heat of the summer; strawberries in June; sweet corn in August; sun-ripened apples and grapes in autumn. I remember snacking on an apple and some grapes on many a weekend afternoon in the fall while I was playing in the back yard.
The benefit of a garden is, of course, fresh fruits and vegetables. The family also froze or canned fruits and vegetables for other times of the year. Nothing beats fresh vegetables from one’s own garden; I still cannot stomach canned peas. When we were to have corn on the cob for supper, my father insisted that the water must be heating to a boil on the stove before the corn was picked and the husks removed. The hottest and most humid days of August were always the days that corn was harvested for freezing. My mother would have large pots of water boiling on the stove as we husked the corn—and we had no air conditioning. All of us were dripping with sweat. The corn would be boiled briefly; then the kernels would be cut from the cobs and bagged and boxed for the freezer.
My parents were frugal, and we often continued to eat vegetables that had passed their peak of freshness. I remember stringy asparagus, tough and wrinkled lima beans, and woody parsnips. I remember my mother cutting a five pound zucchini in half, removing the seeds, and stuffing it with a meatloaf. But I particularly remember all the homemade foods: pies, jellies, tomato juice and grape juice, tomatoes left on the vine until they were red and ready to eat; and zucchini bread. I remember shelling peas so they could be warmed in a little butter and served with supper. I remember seeing tall yellow stalks of corn standing upright in the first snow at the end of autumn. J.