I come by my gardening abilities quite naturally. My father grew up on a cranberry farm in Massachusetts, skating on flooded and frozen bogs in the winter and harvesting the tough red fruit in the fall with wooden boxes with teeth on the front that could strip the ripe berries off the bushes.
It was tough work, and the family of five boys and one daughter had a list of daily chores that were expected to be followed without question. My father was expected to be the first son who went to college, and he took the vocation very seriously. As soon as he turned 17, he was off for Boston, where he was a scholarship student at Gordon Theological Seminary and destined to be a preacher of great ability.
The farming background came in handy later in life. When my father took our family to the faraway mountains of southern Virginia, he didn’t know that his ability to till the soil would be so vital a part of his career.
The gypsum mining town of Plasterco, Virginia, existed only to dig the white plaster out of mines sunk into the hills and convert it into wallboard. That wallboard enclosed all of the walls of the new houses springing up everywhere across the country as folks moved off the farms and into the cities to support the great effort to defeat the enemy axis and bring peace to the world once again.
My father, trained as a Baptist minister but never ordained, was at the forefront of the effort to bring America from the farmland to the land of the new deal without forgetting those lessons learned on the farm. He passed on a bit of knowledge and a love of the art of growing as he helped develop the new society.
In very rural Virginia at the end of World War II, the art of farming was not a hobby; it was a necessity. Our little company town required a knowledge of self-sustenance. If you didn’t farm it, you didn’t have it. The company provided the land (a half-acre for our pay grade) and the hard labor to till the soil in the spring. Everything else was up to the individual worker.
We could purchase seed and tools at the company store, and even a few “specialty” items such as canned fruits and ground beef. But everything else we had to either grow or buy. So my father farmed after he finished his daily work as the quality control engineer at the gypsum plant. It was the very end of the great war, and men were beginning to return from overseas, bringing a new level of sophistication and expectation to these once-forgotten hills and “hollers.”
And so we farmed. Digging Irish potatoes to haul to the basement and store in piles of hay near the coal bin. We grew grapes and carrots and string beans and berries and canned them on hot summer afternoons, lining the shelves in that dank basement for our winter sustenance. We made pickles and jam and pickled eggs. We canned the chickens we grew in the henhouse. We helped the neighbors slaughter pigs when it turned cold, for a share in the hogs in the smokehouse. A woman from one of the hollers provided butter weekly, sometimes reeking of the spring onions growing in the pasture.
We either grew it or we didn’t have it. The company store could provide exotic treats like Vienna sausage and lollipops and ice cream, but most everything else either came from the garden or had to be gathered on trips to the big towns over the mountains.
So I learned to garden. I was eating Swiss chard before it became popular, because it grew better than lettuce. My mother, whose cooking was learned at the knee of a good Irish peasant, had a menu that covered every possible way to boil a vegetable, preferably a root vegetable. No fancy seasonings for her. Just hot water, lots of time and a little salt. She knew 40 ways to cook a potato.
Now, I sit on my porch and admire my caladiums nodding in the breeze. Gone are the days when I picked and pickled cucumbers in great gray stone jars. When spring was timed by when the jars of carrots and parsnips were running low. I sometimes yearn for a Big Boy tomato plant or two, and the messy crunch of a hot, ripe tomato or the indelible dye of thick-skinned Concord grapes eaten right off the vine by the kitchen window.
I shall still yearn occasionally for that sense of satisfaction when the last lid on the last jar is tightened and you can see the table covered by the fruits of your harvest, your preserves that will see you through the winter.
But I will continue to tend my little herb patch on the shelf by the kitchen window and purchase my groceries at the local big-box store. I dream of the old days and yearn for that vine-ripened tomato dripping down my chin.
I know I could grow it if I had to. Been there, done that, use the T-shirt for a dustrag. But I still have that itchy green thumb ticked away, just in case.