As we come into mid-summer, I think of many past summers, especially those spent in childhood. Always there was the garden, sometimes several gardens, that needed thinning, weeding, and watering. My mother spent many hours gardening, and she got me to help with the many chores surrounding this activity. Sometimes I enjoyed it, but many times it was boring and hot. Such was the case when it came time to thin the carrots or weed the flower beds. I think I was most bored if I had to be out there alone, as it was much more enjoyable with Mother there with me.
Grandpa Young had been a farmer most of his adult life. His was a dairy farm, and my mother regaled me with stories of the hard work of dairy-farming in the 1920s and 1930s. Everything at that time had to be done by hand or with the aid of work horses. Whether it was haying or hauling cans of milk to the dairy processing, it was a horse-drawn cart in summer and a sleigh in winter.
Dairy farmers also grew all their own crops of vegetables and fruits, and Grandpa had a fruit orchard. Consequently, my mother learned about gardening, as well as canning and preserving food, from necessity. Many times she told me about working in the kitchen, feeding five brothers and as many hired hands from a wood burning stove. How hot and uncomfortable that must have been. No wonder she fled the Maine farm as soon as she could and went to New York City. She lived with a brother and sister-in-law for a time and found work in a bakery, then had a bank job where she met my father. This was in Brooklyn, where my father’s family had lived for several generations, as did many of my mother’s family.
However, I digress from the story of the gardens. My favorite times in the garden were the times spent watching and helping my grandfather. The family had moved back to Maine by then, and my grandparents were living with us in a three-room apartment in our big old farmhouse in Cumberland. Grandpa had planted, with the help of my brother and step-Dad, a huge strawberry garden. We also had a vegetable garden and one of annual flowers. When Grandpa planted, he did so with much precision. This was due to his personality and training as a marine engineer, a career he enjoyed early in life while in Brooklyn. (He left that profession due to the dirty and dangerous work and having to be away from home for months at a time.) The way he planted a row of seedlings was this: He pounded a wooden stake at each end of the row, perhaps 20 feet, then strung a cotton string by tieing it to each post.
This way he got a straight line – no crooked or zigzag lines for him. He then put in the seedlings at precisely measured intervals. When he was dealing with grubs (pesky worms), he put small caps of black tar paper around the root ball before putting it into the ground, which kept the grubs away. Everything he did was in this kind of careful, precise way. He explained everything to me as he went along and allowed me to “help.” I was about eight years old I suppose; and he taught me the names of the flowers – calendulars, cosmos, and all the other summer annuals. What an experience for a small child.
Today, far away from Brooklyn and rural Maine, I gaze upon my summer garden with great satisfaction. I have a tiny plot of perennials, thanks to the gardening expertise of my daughter, and a container garden of herbs and tomatoes. Spring is not complete without putting something into the ground, thanks to the memories of my youth and the gardening lessons from my parents and grandparents. Even a small container garden is satisfying, and you can grow just about any vegetable you like. I went with the items I use most in cooking and that did not take up much room. Each morning I open the back door and inspect my handiwork – and I am not bored as I was in my youth. Gardening is fun and endlessly interesting, and it provides sustenance even at a small level. More to the point, I get pleasure from the memories of our little farm in Cumberland, Maine.