Gardening was a big part of life once we moved to the homestead. We first dug up a large patch of twitch grass down in the hollow near the dip well, where our landlord had told us a garden had been before. It made sense to have a garden near a water source, but we didn’t have a dog at that time and it was quite far from the house. The groundhogs soon made gardening there impossible.
The next year we sectioned a strip of the alfalfa field along the side of the house. Again there was the back-breaking work of turning of the soil and pulling out the twitch grass and alfalfa but we managed a sizeable plot of neat rows, and eventually borrowed a rototiller to get the soil nicely turned.
I learned a lot working at Gerber’s Nursery for a few seasons and eventually wanted to start my own seedlings. It’s a joyous day, in the middle of a long winter, living a mile back, sometimes snowed in for 3 or 4 days, when the seed catalogues arrive in the mail and with them the promise of spring. We poured over the descriptions, examined pictures, carefully read hardiness tables and debated which variety of squashes to get, which tomatoes were hardy and low acid. Should we try the Japanese eggplant? How about tomatillos?
Because we never used the front door of the house, and there was a sizeable wooden stoop there we decided to build a greenhouse around it. I started seedlings there for the rest of the years we lived at the farm. We first put together a greenhouse out of old salvaged windows, and soon constructed something larger and more substantial.
It was fun to start the flats, watch seedlings sprout, to nurture and tend them in the winter sun. We’d bring the long shelves with the flats on them into the house every evening and set them out again in the day. The solar heat was a treat and it kept you focused on the spring that was surely to come and broke the monotony that set in during the long winter months. I always ended up buying some plants of course, as the tomatoes in the garden centers were always so much bigger than the ones I started, but it was great to have peppers, cabbages, broccoli, cauliflowers, herbs and flowers all started ahead of time.
Once we had the goats we had plenty of fertilizer to build up the garden soil with. It didn’t take many years to have an amazing, fruitful garden, although disaster could strike at any time: late frosts, cutworms, groundhogs, hail. One year I lost all our young transplants to grasshoppers. They were an absolute a plague that year. You couldn’t walk out of the house and not raise up a cloud of the beasts.
I remember (as do others) taking an order at the restaurant where I worked when I felt something pinching around my midriff. I excused myself and went into the servery. Something was moving and biting at my waist and I was starting to panic. I lifted the voluminous skirt I was wearing and out jumped a grasshopper. I was cursing and stomping trying to catch the damn thing before it jumped out into the dining room while the other girls roared with laughter.
Cutworms were another plague that happily (I assume) munched through all the tender stalks of my newly planted seedlings. They’d wrapped themselves around the plant stalk, just below the surface of the soil and as their name implies cut the stalk in two. You’d go out to inspect the garden in the morning and the little tender broccoli, cauliflower or cabbage seedlings would be lying there like felled timber. We learned to go out early and scratch the surface of the soil around each plant to find them; big, fat, white grubs and at first, I’d drop them into a container and take them over for the chickens to eat. Later I got over my squeamishness and was so annoyed at their destruction that I happily squished them dead. Sorry chickens. We soon learned to save every cardboard roll from the toilet paper and the next year every seedling that went into the ground had a collar of cardboard around it, above and below ground so those nasty cutworms could not chew through the stems. Gardening was rewarding, but it certainly was a lot of work.