Home gardening usually starts in May, unless the weather doesn’t allow. My grandmother never planted until the first of June regardless of the weather and she had a splendid garden.
I was raised in northern Minnesota near a small town called Swatara, a town once considered for the experimental city under a dome (later scrapped because of funding.) Gardening season there was short.
Purchased vegetables and fruit were something I had no knowledge of. We raised all our vegetables and picked wild our fruit. Vegetables of every kind, potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, peas, beans, beets, rutabagas, lettuce, cabbages, etc., even parsnips, which I hated.
Canning was done in glass jars by the hundreds. Zinc jar lids had rubber bands designed to fit the grooves in the rim of the jar. We always re-used the zinc covers and jars and sometimes even the rubber rings. These were put in a copper boiler and boiled forever, I thought, before they were considered of keeping quality. I thought it was forever because I had to keep the stove stoked with wood and the water boiling.
Mother starting tomato seeds in small metal cans, from where I don’t know. She saved them from year to year. No lights or heating mats, only a sunny window did the trick. The soil there was acid and not very good, but Dad had added loads of composted manure enriching the gardens.
Mother planted and my brother and I weeded, except for the potatoes; it was too big a plot. We had a tiny cultivator for the garden which Dad hitched to Pat, a huge Palomino horse of unknown heritage. He was the only horse that would walk exactly between the rows pulling the cultivator. When I was little I got to ride on his big yellow back.
We raised a lot of potatoes, our main vegetable. We grew enough to feed us, our pig and for planting the next year. The huge pile of potatoes was put in a bin in our cellar. This worked well until spring when some of them started decaying. Have you ever seen or smelled a rotten potato? Very grossly gross.
My mother and I had to sort them by picking the good ones out of the mess for planting and using the rest of the summer. This was truly, the worst time of my childhood, sorting potatoes. We then cut the growing eyes out of the tubers into a large wire egg basket. These would be replanted.
Of course, there were potato bugs to be picked from the vines. This wasn’t quite so bad as I just picked the adult bugs and left the young which were soft and slimy. Mother didn’t know.
We always planted corn by hand with a contraption that held about a quart of kernels and you walked along jabbing it into the ground every foot or so, squeeze the handles together to drop the seeds. The corn was used for silage and canning. I never knew there was anything such as sweet corn. We always ate field corn.
My parents made me eat the vegetables on my plate even if they weren’t always so palatable. I could not leave the table until they were gone. I still don’t care for many vegetables, with the exception of lettuce and tomatoes.
I remember one time a hobo came to our place, probably jumped off a train that ran nearby. He asked for something to eat and Mother made him the best plate, only he had to eat it outside under a tree. We had limited lettuce and I loved it and she gave him a big helping which left less for the rest of us. I remember watching him eat, from afar as we were not allowed to go near him and thinking how lucky he was to get all that lettuce.
We also had fruit, raspberries, blueberries, Juneberries and plums and always plenty of them. Mother canned these also and we had special little jars filled with fruit for school. Sometimes we had apples that grandmother sent. They were tiny, grainy bites called strawberry crabs and I hated them. I’d give mine to kids in school that never had fruit.
We had lots of blueberries and when Mother had canned all she wanted, we were allowed to sell the balance and keep the money. We took them out to the highway, made a sign and sold them for 12 cents a quart. One day we had competition across the highway so we lowered our price to 10 cents. Sold them all and went home. The other kids, classmates, weren’t even mad at us. I guess they sold all theirs after we left.
Betty Winscher is a Master Gardener Emeritus and can be reached at (320) 584-8077 or via e-mail at [email protected]