The Garden

by Henry Swain

Serious vegetable gardeners probably placed their seed orders from the Burpee seed catalogue in January when the snow covered the ground. By now some early seeds have already been sown. A garden has been a ritual with me throughout my lifetime. It all started as a boy during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Indiana was an agricultural state at that time, mostly consisting of farms of 80 to 100 acres. Farmers had a small early garden, mostly for lettuce, onions, and radishes. A larger later garden supplied the summer needs with extra planted for canning for the winter months.

Their gardens and livestock supplied them with enough food so that little cash was required for survival. They also butchered a couple of hogs and had cows for the milk and a few chickens. The housewives would sell extra eggs for cash. This was called “egg money” and was considered discretionary money for her, separate from the household budget.

A similar depression now would leave farmers no better off than the city folks. Farms are now 1,000 acres. The small field fences are long gone. Farmers don’t have time for gardens. They are too busy paying for their $100,000 dollar air-conditioned tractors.

But the garden habit stays with me. I have made peace with the deer and raccoons by having a much smaller garden with a 6 foot high fence. Until a few years ago these scavengers didn’t both my larger garden much. When the raccoons began to pick the ears of corn the night before I planned to harvest them, I knew I had to do something different. I was surprised to discover raccoons were psychic and could read my mind.

Now I have a few tomato plants, two plantings of corn, bell peppers, and a zucchini squash growing safely behind the fence. For five years now the deer and the raccoons haven’t been able make it inside, but I stay apprehensive.

I still have the memories of the large gardens of my youth. One Saturday my brother and I picked 90 quarts of strawberries and hawked them in our small town by going down the street calling out “STRAWberries, STRAWberries.” This would bring the housewives to the front porch to check our prices. We sold them all at two quarts for a quarter.

Dad let us split the money telling us to save it for the Wednesday night double feature movie which cost 15 cents with the coupon from the monthly movie listing flyer. That strawberry money kept us in movies for almost a year.

One of the fonder memories I have of my gardening days was helping Dad make the turnip mound in the fall. One year we had a seven pound turnip about the size of a soccer ball. We would gather all the turnips, cut the tops off, and mound them on a bed of straw. Then enough straw would be placed over them to keep them from freezing. Tarpaper would top off the mound to make it waterproof. Dirt would be shoveled onto the tar paper base to hold it down.

I was designated the duty of digging out the turnips for Sunday dinner. Often I would have to push aside snow to make a flap in the tarpaper to access the turnips. During the coldest weather there would be frost on the turnips sprouts where they had been previously removed. We had put enough straw on the mound to prevent the turnips from freezing. Turnips are a pretty hardy vegetable.

I don’t miss having to milk our Jersey cow. Homogenized milk tastes better then skimmed milk. I do miss the rich cream, which my mother used to make cottage cheese. Her cottage cheese gathered a reputation locally and she frequently sold it to friends for special occasions.

All those chores I had to do during the Great Depression don’t seem quite as arduous as I remember 70 years later. That’s an advantage memories have. They put a veil of mist between now and then, making those hated chores seem a beneficial part of my growing up.

I do very little weeding now in my garden. After the crop comes up I place newspapers between the rows to smother the weeds. In the fall I take out the tomato cages and pull up the remaining vines. I till under the disintegrating newspapers. They add to the soil texture and give the worms something to read during the winter. There is nothing that helps a spring garden more than a extended family of well informed worms.