Sometimes my mind drifts back 75 or 80 years ago, when life was a little different than now. But the opportunities to meaningfully interact with nature are still available today, if we choose to go there. Let me tell you about my first garden.
When I turned six years-old in November, I decided that I wanted a garden, and Dad and I just went out into the yard and he pointed to a spot and said that it was sunny, the drainage wasn’t too bad and it was all mine. The drainage advice was a big deal because our neighborhood had once been part of the floor of a former glacial lake and was prone to turning back into a swamp with little provocation.
When spring arrived, my first problem was that I didn’t weigh enough to push the shovel into the heavy soil and Dad had to rescue me. He only turned over a smaller area than I had envisioned, with the advice to keep it smaller and more manageable my first year. But I also wanted to grow something big and noteworthy, and was hoarding a handful of large seeds of the blue hubbard squash, given to me by a neighbor.
To deal with the lowland soils I built “hills” for the squash and a few other species, and had learned from Grandpa that really big squash grew on plants from which most of the other flowers had been removed. I also did the Native American technology of burying a small fish under each hill. By midsummer the squash vines had taken over much of the garden and were running out across the yard. Dad just laughed and mowed around them.
When early autumn arrived, I had about two dozen fruits awaiting harvest ranging in size from large to huge. One day Mom asked how I planned to cook and serve all that squash. This was news to me because I had assumed that cooking was her department. But she explained that growing the garden was only part of the experience. That’s when I learned that pumpkin pie and squash pie were essentially the same, and how to make pie dough by cutting lard into flour. The hard outer shell of the first one I prepared defeated my attempts with my pocket knife and Dad had to rescue me again. He scrubbed the shingling hatchet and then used it to chop the squash into thick yellow bricks.
We all soon tired of eating squash and I wound up stashing some of them in the crawl space beneath the house where they wouldn’t freeze. And gave away others to relatives and neighbors.
My gardening enthusiasm continued into winter and I began eyeing up the window in Mom’s laundry room, which was an attached shed that was cool most days and warm on laundry day. Dad approved me widening the windowsill with a board, and I made an indoor flower box from some thin boards. It was not watertight and Mom didn’t want dirty water dripping onto her clean floor, so I improvised an artificial soil by shredding some old sponges and toweling. I had saved morning glory seed from a neighbors trellis, but it wouldn’t sprout until Aunt Irene told me that the seed coat was impermeable and needed to be nicked or abraded first. Once I had seedlings, I made a little trellis from slender sticks and carpet thread, watered the plants with a dilute fertilizer and had a few flowers later that winter.
From this early encouragement, I later did a book report on Luther Burbank, made a pressed leaf collection, drew vines for art class and generally included plants in my school assignments. At home I went onto seed saving, cold frames, grafting, layering and planting trees. I benefitted from some early gardening mentoring, and I encourage you to help a kid get started on their first garden adventure.