Survival in Tough Times, Traditional schools are out for the summer, but this one’s just getting started
Here along the 40th parallel in North America the gardeners have gone to work. There have been quite a number out there for a few weeks already, of course. Those with real greenhouses have taken an impressive lead. Neighbors with a greenhouse brought me zinnias three weeks ago that were already blooming. First week of June and they had blooming zinnias! I think I need a new word. How about impressbarrassment? Or how about I just get to work on that greenhouse idea I had for next year? At any rate, after they left, I set the zinnias out next to my row of zinnias that are one inch tall. They like being out of the little grow cells and in the dirt.
All over my region now the new gardens have been freshly tilled, planted, and the first cultivation has begun
It has turned dry for a few days, so that means those of us without greenhouses can see clear to get the garden tilled. It’s a little later than we’d like, actually. We had a wet spring. In our clay soil it doesn’t do to work when it’s wet. Turning wet clay soil gives hard clods. After much research, I’ve adopted the idea that the best way to improve clay soil is to pour the organic matter to it and get the worms working. That’s happening every day now.
All over my region now the new gardens have been freshly tilled, planted, and the first cultivation has begun. In traditional, old timey gardens like the one above, rows are wide and crops are traditional. In the left side foreground, there are sweet potatoes, already hilled up as they should be. The hills will get taller until the plants bloom. The more of the stem that is buried before bloom, the more sweet potatoes there will be. They know what they’re doing. The next two rows are sweet corn, well up and advanced, and the next two rows have been planted but are not up yet. My guess is that will be two more rows of sweet corn, but time will tell. The seed has been sown with a push-time mechanical planter, and the footprints show beside the last planted row. Further to the right there are tire tracks. The width of the seed bed strips tells me this was tilled with a tractor-mounted rototiller. Before last year’s garden, the owner had drain tiles installed at right angles to the rows you see. They drain to the right, which is very slightly down hill. They’re about 25’ apart. This is clay soil, but on relatively high ground in this hilly area.
This garden belongs to a couple in their 80s. These folks remember the end of World War II. I’ve only been watching them for a few years, but I’d bet this is the kind of garden their folks had going clear back to the 1900s and before. It’s the way my grandparents laid out their gardens. A week ago when I went by in the morning they were both over on the right side where the posts had been left in place from last year. They were probably planting beans and peas. I didn’t see them for a couple of days, then on Friday morning, before the heat became oppressive, I saw her out by herself. She was working toward the end of the sweet potato row, bent over, carefully cultivating seeds that had just sprouted. She was holding the cultivating tool, probably a gooseneck hoe, up close so as to avoid damage to the tiny seedlings. It’s mostly unseen in this photo, but there’s electric fence all round the plot. As I drive by, the rhythmic snap of the fencer comes across on my AM radio. If you’ve ever brushed the hot wire of an electric fence, you’ll know the sensation that will surprise the deer about 2 AM.
That’s the Heartland for you
I stopped last year and introduced myself as a neighbor. I thanked them for their work, and told them how much I enjoy their garden every time I drive by. This past week I slowed down and stopped. She slowly straightened up and turned toward me. I waved and shouted that the garden looked great. She smiled and waved a thank you, and turned back to her work. That’s the Heartland for you. She doesn’t have to do that. We have commercial vegetable farms nearby. A fine grocery store with excellent produce is six minutes away. No one made her go out before the sweltering heat moves in for the day. She does it because she loves it and because she knows anything that comes out of her garden is better than anything from a store. She does it because it’s what folks in the Heartland do. She remembers doing this when she was a little girl, perhaps when her appreciation for it was still building, and I’d bet she remembers helping her mother fix supper and remembers learning how to tend the steam canner to preserve bushels of green beans for the winter. There were more bushels of tomatoes, easier to preserve in the water bath canner, in those days, too. Green beans, tomatoes, sweet corn, and potatoes were the primary staples in nearly every garden back in the day. I’ll be watching for those in the weeks ahead.
And by the way, when she resumed her work she moved her oxygen bottle down the row a bit first, then leaned over to her task. There are fewer people with her dedication than there used to be, but we can hope that more people will be inspired by their example.
Talk to the gardeners
Not everyone goes in for a big garden. In the tradition of World War II victory gardens, there will always be space for small garden plots in nearly every yard, large or small. The little plot above in behind a garage in a little-used alley in a small Heartland town in Henry County, Indiana. It’s the same county where my grandparents taught me to love gardening and homesteading. This garden is different. Notice the rain barrel over in the corner underneath the eave. There are ten tomato plants in a | * * * * * | pattern, surrounding three zucchini plants. Guarding everything are marigolds, regarded by organic gardeners everywhere as a useful deterrent for insect pests. This small plot will need cultivation or mulching to keep the weeds down. This time of year it looks like clear sailing, but the tares have their own plans. They’ll be looking for ways to sneak in, hiding in neglected places and growing like weeds after a little rain.
Be aware of what’s going on where you live. Talk to the gardeners. They’re humble folk, and they carry a great many lessons about keeping a garden tucked away in their memories. Pay attention. We can all learn much by watching the people who work hard as unpaid volunteers in their own gardens. Don’t worry. Their labors will be repaid many times over in the weeks ahead, but the payment won’t be a credit card transaction.
In the weeks ahead we will learn who keeps up with the work and neglects it for just a few days too many. Keep taking notes. Traditional schools are out for the summer, but this one’s just getting started.
Dr. Bruce Smith (Inkwell, Hearth and Plow) is a retired professor of history and a lifelong observer of politics and world events. He holds degrees from Indiana University and the University of Notre Dame. In addition to writing, he works as a caretaker and handyman. His non-fiction book The War Comes to Plum Street, about daily life in the 1930s and during World War II, may be ordered from Indiana University Press.