I can close my eyes and remember the smell of fried onions and peppers
atop venison sausage in the cast iron skillet on an antique white stove in the kitchen.
This was a cost-free meal, a meal provided by the fruits of my father’s labor. The
sausage was provided by my father, who would spend countless hours in the woods trying
to fill our icebox for the long winter ahead. The onions, peppers and herbs that seasoned
the meat all came from the garden behind our trailer. We try to be as self-sustainable
as possible. My family has done this for generations.
I remember helping my father in the garden over the summers growing up. We put in a lot of long hours, but the reward when harvested was very self-gratifying. The excitement of having my own garden and being able to teach my children how to do as I was taught gave me a sense of pride. I tilled the garden, just like my father did. I protected the garden from the local critter population by wrapping a 3-foot varmint fence around it; this would discourage the rabbits and woodchuck from turning the garden into their personal salad bar. We planted broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, squash, zucchini and peppers. The sun beat down on us for hours as we filled holes with little dark green plants only a few inches tall. I couldn’t wait until these little green plants transform into a jungle of thick green vegetation being pulled to the ground by big healthy vegetables.
As the season progressed, I realized I kind of rushed into things while planting. The thin green tops of the carrots were only a few inches tall at the end of the season. I didn’t realize how aggressive the squash and the zucchini were going to be; they took over most of our garden. Most of the heads of the broccoli turned to seed. The peppers didn’t resemble the ones I remember picking as a kid; these were puny, the size of golf balls. My tomato plants had lots of branches and not many tomatoes. My neighbor’s tomatoes were huge. I screwed up somewhere! I didn’t even come close to getting what my father and grandfather used to. I made excuses in hopes of repairing my wounded ego. Deep down inside, I knew it was what I did or didn’t do that caused my garden to fail. I planned on canning what I grew, but instead, I did the dreaded walk of shame to the farmers market. How embarrassing. What a disaster. I was so upset with myself. It was apparent I didn’t know what I was doing, but the people at the market did. I killed two birds with one stone. I bought the vegetables I needed to can and picked the brains of a few farmers about tips and where I went horribly wrong. In all actuality, the walk of shame turned out to be the glimmer of light for my garden the following season.
I had plenty of time to read about gardening over the harsh winter months. I researched the tips the farmers gave me, and I realized where I went wrong. Everywhere; I did just about everything wrong. I planted everything way too close, I didn’t fertilize, I planted the wrong vegetables next to each other and I didn’t pick up on Mother Nature’s hints that I should be doing something different. For example, the leaves wilting or drooping from a lack or too much water, and how to combat my growing insect problem. One thing was for sure: if I planned on making my own salsa, sauce, and pickles that I have grown to love over the years, I better make some changes. The last thing I wanted to experience was the shame and embarrassment I felt the previous season.
After the snow and frigid winds were replaced by soft grass and warm breezes, it was time to put all the information I had gathered into play; my first plan of action was to break out the tiller. I tore through the dark green carpet of grass with ease. The garden had to double in size to make room for all the plants I wanted to grow. In addition to expanding the garden, I needed to feed the soil and add a considerable amount of sand to aid in drainage. As I mixed the manure and earth together, I imagined my layout and how we were going to set up the garden. I formed 6 long mounds of dirt stretching almost the length of the garden; I kept the other 10 feet for a carrot patch. I failed miserably last time; I hoped by adding all that sand I could get some carrots this year. I decided to build a trellis for some beans on the right side; on the other side, I had mounds of dirt I planted my basil in. Now that all the grunt work was over, I was ready to pick out some plants.
We were able to get all the plants I had on my list from a local nursery. I planted long rows of peppers and tomatoes. At the foot of the varmint fence were the beans and cucumbers; the carrot rows were on the opposite end. The beans are what I looked forward to the most. I always loved eating my grandmother’s dilly beans, a staple at all family functions, and the kids would always devour them, so I planted purple and green beans. I decided to grow Giant German tomatoes after I tasted my neighbor’s salsa last year. He had tomatoes the size of softballs with little effort at all. To make a good sauce base, you need fresh herbs, and a lot of them, so I grew herbs at the end of our garden. The placement was perfect. The herb farmer told me I would have better results if I planted in the shade. My basil, rosemary, and cilantro are planted in the canopy of an old walnut tree. I wanted to make some garlic dill pickles, so I added cucumbers to my growing list of plants. When I was a child I visited my granddaddy’s farm in Theresa. He would plant cucumbers on the fence of the cow pasture. The vines danced across the fence and bore fruit we picked like apples.
My daughter and fiancé planted the herb garden while enjoying the shelter of the shade. We all spent a good amount of time in the garden throughout the long hot season, watering, weeding, pruning, and rectifying the mistakes from the previous season. The results were night and day from the beginning to the end. The pepper plants were about three feet tall with long, thick chilies that wrapped around the green stalk of the plants; the bell peppers were almost the size of softballs. I ended up canning 15 jars of pickled peppers and put the rest towards the salsa and sauce. The tomato plants stretched nearly 6 feet and formed a thick wall of dark green leaves littered with massive red tomatoes; we harvested at least 150 tomatoes that went toward the 50 jars of salsa and 40 jars of sauce. The fence was a solid green barrier separating the yard and the garden that bore cucumbers and purple and green beans. The cucumbers hung just like on my grandfather’s cow fence as I remembered. I had more beans than I knew what to do with. I ended up with 30 jars of dilly beans and 20 jars of garlic dill pickles. When we pulled the carrots, they were just like the ones at the market, meaning an average of 8 inches. We canned 25 jars of dill and sweet carrots. We canned so much I had to build another shelf in the basement. I had a great feeling of accomplishment for the results of our hard work this year. We will have food on our shelves all year long.
Now that my children are old enough to work beside me in the garden every spring, I look forward to teaching them all that I have been taught and all the priceless knowledge I have learned through countless hours of reading and listening to the advice of my peers.