(Adapted from my “Prescription for Adventure” column in the
April/May 2023 Kansas Country Register.)
The flat wagon jolted along the dirt road as it returned from the cornfield. I was a preschooler, surrounded by my sister, mother, grandmother, aunt and uncle, and cousin. The sun beat down on my face, and my heart was warmed by feeling a part of something bigger than myself – a family group and a farming heritage. Occasionally, a caterpillar squirmed out of a husk and frightened me. Soon after we arrived at the farmhouse, the women-folk sharpened their knives and cut the kernels off the cobs to package and freeze. I stood back, too young to help, yet fascinated.
My mother had grown up with edible crops in the field, along with a garden by the stock tank that yielded thumb-sized potatoes fried in butter, tomatoes, string beans, and peas cooked in white sauce, heavy with black pepper.
Thick memories. Deep happiness.
When my Kansas mama left the farm for Interior Alaska, she carried farming in her fingers. Along the Yukon River, she planted leaf lettuce, peas, green beans, carrots, and onions. The Native people stood back and watched her plant tomatoes.
“They won’t get ripe,” the villagers whispered.
The twenty-four-hour midnight sun was warm and sent the nourishment of light onto the plants. The vegetables grew quickly. She pulled the lettuce and added canned milk, a bit of sugar, and sliced boiled eggs. Then she gathered other produce as well; but, by early August, frost touched the garden and the tomatoes were still green. They found a place on the windowsill. My mother encouraged them to turn red. They tried. But it wasn’t Kansas.
In February, I spent time in Arizona with a longtime friend. She took me to her garden at the community plot. plot. A garden? In winter?
“I think in reverse here,” she explained. “Instead of quilting in the winter, I quilt during the summer heat, and in winter, I dig and plant outside.
When we returned to her house, laden with rewards of her hard work, she instructed me, “Chop this …”
After donning an apron—one her grandmother had made – I chopped and chopped: red and white Swiss chard, kale, green onions, carrots, snap peas, parsley, spinach, beet tops, broccoli, and green cauliflower. This assortment was tossed into a skillet and turned into a delicious Italian stir-fry.
Backward gardening. Summer. Winter. The rewards were the same.
So, growing up in Wisconsin, did you have a garden?” I asked this same friend.
“Oh yes, we had so much abundance: leaf lettuce, peas, beans, onions, tomatoes, corn, and more,” she told me. “And we froze vegetables, canned beet pickles and watermelon pickles. Then, we had strawberries, along with wild raspberries, and we found blueberries where there had been a forest fire years before – and we had to watch out for snakes because of swampy land, and can you believe the town of Blueberry was nearby?”
That made such a lovely picture in my mind.
Soldotna, Alaska – Gaede-80 Homestead
My mother carried her farming skills everywhere she went. When our family moved to Soldotna, Alaska, and proved up an 80 acre homestead, my mother was quick to dig into the sandy soil and once again plant cool weather vegetables. One cabbage could make gallons of her South Russia Mennonite heritage’s cabbage-tomato borscht!
Even though I go “home” often, my primary residence is on the prairie land of Colorado. Sunflowers grow easily and abundantly. I’ve given up vegetable gardening. Drought, wind, deer, rabbits, and hard soil thwart my efforts. I’ve resigned myself to hardy, persistent, colorful snapdragons and Hobby Lobby fake flowers. Sometimes, we have to do what we have to do. Sometimes, I forget and water the fake flowers, too.