First Garden Mentor: Edith Juanita

Grandma Nita and me

People with Dirty Hands: The Passion for Gardening, by Robin Chotzinoff is one of my favorite garden memoirs. Last night, for the third time, I read the rose rustling story with a huge smile on my face. I believe it influenced me to dive into old garden roses when I read it ten years ago. Since I’ve previously discussed the book, I will instead, in accordance with Carol’s suggestions for this month, tell you about my first garden mentor. I searched all day for the photograph of my Grandma Nita with her six-foot-tall tomato plants, but I couldn’t find it anywhere. Instead, I offer these. The Red Dirt Rose (my Mom) found them for me today. As we pulled the faded images from an old envelope, and I saw the dear face of my grandmother for the first time in many years, I cried.

Edith Juanita, my paternal grandmother, was my first garden coach and guide. I’m told that from the time I could walk, I toddled after her as she went about her garden chores. She always took the time to show me what was growing. When I close my eyes, I can hear her voice giddy with excitement over her newest garden discovery.

My first garden memory is tied to her. I was a little, bitty thing, probably three or four, and I remember her in a faded house dress (her favorite garden wear,) kneeling in the black soil. She patiently explained why she was killing the “pretty butterfly,” actually a cabbage moth. She turned up a cabbage leaf and showed me the holes made by the worm. I didn’t even know what a cabbage was, but it was my first gardening lesson.

Coming in from the back porch where tomatoes ripened on the windowsills

More lessons followed. Her vegetable garden was a large mounded rectangle encompassing a third of my grandparents’ small yard. Next to it was a compost pile of the same size. It was a former flower garden, and I never learned why she quit growing flowers there, but a red rose still climbed the large tree in the center. Each spring armed with a pitchfork, she turned the finished compost into her already fertile soil. Beside the vegetable garden was a chicken house and run attached to the garage. Next to it was a small orchard of three apple trees.

Along a fence behind the garden grew asparagus. She used the fern in her flower arrangements, and she thought it made a nice foil for the chainlink fence she hated.

On the front porch swing, I spent many, delicious hours reading. The classic scent of tea roses wafted across me from the red climbers that grew on either side of the porch. Grandma Nita was a voracious reader too, so she indulged my passion.

The house wasn’t air conditioned, but each night when I went to bed, my feet slid between cool, cotton sheets, and my head rested on an ironed cotton pillowcase. Even now, I can feel it against my cheek. In the winter, a homemade, Depression era quilt covered the bed. Along the back of the small house was a screened in porch where fallen green tomatoes ripened and where pies and cobblers were held until dessert.

Grandpa Art, Grandma Nita, my mama and me. A feast of summer vegetables awaits.

I learned to relish vegetables. I saw them grow, and as I grew, I helped prepare them for supper. In the photo is my Grandpa Art, my Grandma Nita, my Mama, Rose, and me. It appears we are about to cut a Christmas cake. In the summer, we ate entire meals comprised of veggies, and sometimes, there was no meat. With fried squash, cornbread, green beans slowly simmered with new potatoes and bacon, sliced red tomatoes and fried okra gracing the table, we never missed it.

When we visited in autumn, Grandma Nita served a roasted hen from her own hen house with mashed potatoes and gravy and home canned green beans. Bread and butter pickles and pickled okra completed the menu.

Her favorite shelling peas were ‘Alaska.’ She loved ‘Big Boy’ and ‘Rutgers’ tomatoes, but she grew ‘Early Girl’ so she could beat her neighbor in their yearly race for the first ripe tomato. She always won.

Sometimes when I’m the garden in the early morning while the dew is still fresh, and the birds are just starting to sing, I can feel her gentle touch on my arm, and I know she’s there helping me remember lessons from long ago. The sound of my own child asking me a question brings me out of my reverie, and I help her nudge a plant into the soil.

The journey has come full circle, and it is complete. I think Grandma Nita would be pleased.

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26 comments on “First Garden Mentor: Edith Juanita

  1. Pingback: » Blog Archive » Dear Friends and Gardeners Week Three

  2. kate

    It’s wonderful to have such good memories of your grandmother and also these photographs. You were lucky to have her in your life. The meals must have been heavenly!

    kates last blog post..Cherished flowers and a Secret Garden Tour

  3. Kathryn/plantwhateverbringsyoujoy.com

    Oh, Dee, this is such a lovely post about your early memories of your dear grandmother! How utterly fortunate for you to have had that upbringing! To be in a family that encouraged being connected to the Earth–well, that’s a rarity in this culture isn’t it? I know you pass this along to your own children today,keeping this precious value alive. Thanks for sharing it with us! 🙂

    Kathryn/plantwhateverbringsyoujoy.coms last blog post..Return to Cleveland Community Garden

  4. debra

    This is a delightful post, Dee. I love learning more abour your roots. It inspires me to “dig” out my memories and influences. In my case, it was grandfathers who inspired my gardening passion and served up my memories. Granddad Ford, the dahlia gardener; and Grandpa Prinzing, the rhubarb-grower. xoxo Debra

    debras last blog post..Garden-in-a-pot

  5. Anna

    Yes you can really write and bring it alive. I have similar memories and cherish them too. I love how the photos are set in those 50s kitchens that just shout out good cooking. Nothing fancy but the food. And didn’t we feel the warmth and enjoy the scents. I can still smell my grandma’s house and every now and then, mine will smell like that too. Loved your post and the good feelings it brought back.

    Annas last blog post..Planning a Wedding With Orange and Hot Pink

  6. linda

    Hi Dee, this is such a lovely, loving post about your grandma and her love of gardening. Such precious memories!

    lindas last blog post..Back to the Garden with Monica

  7. Les

    I have nothing to say but thank you!

    Less last blog post..Playing Tag

  8. Eve

    What a lovely tribute to your Grandmother. My Grandmother died while I still quite young so I fon’t have a lot of memories of her. My Grandmother on my Mama’s side was already dead before I was born. I have laways wished I had Grandmother memories like you have. I did learn a little about gardening from Billy’s Grandmother though. She also raised chickens. So I do have those memories.

    Eves last blog post..DID I JUST SEE A MONKEY IN THOSE WOODS?

  9. Pingback: Red Dirt Ramblings » Blog Archive » Cucumbers and Onions and Grandma Nita’s Fried Squash

  10. Lola

    What a wonderful tribute to your Grandmother. I’m sure she taught you quite a bit. The main issue was her love of the earth, her love of gardening. She passed this great wealth on to you. Nothing better.
    I still have my Mother Certificate of Recognition for meritorious achievement of having grown 75% or more of all the food necessary for the family & livestock & in leadership for better living in the community & the State of Tn. This was awarded by the governor of the State of TN. This certificate was awarded in the year 1941.
    I shall always treasure this.

  11. CurtissAnn

    Just beautiful, honey. I, too, feel teary at the picture of you looking at her. How blessed you are to have had your grandmother. Actually, how blessed we all are that you had your Grandma Nita, for you share with us.

    Hugs…

    CurtissAnns last blog post..Monday Meditation

  12. aimee

    so cute. it brings back my own grandmother memories. aren’t grandmothers great!

  13. Lori

    What a gorgeous tribute to your grandmother! And the way you describe the yard and porch swing transports me there, and reminds me of my own grandma’s house with its open windows and pots of red geraniums on the front stoop.

    Loris last blog post..Downpour!

    Thank you, Lori, I’m glad you liked it. I loved that porch swing. I painted it for them when I was a teenager.~~Dee

  14. carolyngail

    What a great story about your grandmother and gardening mentor, Dee. You were indeed blessed and fortunate to have those experiences. Thanks for sharing them with us.

    CG, thank you. I’m so glad you stopped by.~~Dee

  15. Martha/All the Dirt on Gardening

    You are a wonderful memoirist, Dee. The pictures you draw with words make me feel like I was there.

    The photos are illustrative and pull it all together into a warm scene that tells us where you came from.

    What a great start in life. Lucky you.

    Martha/All the Dirt on Gardenings last blog post..Good Community Citizens
    Thank you, Martha. It means a lot that you think so.~~Dee

  16. Lisa at Greenbow

    This is so touching Dee. I can’t wait to see pictures of you and your grandchildren pouring over some plant catalogs or out in the garden smelling the roses together.

    Hi Lisa, I hope that one of the family loves to garden someday.~~Dee

  17. Carol, May Dreams Gardens

    Dee, this a beautiful tribute to your grandmother. She sounds like she was a special person, a wonderful gardener, and the perfect mentor for you as a young gardener. Thanks for sharing this with us.

    Carol, May Dreams Gardenss last blog post..The Secret of the Hoe

    Thank you, Carol. I wish you could have met her. You all would have lots to discuss.~~Dee

  18. Katie

    Dee, you are so fortunate to have such a wonderful grandmother whom you were close to. I wish my compost was as big as hers! Thanks for sharing a little piece of yourself with us.

    Katies last blog post..Midway Point Update

    Hi Katie, I was so very lucky. As to the compost, me too. I never can get mine that large.~~Dee

  19. Mr. McGregor's Daughter

    That was beautiful. You keep her spirit alive when you put her love of the earth into your own garden.

    Mr. McGregor’s Daughters last blog post.."Holy Jalapeno!"*

    MMD, I hope I pass my love on to someone else.~~Dee

  20. Pam/Digging

    Your Grandma Nita sounds like a very special lady. Your tribute to her is lovely, Dee.

    Pam/Diggings last blog post..Mini-Me plants

    Thank you, Pam~~Dee

  21. nola

    The photo of your grandma in her apron is priceless! Those summer meals you described sounded like the ones we would have when everything in the garden seemed to ripen at once. I’m sure your grandma is looking down, smiling, nodding, knowing she taught you well! Be sure to pass that knowledge along to another generation.

    nolas last blog post..Today’s Trash (or fiber over fingernails)

    Nola, she always wore an apron to cool. Her house was immaculate, and she had time to garden extensively. She was a better woman than I. Thank you so much for coming by.~~Dee

  22. perennialgardenlover

    What a lovely tribute to someone you obviously learned your passion for gardening from. My grandmother was my mentor too.

    perennialgardenlovers last blog post..A happy childhood memory; fried squash

    Thank you so much. I’m glad you had your grandmother. They are so special.~~Dee

  23. Kathy

    My grandma was a major gardening influence for me, too. This was a wonderful post, Dee.

    Kathys last blog post..Summer Squash

    Thank you Kathy and thanks for helping me with my sidebar.~~Dee

  24. Leslie

    Dee, what a wonderful tribute to your grandmother! You brought back memories of my paternal grandmother and maternal grandfather, the two first garden mentors in my life, and I can just feel the love in your writing. I hope I can continue to mentor my granddaughter in that way so she receives the gift of being a gardener.

    Leslies last blog post..Arboretum Beats Out Gym

    Thanks, Leslie, she meant so much to me.~~Dee