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.
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.
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.