With warmer days approaching and spring cleanup done, we’re starting to think about gardening. Gardening was big in our neighborhood on the west side of Youngstown. As a kid, we’d always get yelled at when we cut through a neighbor’s garden or hit a baseball into our back neighbor’s yard.
Cool season crops would already be in–peas, lettuce, spinach, beets, and onions among them. In fact garlic would have been planted by many the previous fall–we had an old neighbor who used to say garlic was like a pregnant lady–he’d always plant it nine months ahead.
Warm weather crops were usually not planted until around Memorial Day when we were growing up. I wonder with warmer temperatures if people are planting earlier these days. You could try to push the season a few weeks and cover things if frost threatened, but the tomatoes and peppers, beans, cucumbers and zucchini really didn’t take off until it got hot anyhow. Some neighbors planted lots of tomatoes, particularly the Roma tomatoes, because they wanted to can them for sauce. There would be bell-peppers for stuffing and hot peppers for spicing things up and banana peppers to cut up into salads.
I’ve always loved the rich, humus-y smell of the soil when you first turned it over in the spring. You knew it was healthy if you saw a lot of worms. There was the excitement of seeing lettuce and other plants come up from seed, the stalks of the onion sets coming up. There was a wonder when bare rows marked out in the garden would suddenly have plants growing up. Of course then you had to put up chicken wire to keep the rabbits from eating it all up.
Later, you would set out tomato plants with stakes or cages and watch them take off when it got warm. Then you spotted the first yellow flowers that signaled that there would soon be little tomatoes. Similarly with your peppers, beans and zucchini. By July, you reached that point where everything was lush and growing like crazy and you started getting food.
It seems like, other than the spring crops, zucchini was always first and pretty soon, everyone was either baking zucchini bread or trying to get rid of excess zucchini. You had to do something with zucchini–fry it or bake it up in bread. You also had to keep up with picking it unless you wanted zucchini the size of baseball bats, which usually wasn’t as good for eating.
One of our favorite summer lunches was to toast some bread, slice up a tomato, put a little pepper on it, maybe a slice of cheese, maybe a slice of onion, and enjoy. Simple, fresh and tasty.
I suspect the penchant Youngstowners have for gardening might have come out of the depression and the Victory gardens of World War II. Back in the day, people might have even just saved seed from the year before or started plants from seed under lights in the basement. It was an inexpensive way to supplement the groceries during those lean years when you were trying to make ends meet. What is ironic is that it was probably far healthier than our store-bought food today. The rise of farmers markets and organic food sections or whole stores suggests to me we are trying to get back to that.
But life was simpler then. You worked, and then you came home and planted a garden and tended it. Older neighbors or family passed garden lore down to younger ones. And you had the joy of eating food you’d grown, the rich freshness of something just picked. Or months later, the rich sauces and pickled cucumbers and peppers that made so many dishes just that much better!
What are your garden memories?
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