One of my first memories as a child involved gardening. I wanted to check Pa’s big potato patch. I had turned 3 in July and had developed a considerable exploratory nature much to the unhappiness of my mother, who tried to keep track of me while she did all the other tasks required of farm women. The potato patch was about three-quarters of a mile from the farm house, in a far corner of the farm. I don’t know why he chose a place so far from the farmstead, but that year he did.
Pa and the hired man were digging potatoes that cool October day. Earlier in the afternoon, they had driven the team hitched to our steel-wheeled wagon loaded with empty one-bushel potato crates to the potato patch where they spent the afternoon digging potatoes with six-tine forks. I remember following the wagon tracks up the lane back of the barn, and then through a hollow, up a long hill and then on toward the potato patch. I pulled behind me my Radio Flyer red wagon, which went with me everywhere, along with my well-worn Teddy Bear aboard. I suspect I had in mind, offering to haul some of the potatoes back to the house.
Pa didn’t seem especially happy to see me, straw hat on my head and pulling my little red wagon with Teddy Bear. I suspect he said something like, “How’d you get here?” And I suppose I answered, “I followed the wagon track” but I don’t remember.
I watched the men work for an hour or so, and then it was time to load the bushel crates of potatoes on the wagon, along with me, my red wagon and my considerably worn Teddy Bear.
I remember well what my mother said when she saw the team pulling the wagon load of potatoes, and me sitting on top of a bushel box holding my Teddy Bear and my red wagon next to me.
“Don’t you ever do that again,” she said. She meant it, too.
A couple of years later, when I was 5, I was expected to do some chores, like carrying in wood and helping feed the chickens. And I was supposed to help in the vegetable garden. The garden, a quarter-acre or so in size, was located just north of the farmhouse, on the south side of a 20-acre woodlot. It was slightly rolling toward the east, which made it an ideal place to grow vegetables.
Ma was in charge of the vegetable garden. In those days I can honestly say I had no deep-seated love for gardening, especially did I detest weed pulling and hoeing. But I liked the fresh vegetables on our dinner table — carrots, lettuce, radishes, beets, sweet corn, tomatoes, potatoes, even rutabagas and cabbage (sauerkraut was a regular part of our winter meals).
I continued helping with the home garden until I graduated from college and began work as a county Extension agent for the University of Wisconsin’s College of Agriculture. In that job, I heard questions from gardeners that often were not covered in my university agriculture courses. What I had learned from my mother and father about gardening often came in handy during my county Extension years.
The summer Ruth and I married; I was working as an Extension agent in Brown County. I spaded up a sizable spot in the backyard of the house we rented on Cass Street and planted a garden. I have planted a garden every year since.
These days I am introducing my grandchildren to the art of growing one’s own food.
I can’t think of a more natural way of showing children what nature is about than gardening — digging in the dirt, planting seeds, watching the miracle of growth, learning that gardening requires some hard work, and then enjoying the vegetables when they are harvested and prepared for eating. Especially appreciating the great taste of fresh vegetables.
My dad gardened until six weeks before he died. He was hoeing in his garden when he was 93 years old, long past the time when he needed to plant vegetables in his backyard. Much of what I learned from gardening came from my parents, especially the practical aspects, what today one might call the art of gardening. In my college courses I learned about the science of gardening. But as any gardener will tell you, science isn’t the half of it.
The difference between a good and a mediocre gardener involves art. A good gardener knows there is an artistic dimension to gardening as well as a scientific one, and to be truthful about it, a spiritual dimension as well.
Excepted from “Garden Wisdom,” Wisconsin Historical Society Press. For more information, visit www.jerryapps.com.