Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Potager Gardens

A Potager Garden is a formal Kitchen Garden... as opposed to a large row type "Farm" garden like I have. These were usually located right outside the kitchen door, and were permanent fxtures with fences (or high walls) and walkways, usually a water feature in the center (to add humidity, and hold warmth. Actually, both the high walls and the water feature would make the climate more temperate and controllable. Fruit trees were often trained along the wall, and there might be a shed or small greenhouse incorporated into one side.
This garden below is one of my favorites, and I would love to put something like this right behind my house.
Another feature of the potager garden is the Intesive method of planting. Instead of wasting space with rows (that must be weeded and maintained) the intensive method plants grids of plants close together so the roots and leaves choke out weeds and are easier to maintain.
In preparation for someday having a formal potager, I have begun experimenting with Intensive planting in my own garden. Above you can see where I have laid out 4x4 foot squares (not an easy task in a wide open garden) as well as started some rows beyond.

The "Square Foot" gardening method does this, only they will sell you fancy grids to lay out your beds. I run around for weeks with a tape measure or a 4 foot stick measuring and planting seeds. As the plants begin to grow and finally become visible, I can measure my measuring success.

I leave walkways the width of my rottotiller, but I've learned that sometimes you have to leave some extra space, because some crops tend to lay over in the walkway making it impossible to till.

As the summer wears on, I usually end up with neat little squares which are quite efficient at choking out weeds, and easier to maintain. I can kneel in one spot, and reach all the weeds instead of walking down the row bent halfway over. It also makes it easier to water. Each year I perfect my grid plan so when I get to the point of installing fixed beds with gravel walkways between, I will have all my spacing perfected.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Heirloom Tomatoes

Ananas Noir, Hillbilly and Kellogg's Breakfast varieties
Speaking of Heirloom Tomatoes... What exactly are they?
In short, an heirloom variety of vegetable or flower is any open pollinated (non-hybrid) variety which has been passed down through generations. Many are passed down from family member to family member (like my PaPaw's Jap tomato). Many are more widely known, perhaps grown by a certain region or group of people. They are our food heritage. They are the key to maintaining the diversity and spectrum of flavors of our food source.

As "Heirloom" pertains to the tomato, I offer this quote from Andy Rooney...
"The federal government has sponsored research that has produced a tomato that is perfect in every respect, except that you can't eat it. We should make every effort to make sure this disease, often referred to as 'progress', doesn't spread."

Tomatoes didn't start out red. In fact, the italian word for tomato Pomodoro literally means "golden apple". They also aren't necessarily perfectly blemish free and round. The growers who supply the grocery stores, are looking for varieties that are round, uniform in size, and can be picked green and transported with minimal damage. Heirlooms tomatoes are irregular shaped, vary in color, and are often thin skinned, blemished and/or just plain ugly.

My Second Favorite Variety, The Original "Pineapple"

The number of heirloom tomato varieties available boggles the mind. At my favorite website Tomatofest alone, there are over 600 available. I haven't kept a list, but I have personally tried growing at least two dozen different varieties, and have found several favorites. There are several criteria I have in selecting a variety. For starters, it has to grow well in my climate which is zone 5, and not really optimal for tomatoes since it is a short season, with the possibility for consistently low night time temps. Secondly, it has to taste good. And finally, it has to have either an interesting color or a great story. In fact, when you are giving away seedlings or tomatoes it is always more fun if they are something other than your standard red tomato.

My 2008 Favorite: Ananas Noir (Black Pineapple)

A wide variety of shapes, sizes and colors...

Other very good heirloom varieties that I have grown are:
The ever popular Brandywine, often available at your local nursery
Black Krim, for it's smokey, almost salty flavor
Orange Russian, large, crisp, and nicely flavored but a pain in the butt to grow
Arkansas Traveler, good all around tomato if red will make you happy
Lemon Boy, a really nice sweet yellow tomato

I've tried plenty that didn't make me happy, but I wouldn't talk bad about them, because they may work out just fine in different soil and growing conditions. Besides, preference in tomatoes is a very personal thing. You just have to try them and see.

As for hybrid tomatoes.... there are some good ones out there. My favorite would be the Sungold cherry sized tomato. What a great little tomato. Alright, the tomatoes are little, the plant will be HUGE.

Sungold vine

I've had great luck with Celebrity too. This will be the first year I have not planned to grow Celebrities. I believe tha tis because my taste in tomaotes has begun to mature, just as your taste in wine will over time. Last year I couldn't figure out why I bothered to grow the Celebrity, as I devoured each and every Ananas Noir I found on the vine.


If you are interested in where these non-heirloom seed varieties come from, you may find the following article interesting. Just think about it when you go to pick out your seeds....

The Gardening Game
Do you know where your seeds come from?
You may be surprised...
By Jerri Cook Wisconsin

Somehow I always thought the seeds, bulbs, and roots I purchased from mail order companies came from a quaint American farm, somewhere in the heartland, with burgeoning rows of high quality vegetables and flowers. I was as wrong as a two-headed frog.
It all started last August when I used a coupon from Gurney's to order asparagus roots. By the third week of September my order hadn't arrived. I decided something was amiss and called the company.
The customer service representative I spoke with assured me my order would arrive at the proper planting time for my zone, sometime near the beginning of December.
I was confused, how was I supposed to plant anything in zone 3b in December?
The cheery voice told me to put the crowns straight in the ground and mulch over them. They would be fine.
I expressed my doubts. I already checked with my local extension agent, the president of the local Master Gardener association, and a knowledgeable neighbor before calling. No one thought planting asparagus after October in our area was a good idea. I would just take a refund.
The less-than-knowledgeable representative asked me to hold while she checked with someone. Silence. A few minutes later a chipper voice came on the line and said, "Spring Hill Nurseries."
Huh? I explained that I was holding for someone at Gurney's. "No problem," the jaunty voice assured me, "I'll transfer you."
More silence and another voice came on the line, "Henry Fields."
"I'm holding for Gurney's. What's going on?"
Not to worry, she could transfer me. I hoped so, this wasn't a toll free number and I was racking up the minutes running around in this long distance circle.
More silence and then-click. They hung up on me.
But who had hung up, Gurney's, Spring Hill Nurseries, or Henry Fields? And why was I transferred from one to the other?
The name game
I decided to take a closer look at Gurney's. I remembered hearing something about them going out of business a few years ago. The large mail order company Foster and Gallagher, who owned Gurney's and many other seed companies, filed for bankruptcy in Indiana, putting hundreds of people out of work.
Like most gardeners, the logistics of the seed industry were of little interest to me. I simply shrugged the whole thing off and went on my merry way.
Now I found myself staring at the FAQs page on Gurney's website, where it says the company was bought at a bankruptcy hearing a couple of years ago by a group of "lifelong mail order gardeners."
After scrolling to the bottom of the page I noticed the copyright for the website is held by Scarlet Tanager, LLC doing business as Gurney's. This must be the group of lifelong mail order gardeners that bought the company.
Anyone can find information on a company (or corporation) by contacting the Secretary of State in the state where the company is located. Since Gurney's is located in Indiana, I decided to pop over to the Indiana Secretary of State's website to see if Scarlet Tanager, LLC is listed in their corporate database.
Sure enough there it was. It is an umbrella corporation for The Garden Store, The Michigan Bulb Company, Gurney's, and Henry Field's. For a mere $1 fee to the fine state of Indiana I was able to find the owner of Scarlet Tanager, LLC, Niles Kinerk. A couple of peripheral searches turned up more information on Mr. Kinerk. He also owns Spring Hill Nurseries, Breck's Bulbs, Audubon Workshop, Flower of the Month Club, and Gardens Alive. Wow, Niles has a lot of companies under his umbrella.
It turns out he's not alone. Totally Tomatoes, R.H. Shumway, The Vermont Bean Seed Company, Seeds for the World, Seymour's Selected Seeds, HPS, Roots and Rhizomes, and McClure and Zimmerman Quality Bulb Brokers are all standing shoulder to shoulder under the J.W. Jung Seed Company's umbrella.
Under Park Seed Company's canopy you'll find Wayside Gardens, Park Bulbs, and Park's Countryside Garden.
The list goes on.
No matter which catalog you order from, the chances are pretty good you are getting the exact same seed as everyone else. Virtually every large mail-order garden company in the United States uses a seed broker to supply them with stock. The broker's job is to find tons of seed at a low price. They contract with competing umbrella corporations, selling the same seed to everyone.
As if the waters weren't muddy enough, each mail-order seed company can resell the same seed using different names for it. For example, you see a wonderful red lettuce named Sheep's Tongue in catalog A and place your order. A couple of days later you see another red lettuce named Camel's Tongue in catalog B. You really like red lettuce so you order some from the other catalog too. A few weeks after planting you notice they look and taste exactly alike. What's going on?
Well, the patent on the lettuce known as Sheep's Tongue has expired, or it is an heirloom and never had a patent. If there is no patent anyone can grow and sell it. However, if the company that owns catalog A has a trademark on the name Sheep's Tongue, other re-sellers will have to call it something else. This is true for plants, roots, bulbs, and trees.
At first glance this just seems like good old American business forging ahead. But there is something unsettling about this whole arrangement. How are we supposed to know who we are dealing with when we buy seed? And where does all this seed come from?
Trying to find out is like playing pin the tail on the donkey, the only way to know for sure is to take off the blindfold.
King of the hill
The American nursery trade is a 39.6 billion dollar a year industry. With the purchase of Seminis in January of 2005, Monsanto is now estimated to control between 85 and 90 percent of the U.S. nursery market. This includes the pesticide, herbicide and fertilizer markets. By merging with or buying up the competition, dominating genetic technology, and lobbying the government to make saving seeds illegal, this monolith has positioned itself as the largest player in the gardening game.
Monsanto holds over eleven thousand U.S. seed patents. When Americans buy garden seed and supplies, most of the time they are buying from Monsanto regardless of who the retailer is.
Most home gardeners started noticing the initials PVP appearing next to selections in the mail order garden catalogs a few years ago. This stands for Plant Variety Protection. It means the seed or plant carries a U.S. patent. It is illegal to save seed from or otherwise propagate PVP varieties. Consumers will have to buy more each year if they wish to grow a PVP variety.
Greenpeace chides, "Monsanto-no food shall be grown that we don't own."
They could be right.
Terminator Technology promises to be a big money maker for Monsanto and its subsidiaries. Plants are genetically modified so they won't produce seed, or if seed is produced, it is sterile. With this maneuver they are guaranteed a continuing market for vegetable, fruit, and flower seed.
Consider the newest Frankenstein called Traitor technology. This charming little piece of genetic engineering will help Monsanto's chemical division rake in billions of dollars a year from across the globe. It allows growers to control the genetic traits of plants by applying an array of chemicals, all owned by Monsanto. Do your genetically modified watermelons have blight? No problem, for a price you can buy the chemical that will turn on the plant's blight fighting gene. No kidding. It is estimated Traitor technology could dominate world seed supply with an astonishing 80 percent of the market by 2010.
Six companies Du Pont, Mitsui, Monsanto, Syngent, Aventis and Dow control 98 percent of the world's seeds. These companies are opening research facilities and acquiring local seed companies and farmland on every continent, and they can't do it fast enough.
Imports of seed and stock from Pakistan, India, Mexico,Thailand and of course China, are on the rise. Countries like Thailand boast of seed exports rising at 12 percent per year from 1998-2001. American seed exports fell at twice that rate for the same time period.
As biotechnology forges on, something is lost. At first it is barely noticeable, just a sense that something is different.
Ashes, ashes, all fall down
Before it was acquired by Monsanto, Seminis eliminated 2,000 varieties of seed from its inventory. The first things to go were the older open-pollinated varieties; vining petunias, butterfly weed, butter beans, German green tomatoes, and other heirlooms grown by gardeners for generations, replaced by genetically engineered varieties.
High-tech patented hybrid varieties are far more profitable for transnational seed companies to produce and sell. These new frankenseeds are bred to perform adequately over a wide geographical area, giving the patent holder a much larger market.
As consumers are losing the freedom to choose what they will buy and grow, thousands of varieties of garden seed are walking the plank, straight into the abyss of extinction. Consider this, in 1981 there were approximately 5,000 vegetable seed varieties available in U.S. catalogs. Today there are less than 500, a 90 percent reduction.
Seeds removed from commercial production are left in private corporate seed banks. Open pollinated seed will not store indefinitely, it must be propagated to ensure its survival. This is an expensive proposal, one not likely to happen in the world of capital consolidation and wide profit margins.
The more likely scenario is the "unprofitable" heirloom seeds will be allowed to expire and patented hybrids will take their place. Seed biodiversity will be compromised globally, while the corporate stranglehold tightens around the throat of the consumer.
Kent Whealey, co-founder of Seed Savers Exchange, says "Few gardeners comprehend the true scope of their garden heritage or how much is in immediate danger of being lost forever."
Taking the ball and going home
Like the glaciers that rolled across North America, heaving and prying the earth into new forms, giant transnational seed companies are changing the face of gardening as it once was. What's left behind is the product of a destructive force to be sure, but something beautiful and promising also remains.
Across the globe people are growing and saving heirloom seeds, ensuring the promise of diversity and heritage for future generations. Groups like Seed Savers Exchange are blooming in the remains of corporate devastation. Some of these organizations are large, offering seeds from across the globe. Others are neighborhood and regional groups saving and trading local favorites. Whatever their size, they are dedicated to preserving the earth's biodiversity.
All it takes to form a seed saving club is for one neighbor to pick up the phone and say to another, "Do you want to trade some seeds this year?" There you have it, a seed saving club.
Imagine if one neighbor called another neighbor and that neighbor called yet another, and so on. The next thing you know black gardeners and white gardeners, southern growers and northern growers, farmers and city folk, church goers and non-church goers, would be united in an effort to prevent the extermination of thousands of varieties of seed. What a beautiful thing it would be.
Before you could shake a dollar at it, the landscape of the nursery trade would change. It's the age old law of supply and demand, if no one wants patented hybrids, then they become unprofitable in short order. The reigning corporate kings of the gardening game would be forced to take their ball and go home, leaving consumers free to choose a more sustainable pastime.
It could happen.
Ollie ollie oxen free
My asparagus roots showed up two days before Thanksgiving. Several inches of snow blanketed the ground and the temperature hadn't risen above the single digits for days. I decided against planting them directly in the ground and mulching over the top as instructed by the Gurney's representative. I didn't feel like shoveling all that snow. Instead I tossed them in the back of the refrigerator to wait for spring.
While winter wore on I visited the Seed Savers Exchange website (, several times. I filled out the catalog request and spent time checking out the site. It is chock full of information and inspiration. There's an online catalog bursting with heirlooms I've never heard of. I'm not sure what lazy housewife beans are, but you can be sure I'm going to get some.
I asked my neighbors to save seeds this year. We'll get together in the fall for a harvest celebration and share our gardening glories and stories. You can bet there'll be a tale behind every seed saved. I hope I hear them all.
Transnational corporations can't build communities, they can't celebrate identity. Only we can do that, and we can do it with every seed we plant.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Too Many Tomatoes?

I thought it might be a good time to pause and discuss the topic of my blog title "Too Many Tomatoes". Can anyone really have too many tomatoes? Yup.

I have always loved tomatoes. Everything about them. I love the Song "Home Grown Tomatoes", the movie (and the book and the dish) "Fried Green Tomatoes" Mmmmm Yum. I have heirloom tomato ornaments on my Christmas tree, tomatoes on my gardening gloves, and tomato art here and there in my kitchen. I love tomatoes.

So, where does this love of all things tomato come from? I guess it is my passion for heirloom tomatoes, and that has to come from my PaPaw. My PaPaw lived in Shelbyville Kentucky. He was a shop and math teacher by trade, and a gardener by ambition. What started as a summer hobby, grew into a thriving business. One of my favorite memories is the smell of his tomato hot house. Yes, he grew so many tomatoes, he needed a separate greenhouse for them. In fact, he developed his own heirloom tomatoes. The story goes like this...

As he told it, this began after WWII. A friend of his came to him and gave him some tomato seeds. The friend said he had smuggled them home from Japan, and that these were the from best tomato he had ever tasted, and he knew PaPaw could do something with them.
So he planted the seeds. A month later, he had a dozen of the scraggliest, yellow, weedy tomato vines he had ever seen, and at the end of the summer, he had a couple decent tomatoes. He saved seeds from the best of these, to plant next year, and so on. Soon he had some “pretty good tomatoes”. These “Jap” tomatoes as he called them, were the main crop in his produce business.

They are a potato leafed, pink tomato, and he was right, the plants start out as the scraggliest things you've ever seen. But they improve. The tomatoes often have green shoulders, and they are thin skinned and fussy, but they truly are the best tasting tomato I've ever had.

So anyway, when I got a little land, I felt compelled to plant some heirloom tomatoes. It started with a few of the Japs, and expanded to up to 16 varieties in every color of the rainbow. Now my husband doesn't particularly like tomatoes (I cut up small ones and hide them in his salad), and my mother and father each have their own gardens (complete with Jap tomatoes). I can only eat about one or two tomatoes a day, so with 16 plants, my dining room table, on any given day from August through September, looks like this.

See how they stretch off into the distance? THAT is Too Many Tomatoes for one person. And this is what they look like canned...

I carefully packed them by color, green, orange, yellow and red. The photo doesn't do them justice. They were beautiful. But, if you want to doubt your culinary abilities, try making goulash with a jar of green tomatoes... and have a couple of jars of tomato paste handy, 'cause it ain't gonna be purty.

Now, that might not look like too many tomatoes to you, but keep in mind, the larger ones each weighed close to 2 pounds each.

Before I resort to canning, I start with the food that fuels my passion... tomato sandwiches. I eat a couple of tomato sandwiches a day, or at least I did until I got to Friday, and realised I had also consumed a loaf of bread and half a jar of mayonnaise.

So, I started to can. Canning is a learned talent. A lot can go wrong in a short period of time. Usually, I just do one or two quarts at a time, as the tomatoes build up. If I have a whole bunch, I fire up the turkey frier, and do them outside. It is hard to find canning supplies in my town. I was making do with a jar lifter from the early 1920s, that I bought to stock my 1933 Hoosier kitchen. It will work in a pinch.

One evening, I was lifting a jar out of the stock pot with this antiquated instrument. As the jar tapped the edge of the pot, I knew I was in trouble. The jar lifter failed, and then in slow motion, I watched the jar hit the stock pot, turn over, hit the stove top, flip, hit the stove handle, bouncing, end over end as the darn jar top unscrewed itself in mid air, and the whole mess landed SPLAT on the kitchen rug. There are a few things you have to condition yourself not to grab... falling irons, slipped knives, toppling jars of boiling tomatoes. I jumped back a safe distance to watch the carnage unfold.

Following the deluge of profanity, my husband inquired what had happened, and I shut him in the bedroom while I cleaned up. I found tomato bits on the walls, under the handle of the stove, the side of the fridge and other odd places for at least three months. Sometimes you just have to sit on your kitchen floor and look at things from a different perspective, and you will find stuff you spilled last summer.

The foot note to all this, and I am not rearranging events for the purpose of story telling... about an hour later, a friend of ours called and said he had been canning, and had taken a trip to the hardware store in Amish country looking for jar lifters since they seemed to have all disappeared around their house. He had ordered some extra, and would I like him to bring me one? "Funny you should ask, I wish you had called earlier. Because, this week, I happened to have Too Many Tomatoes...."

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Seed Packets

My love affair with seed packets dates back to my childhood. I grew up in a greenhouse. Our little house was attached to one end of the main house, and our front yard was benches of geraniums, and hanging fuscia baskets. It was one of several beautiful old glass houses. The concrete in one of the additions was dated 1923. In this added on house, the overhead furnace was just under head height, and to keep the customers from walking under it and braining themselves, my Dad placed the seed display right below. The colorful seed packets with their musical maraca contents held me transfixed. I would shake each one listening to the different sounds. The scritch scratch of tiny carrot seeds right down to the bass rumble of the sweet corn in its deck of card sized box. My mother dressed me in Osh Kosh overalls, and I often had a seed packet in the pocket of my bibs.

When I began gardening in adulthood, I found I was drawn again and again to the colorful seed displays at the various stores. There were so many packets I wanted without actually wishing to grow the contents. This led me to search for collectible vintage packets.

Oddly enough, the most plentiful packets on the market were from a seed company in nearby Fredonia NY where I went to college. These pictured here are unused packets that flood the market. You will see their image in pop art, and even on Christmas ornaments. There are about 78 different varieties from Card Seed available, but I have only collected about 30 to use as decoration, and just for fun. I have also collected a couple from another local seed company. The unused black border Card packets from the 1920s are so plentiful because when they were printed, they were almost identical to a competitor's packets (the printing company ought to have known this was a no no) so they were never used, and just packed away storage only to surface later in a local garage sale.

The variety of seed packets available can keep a collector's mind happily occupied during the winter months as we dream of the seed orders to come in the spring. You might even want to begin collecting modern seed packets. Many companies ship through the mail in plain packets, but Renee's seeds have beautiful artwork on them. The seeds carried at Tractor Supply ( I forget which company now) also has lovely vintage art.
The following article on collecting seed packets is clipped from the Labelman website.
The Labelman is someone I've had the great pleasure to do business with. Both my kitchen and my sister's kitchen are decorated with framed crate labels I purchased from him, and my 1924 Hoosier cabinet sports tin cans with original vintage labels glued on. In fact, when I told him I was looking for A&P or Glendora labels from the 1920-1930s, he searched his stock, found 3 or 4 not listed on his website, and added them to my order for free. If anyone is interested in decorating with, or collecting crate or can labels, he comes very very highly recommended.


Antique seed packets are wonderful little works of art for decorating and interesting colorful items for collecting. Though not large, there is a collector base for antique seed packets. Of the antique seed packets available you will find two predominate companies, Burt's seed packets and Card Seed Company. It is very difficult to find antique seed packets from popular companies like Burpee or Ferry Seed.

When collecting antique seed packets you will often find the same exact image is used on different company's packets. The reason being is that a few large lithograph companies would print these with just the image of the flower or vegetable and later print the company name as the packets were ordered. This is very noticeable on 1930-1950's period seed packets, Schmidt Lithography company was the major printer of seed packets during that time. Of the very early printers of antique seed packets you will find Genesse Valley Lithograph Co. who printed many of the Burts seed packets.

Burt's seed packets are probably the most sought after of the antique seed packets that are fairly available. From what I have heard the company had a very large left over inventory and decided to sell them sometime in the 1960's. They ran an ad in the Antique Trader and collectors, decorators and dealers grabbed them up. These seed packets date from the 1910's. Burt's seed packets were found in 4 sizes, three of which I have available, the larger collection packages have become tough to find. You'll also find some very early stock seed packets (no company name), which were printed by Genesse Valley and probably turned up in the Burt's seed packets find. Below are some examples of Burt's seed packets.

The Card Seed Co. packets turned up sometime in the 1970's. The story I've heard is the company went out business in the 1920's and all the old packets, store displays and posters were sealed up in an old building to be discovered 50 years later.
Card Seed Co. packets can be found in four different sizes and a variety of styles. The most popular one is the Card Seed Co. vegetable with the black border and vegetable over a black triangle, with row crops in background. These date from the 1920's. There are also a couple flower packets from that period, but these are not seen often. Genesee Valley Litho also printed these. Of the earlier Card Seed Co. packets there is a primitively printed off white packet, also a couple similar flower ones which are smaller. There is also a series of Card Seed Co. packets from the 1900's with some nice color and background. These were printed by Stecher Litho Co. and Dunston of Dunkirk. Below are some examples of Card Seed Co. antique seed packets.

The majority of seed packets you will find from the 1930-1950's were printed by Schmidt Litho Co. Below are some examples, note Roudabush Seed Store and F. Lagomarsino & Sons use the same moon flower packet. Each packet has a number at the bottom, the highest I have found is over 2900. I assume there were at least 2900 different designs used.

We've run out of what I like to call the 1918 series, but I did want to mention them and below show a few examples. I refer to these antique seed packets as the 1918 series since most have a copyright of 1918 on the lower left. Note the two companies shown are Huth Seed and Roudabush. This series is a typical stock seed packet with each being numbered and used by a variety of seed companies.

Grandpa's Victory Garden

For those of us who enjoy being self sufficient, and farming just a little (or a lot), this article about "Grandpa's Victory Garden" is a wonderfully descriptive story about the sort of garden we would all love to have, and a way of life gone by. My mother's father was a dairy farmer, and my father's father was a teacher and hobby farmer. From them, I lerned to garden on a grand scale. I learned about raising chickens, pigs, cattle, even sheep and rabbits. My upbringing made me skeptical of any food that came wrapped in plastic. I often wonder, as we are now a few more generations removed from living off the land, and the small farmer is an endangered species, how will the next generation learn the skills I learned?

By Margaret Rainbow

WW2 began in September 1939, and food rationing began in January 1940 just about the time my Grandfather reached retiring age. He had always been a knowledgeable gardener and grown vegetables and fruit for his family. Through frugality and good domestic economy he and my grandmother succeeded in buying a home of their own. Now they carefully planned their personal wartime campaign - a Victory Garden.

They moved to a new house, in the same quiet cul-de-sac where their son, who had been retained in London (England) on essential services, lived with his wife and family. Both houses had very large sunny backyards as well as sizeable front gardens. Only the rear fences, which separated the gardens from a back lane, and the portions of side fence immediately alongside the dwellings were the standard 6 feet in height. The rest of the side fences separating the gardens in the cul-de-sac, and the front fences, were about 3 feet 6 inches high and of an attractive wooden lattice. This allowed maximum light and air to reach the gardens. Before the houses were built in the early 1930's, the land had been used for market gardens, so the soil was excellent. The undeveloped portion of land at the rear of the estate had been divided into allotments, and Grandpa rented one of these.

From the summer of 1940, Grandpa brought us produce at least once, sometimes twice a week, which meant a long walk and a bus journey. There were vegetables and fruit in season, a few eggs, and sometimes a dressed (or should I say 'undressed'?) rabbit. But it was only when we were bombed out in 1944 and went to live with Gran and Grandpa that I began to understand the full extent of his 'Victory Garden'.

The next 18 months laid the foundations of my knowledge and lifelong love of sustainable self-reliance. I was nearly seven years old when we first moved there, so I was old enough and interested enough to want to be deeply involved. I was also just the right size for jobs that required an adult to spend long periods bent double! So I learned to weed, sow seeds, plant and transplant seedlings, chit and plant potatoes, and about crop rotation; also to harvest peas, broad and bush beans, brussels sprouts, potatoes, gooseberries, raspberries, strawberries and currants. I also helped with the preparation of food, with jam making, and with preserving. Everything I was not thought old enough or nimble-fingered enough to attempt I watched closely. What I learnt from my extended family during those months remains a treasure beyond price.

Both gardens had beautifully laid out formal front gardens, with crazy paving paths, bird baths and sundials. There were rose bushes, flowers for cutting, for perfume, and for pleasure. Grandpa had a lavender hedge right at the front, and he was very proud of his bearded irises, which he and Gran called 'flags'. The portion of the back garden immediately behind the house had a small central lawn, with a rockery to the left which gave extra blast cover to the front of the Anderson Shelter. The entrance to the shelter was hidden by trellis and a Paul's Scarlet climbing rose.

In summer marrows grew splendidly on the 2 feet of earth that covered the upper portion of the shelter. To the right of the lawn was the greenhouse, and the greenhouse roof supplied a huge water butt. The mint bed was kept under control by being imprisoned between the greenhouse and the path between it and the lawn. This portion comprised about one third of the back garden. The remainder had deciduous fruit trees scattered throughout, several varieties each of apples and plums, and a greengage.

The people next door had a large pear tree, so Grandpa arranged to swap fruit in season. Early rhubarb had it's special warm spot behind the greenhouse, and behind that was the strawberry bed. The raspberry canes and currant bushes were up near the back fence, as were the compost heaps. The remaining space was used for vegetables of all kinds, according to the season: parsnips, turnips, swedes, carrots, cabbage, brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, peas, broad, bush and climbing beans. The only thing Grandpa didn't grow was onions. Uncle grew these for both families, while Grandpa grew the potatoes. Uncle also had a greenhouse, and grew cucumbers and lettuce, while Grandpa's was entirely given over to tomatoes. Aunty kept a big herb garden, and she and Uncle also grew vegetables, though they hadn't as much space as we had, because Aunty kept hens for eggs and meat, and raised her own chicks. But they had two cherry trees, and a crabapple.

In a lean-to at the side of their house was a wall stacked with rabbit hutches. These rabbits were not kept just for meat. My Aunt had beeen a milliner, and she cured the skins and made gloves, hats and scarves from the fur.

On the allotment were gooseberries, more potatoes, summer rhubarb, and more vegetables. Surprisingly there was little pilfering from the allotment - maybe because it was immediately across the lane from Uncle's back gate, or could people really have believed, as some of my school-mates claimed, that Gran was a witch?! Certainly they asked me often if it were true - their families couldn't work out why Grandpa's gardens were so productive. But I knew it wasn't due to magic, but to knowledge, skill, and hard work.

You couldn't buy artificial fertilisers in those days. But Grandpa kept his plants well-nourished. He swept our chimneys himself and kept the soot for the garden, and he collected lime mortar from bomb sites. Any wood ash was carefully kept, also the lawn mowings, and of course he had the manure and old bedding from the chook and rabbit pens. He made a small wooden cart which he pulled behind his bicycle. He rode round behind the baker, the milkman and the coalman, all of whom made their deliveries by horse and cart, collecting the droppings. Of course the local kids called out after him in the street, and teased me about my 'dirty Grandpa'. But he ignored them, and I learnt to do the same. He collected leaf-mould in the Autumn to add to the compost pile, which regularly received every scrap of organic waste he could garner. Bones were broken up with a hammer, (but not before they had spent hours in Gran's stockpot) and fish bones cut up with old scissors. The vacuum cleaner and the dustpans were always emptied on the heap, as were the teapot and the chamberpots we used at night. All tiny scraps of wool, thread and fabric also went in.

One job I really enjoyed was collecting dandelions and other suitable plants for the chickens and rabbits. Even in winter, I often managed to get a handful or two on my way home from school, and fossicking in the back lane. Grandpa sometimes took me out down to the river, or to the watermeads, where we would gather watercress, and greens for the livestock, and he taught me to identify every plant, shrub and tree we encountered, and told me how to use them.

We bottled all the fruit that we couldn't eat fresh or stewed, using plain water, or a little Golden Syrup or honey when we could get it. Sugar was rationed, but extra sugar was available in the summer for jam making, and we made enough to last the year, mainly from the plums, blackcurrants and gooseberries. But we made just a few pots of greengage, strawberry, raspberry, rhubarb and apple, wild blackberry and apple, and redcurrant jelly, to keep for Christmas, and for gifts. Any windfall or damaged fruit, and the green tomatoes left at the end of the season, were used for chutney, using onions, treacle and vinegar, and just a sprinkling of the spices kept carefully sealed and used sparingly since before the war. These spices also went into the Christmas puddings and cakes, which consisted mainly of apples, carrots, prunes, suet, and treacle, with eggs and flour. But they tasted fine to me!

Potatoes and root vegetables were dug as late in the year as possible and then stored in clamps on the surface of the soil. Parsnips and Brussels Sprouts were left until after the first frosts, because the frost sweetened them. Any surplus peas were dried, and the runner beans sliced and salted down in a huge crock. The Cox's Orange Pippins (a variety of apple, now sadly seldom grown) would keep at least until Christmas, if picked just before fully ripe and placed in shallow boxes and stored in the loft. The Bramley's Seedlings, a huge tart green cooking apple, also kept well, and were used in winter for pies and my favourite dessert - baked apple!
Altogether the produce from the Victory Garden supplied 6 families from the summer of 1941 onwards - my Uncle's family, Grandma and Grandpa, our family, my aunt's sister's family, and my other grandparents (they had no garden) and another elderly couple who lived nearby. All of these families saved every scrap that wasn't eaten, and gave it to Aunty. Anything suitable was cooked, minced and mixed with the hot bran mash fed to the chickens and the rabbits, and everything else went into the compost heaps.

It was only much later in life that I realised just how wisely Grandpa had planned for those he loved. He died in April 1945, in the room next to the one in which I was sleeping, from cancer. As was the custom, he was laid in a open coffin in the back room umtil the funeral. When he died, his beloved 'flags' were still in bud. But as the closed coffin was at last carried to the hearse, Gran was able to lay a huge sheaf of the fully open bronze and purple blooms upon it.

For two days late in March 1945, Grandpa had kept me out in the garden, planting the whole of one side with potatoes. Although food shortages became worse that year, even after the end of the war, Grandpa had seen to it that we had enough potatoes to keep us going until the following spring. For Grandpa work was truly "Love made visible!"

Monday, February 16, 2009

A Walk in the Garden

One of my favorite things to do in the summer, when I get home from work, is pour a glass of wine, and go for a walk in the garden. Even in the winter, I like to take a virtual stroll through my photos. Here are some of my favorite garden friends from years past.

Monarch Butterfly
Toad in the SquashDaddy Long Legs
Bumble Bee
These carrots were pulled on the same day withing a foot of each other. I call them my dancing carrots. You just never know what you might find when you're walking in the garden.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Three Seedswomen

One of my off season gardening hobbies is collecting vintage seed lithographs. There are several categories including catalogs, seed boxes (store displays) and seed packets. I collect several different things. OK, maybe more than several. My house is very small, just a little over 900 square feet, and I share it with my husband (also a collector). My theory is that if you don't have a theme, it's just clutter. In the realm of seed lithos, I try to limit myself to seed packets from local nurseries, catalogs from 1933 (more about that someday) stuff I really really really like but doesn't fit in any category, and the Three Seeds Women.

From my own collection

The Three Seedswomen are Emma White, Jessie Prior, and CH Lippincott. The link I have to this article is no longer functioning, but luckily I copied it to my computer, since there is very little written about these women. This is an excerpt from "Old seed catalogs combined science, marketing, printing arts" by David Christenson.

A study of old catalogs also reveals a phenomenon of local entrepreneurship: the "Three Seedswomen" of Minneapolis.In 1891, Minneapolitan Carrie Lippincott mailed her first catalog in what was to become, literally and figuratively, a groundbreaking business, based at 319 Sixth St. So. Lippincott is reputed to be the first seed seller to target women buyers, the first to specialize in flower seeds, and by her own proclamation, the "Pioneer Seedswoman of America."

Working with her mother and sister, she created a thriving trade based on hard work, hands-on gardening experience, and a shrewd sense of marketing. Her 5-inch by 7-inch catalogs were colorful sales tools with a personal touch. In her chatty introductions, where she updated her customers on the doings of her family, she referred to the catalogs as annual "Greetings." Their lithographed covers, picturing idealized children surrounded by colorful flowers, did in fact look more like greeting cards than typical catalogs of that time.

That personal touch apparently appealed to customers. In 1911, she wrote in her catalog, "I wish it were possible for me to write a personal letter to all who have written me such pleasant and encouraging letters this past year. But that is impossible for I have received hundreds of them, and I thank you all for my mother, my sister and myself…"

Success bred competition. Miss Emma V. White, also of Minneapolis, took up the mail-order seed trade in 1896, imitating Lippincott's catalog format but adding a few innovations of her own. Her 1900 catalog's cover had an illustration in obvious imitation of Palmer Cox's popular "Brownies" characters; later mailings had beautiful wrap-around cover illustrations in that rich color found only in printing at its pre-WWI peak.

Then there was Jessie R. Prior, who inspired a bit of controversy in her day. Starting in 1895, she built a flower-seed business that occupied an entire block of Third Avenue South in Minneapolis by 1905. She claimed to have the only seed testing grounds in the West, located on the shores of Lake Minnetonka. By 1907, the Jessie R. Prior Flower Co. had disappeared from city listings, but not before drawing some fire from its competition.

From my own collection

Lippincott began publishing her picture in her catalog beginning in 1899, explaining that "a number of seedsmen (shall I call them men?) have assumed women's names in order to sell seeds." White countered a few years later with the protest, "I am a real live woman and I give personal attention to my business."Prior's available catalogs are silent on the gender issue, and her business was listed under her husband's ownership for its first five years of operation, so she's considered the most likely target of this accusation. But it's also true that few of her catalogs are available in the library's collection, and there really was a Jessie H. Prior who lived in Minneapolis until her death in 1960, according to city records.

In any case, imagine an industry in which, a century ago, a male businessman could do better by pretending to be a woman. Quite a turnaround. And these mail-order dealers did an impressive volume of business. In one of her introductions, Lippincott announced that she had shipped a quarter-million copies of her 1898 catalog. Based on census data of the period, that means about one in every 60 households in the nation was on Lippincott's mailing list.
The catalogs of the "Three Seedswomen" were showcases for their publishers' personal style. The farm-oriented catalogs were equally showy, though, sporting big 8x10 color illustrations of featured fruits and vegetables on their covers and in interior illustrations.

I do own several of these catalogs and covers. My source for purchasing them is the Internet. Some of them can be surprisingly expensive, particularly those from the three seedswomen. A complete catalog in good to very good condition can sell for anywhere between $30 and upwards of $100. For those which I am unable to purchase, I do at least save the image hoping to someday get a complete collection of their catalogs. In real life, the lithography is absolutely stunning.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

More on eating locally... cows and chickens

In addition to gardening, we eat fresh eggs and home raised beef. Sometimes we buy a hog from one of my coworkers. This is "Carl" one of my Mom's Red Devon steers. The Red Devon is the first breed of cattle ever to set foot on American soil. We haven't raised beef ourselves in many years. Both sides of my family have been farmers for a couple of generations. Now my mother is remarried, and her new husband has a degree in agriculture, so we are starting up again. It is always a family affair to some extent. Two years ago I wrote a grant for my mother and we were awarded the maximum amount for the NYS Barns Restoration and Preservation Program in order to restore our barns. I am the 4th generation to have lived on this farm.
Here is a brief excerpt from the grant:
The red barns of the Carlson Farm have graced the Busti landscape for many generations. Artists have repeatedly set up their easels on the shoulders of Mead and Shadyside roads to paint these barns in the forefront of their landscapes. This 1800’s farm lays symbolic of a way of life gone by and ushers the eye into the foothills beyond. Is the artist trying to capture the wholesome simplicity of country living, the grandeur of the massive architecture or the heritage of the nurturing farmland before it is erased from our living memory?

Several times this summer, as I've hurried from my office to my Mom's horse barn on my lunch hour, I have passed artists set up in the field overlooking the barns. I wish I could stay with them instead of hurrying back to my desk. I smile, knowing those barns will be there for them again next year, and the years after. Work commenced this past summer. Here is the farm two winters ago ...
In the 1920s....
And, prior to my family's ownership, in 1895...
Since I have gotten married and moved across town, my farming is conducted on a much smaller scale. Here is my mother and I enjoying my last flock of chickens.

That was my now-husband's former toolshed. When we sold that house, and moved next door, the chicken coop moved with us. One of this summer's planned projects is to move it (once again) to it's final location, add a garden shed addition to it, and replace the chicken run. In the mean time, my mother gives us eggs from her flock which was a mother's day gift several years ago. Here are the chicks while they were still living with us. My husband has now forbidden me to raise anymore chicks in the house. But... I might disobey!!!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Why do we garden?

Has anyone noticed that the world has gotten smaller? As recent as yesterday I perused the produce section of the grocery hoping for one more pomegranate before the season was over. And this morning I treated myself to a banana. Bananas and pomegranates don't grow in western NY. In fact, in February, NOTHING grows in western NY. I am still eating potatoes and onions grown in my garden and tucked away in the cool basement, the supply of frozen green beans is holding up nicely, and I still have a couple of jars of canned tomatoes. I try to eat locally. I binge on peaches in the peach season. I snack on berries off the bushes along the woods. I anxiously await the first shoots of asparagus. It keeps me in touch with my environment, and the rhythm of the seasons. Think about that the next time you indulge in some out of season fruit which just traveled 1500 miles from some third world country to make it's appearance in your kitchen. How much do you think it had to spend on gas to do that? And what environment was it grown in? No telling.

I never really truly appreciated the impact of our food choices on the environment until I read Barbara Kingsolver's book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life . In it she conducts an experiment, limiting her family to foods grown within a one hundred mile radius for one year. It's doable and it will make you rethink your diet. It made me want to raise turkeys! And, it landed Barbara Kingsolver in the number 74 spot of Bernard Goldberg's 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America ! Heaven forbid we question the elaborate money making scheme of food control before we destroy our environment and ourselves in the process.

I think it is high time Americans remembered how to feed themselves and become more self sufficient, or one of these days, a whole buncha them gonna starve to death. Which is why I signed the petition to Bring Back the Victory Garden. What is a Victory Garden? You mean besides a fun little show on PBS? During World War I and World War II, the United States government asked its citizens to plant gardens in order to support the war effort. Millions of people planted gardens. In 1943, Americans planted over 20 million Victory Gardens, and the harvest accounted for nearly a third of all the vegetables consumed in the country that year. Emphasis was placed on making gardening a family or community effort -- not a drudgery, but a pastime, and a national duty. read more here.

So that is why I garden. To protect the environment... To preserve the diversity of our food source... To control the quality and nutritiousness of what I eat... To remember where I came from and my intimate connection to the earth. Save the world, one garden at a time.