As much as I owe my love of baking and berry picking to my Dads Mother, I owe my love of gardening to my Moms Father.
He came from a long line of gardeners. They owned 3 city lots located right downtown and those lots were chock-full of fruit trees, vegetable gardens and flower beds. It was like a green oasis in the midst of the concrete and pavement. We were lucky enough to live right next door.
As far back as I can remember there were huge gardens with pathways flowing around and through them. The vegetable beds were towards the back and each was fringed with beautiful flower beds. Grampa grew the usual perennials, but his flower beds were mostly about annuals: Dahlias, Geraniums, Impatiens, and more. Grampa was a hobbyist hybridizer of sorts. I remember when I was maybe 6 years old, gaping in awe at his pride and joy...an almost-white, 3-foot-tall marigold. There was a huge patch of Pampas grass, large enough that I could hide in the centre of it, like a kind of grounded tree fort. An ancient yellow plum tree hung its branches right outside my bedroom window. I could, and did, climb out that window onto the roof of the back porch and eat my fill of the sweetest plums you ever tasted.
As soon as I was old enough it became my job to help Grampa in the vegetable garden. I shouldn't say job, it was nothing like work. Now, Grampa never did ask outright for my help. He would gather the neccessary ingredients for the task and then stand in the garden staring at the house until Mom noticed him out the kitchen window. Whether it be planting seeds or pulling weeds, that's what he did. I can look out my window now and almost picture him standing there. Green work pants, tucked in green work shirt, belt and suspenders.Grampa had a bald head, except for fringe of white hair around the edges. He wore a hat...I don't know what it was called in the world of hats but it was puffy on the top, like a brownie cap. It had a button in the middle and a small brim. It was made of a soft material, almost like a stiff flannel.
"Lee Anne," Mom would holler, "I think your Grandfather wants you to help him". I wonder if he did that when she was a child...
Planting seeds with my Grampa was a ritual. None of this scraping a rough row with a garden trowel and sprinkling seeds along it. No way. Grampa had an old 6-quart basket he used for this job. It contained a trowel, a dibber for making the row, a tape measure, the seeds we were going to plant, some stakes to mark the rows and two poles (I suspect they were sawed-off shovel handles) with a hundred feet of string tied to them. He had an old metal watering can and a long handles garden rake. Then there were the planks. Ahh, the planks...
There were 3 or 4 of them, depending upon which area of the vegetable garden we were planting. They were rough-hewn planks, 12 feet long and 8 inches wide, worn smooth in the centre from 60 years of balanced walking. You see, we weren't allowed to actually step on the soil of a soon-to-be planted veggie garden. Nope. If I lost my balance and even fell one foot off it the soil had to be raked again. When the garden was planted the planks would vanish to some corner of the garage where they would be safe and dry for the next year.
Here is how it went. The garden would have been turned with a shovel and then raked smooth. We used the tape measure to measure a set distance between rows. Plunk in one of the poles with string attached. I'd then run around the garden and measure the other side. Plunk in the other pole with the string. The string would be almost touching the ground. Then we'd lay the planks. End to end alongside, but a few inches out from the string. The dibber was another pole, possibly from the same shovel handle. It was worn smooth and sharpened to an almost point, like a childs crayon. If we were planting small seeds like carrots, Grampa would run the point of the dibber along the string making a near perfect straight line. If we were planting larger seeds such as beans, he used it to poke deeper holes at measured lengths along the string.
I'd get the task of crouching on the planks to plant the seeds. He would carefully tear open the top of the package and gently pour some seeds into my hand. I was instructed on how to make a small funnel by halfways closing my hand and releasing the right amount of seed as I followed his precisely drawn line. Grampa followed with the rake, gently bringing the soil to the centre from the front and back of the row and tamping it down even gentler. He would be almost like in a trance as he did this. Rake moving a small amount of soil towards him, then a smaller amount away from him, then tamp, tamp...
When the end of the row was reached we'd measure the distance to the next row, move the poles with the string to the other side of the planks and I'd get to put marker sticks in the holes left by the poles. On these sticks Grampa would place, upside-down, the empty seed packets. Then I'd get to water the row we'd just planted. One full watering can down the length of the row. Don't run out halfway, although it was ok to have some left to water back again. I was so proud that he trusted me to do this properly. I suspect he had some fertilizer solution in the watering can, which was why it had to do the entire row. He vanished with it to the far side of the house for a refill, while I'd sit cross-legged on the planks admiring our freshly planted rows.
I must admit, when we were finished planting that vegetable garden, it was a work of art. Looking back today I can still picture it. Perfect rows, freshly watered tamp marks between the flatness of the plank marks. Nothing like the barefoot-marred, chicken scratched look of my vegetable garden now...and yes, everytime I hop in the garden bare foot and hurriedly scratch a line with my trowel I can picture my Grampa, looking down upon me and shaking his head. Maybe it's time I found some old planks...
Many thanks to Melody for the wonderful photos used in this article.
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