THE WIDOWS’ GARDEN
“Rake that dirt some more, Jimmy. We want it nice and level.” It’s springtime in 1958. I’m in my Grandpa Mast’s expansive back yard in Orrville, Ohio. It’s time to plant the “widows’ garden,” and I’m finally old enough to help. Edna Miller from down the street brought over lettuce, radish, and beet seeds yesterday. Mrs. Yoder from around the corner has just left after dropping off some cabbage plants and a big bag of seed packets–carrots, green beans, yellow beans, corn, spinach, mustard greens, summer squash, and pumpkins (my favorite.) Dorothy Hostetler’s onion sets, tomato plants, and pepper plants are sitting on the back porch.
After Grandmother’s death, Grandpa decided to convert his big vegetable garden into an even bigger communal garden for the many widows in the old neighborhood. The ladies provide the seeds and plants, and Grandpa and my dad and now me, too, plant and raise the garden. Then, we deliver the produce back to the ladies when it is ready. It keeps Grandpa busy and is a great way for him to socialize.
The soil is rich and ready to work. One Saturday, the previous November, Dad and I drove out to the Paulus Turkey Farm and got a load of manure. We covered the whole garden with it so it could sit and soak in over the winter. Grandpa has faithfully done his “garden pits” since fall. He digs a hole in the garden and puts vegetable scraps into it daily until it fills up, and then he covers it with dirt and starts another hole. Eventually, most of the garden has a layer of compost under it.
Dad and I help Grandpa finish the spading, turning every bit of soil as deeply as we could with the shovels. Next, we chop up the clumps of clay and rake the soil into a smooth beautiful bed.
After that, we lay out the rows. Grandpa believes they must be perfectly straight and exactly three feet apart, except for the rows of corn, which have to be wider. He tells my Dad, “Get the stakes and the twine out of the garage.” It takes the three of us an hour to set up the rows, carefully measuring where each one goes and pounding in the stakes to mark each end. Then, we string the twine from marker to marker creating twenty precise rows, aligned from north to south to get the best light. Grandpa shows me how to pull the edge of the hoe against the twine down the length of the row to make the seed trenches.
Finally, we start planting. The pictures on the seed packets are very colorful and the names sound so interesting: Black-Seeded Simpson lettuce, Champion radish, Red-cored Chatenay carrot, Detroit Dark Red beet. Grandpa let me do the radishes. The radish trench is shallow because the seeds are very small.
“No, no, not too close. Spread the seeds out more so the plants will have enough room to get big.” After the seeds are down, I carefully cover them with dirt and tamp them down with the end of the hoe. The empty seed packet is placed on the marker stake so we will know what’s in that row. I ask Grandpa, “Are we going to plant all of this stuff today. “Oh, no, we’re only planting the greens and the radishes, carrots, and beets today. The cabbage plants can go in next week, but the tomatoes, peppers, and corn will have to wait a few weeks until it warms up some more. Go get the onion sets. We can put them in today.”
“Yellow Stuttgart” it says on the bag. Grandpa shows me how to plant each little bulb, top side up and root side down, exactly two inches apart as we worked our way down the row. I cover them with an inch of soil as he follows me tamping them in with the hoe.
“Whew! A lot of work today! But soon everything will be coming up and the widows will be stopping by to see how “their” garden is doing.”
(Dr. James Mast, a dentist in Flagstaff, is one of the original Master Gardeners in Coconino County.)