Grandpa Jack was fond of gardening. OK, he loved it....really loved it. Each year his garden grew a few yards longer and a few yards wider until one day it swallowed a half acre of the backyard. Now mind you, we lived on a farm so a half acre was easy to spare. Plus, he had more than enough hands..attached to his grandchildren to keep it in tip top shape. How else would he keep us "in line?" He said that all the time. "I've got to keep you in line." I didn't have a clue what that meant at the time, but it sure sounded important.
Around our parts, gardening was a bit of a sport....and a real showman could draw a crowd with rich, black soil, ripe tomatoes and a perfect pepper. The garden to beat was owned by a man named Lester, who, to no surprise, was family and lived just three houses down the street. He owned a plot of land that was so desired that people actually stopped to take pictures. The soil was black as night and the plants grew abnormally strong and healthy. I'm not convinced he didn't use some type of chemical fertilizer but it would be unladylike of me to make such bold accusations. Nevertheless, Lester's garden was mentioned in the local newspaper and that was just enough incentive to set Grandpa and I on a mission that turned out to be my most treasured adventure spent with him.
My earliest memory in the garden was helping grandpa plant onion sets. He would would drag the side of his hoe through the soil leaving a shallow trench. I would say, "Grandpa, the row is crooked" and he would reply, "That doesn't matter, sis. As long as the plants grow." He would drop onion starts down into the trench and I would follow on my hands and knees. I would delicately set them upright before lightly pulling the dirt over the top to cover them safely. From my position, all I could see was the bottom of his blue, Dickie pants that hung loosely over his dusty, black shoes but I could hear his voice. He would chat or whistle as I followed along at his side.
Over the years, I eventually worked my way up the ranks from weeding to water girl... then to world class bean picker.....eventually taking over the most coveted job. At around 14, he let me take charge of the rototiller. That is when I knew that I had made it big! Grandpa would check the plants and give me directions before making his way over to his white lawn chair, used for supervising grandchildren. He would make himself comfortable before pulling out a small salt shaker that was occasionally hidden in the pocket of his white t-shirt. That salt shaker was used to season the tomatoes that never made it up to the house.
It was just a few years after I earned my tilling duties that he and I set out to grow the biggest, most beautiful garden in the county. It started by planting 48 canning tomato plants. These beauties were kept separate from the slicers and miniature varieties. Beans...grown in 40ft rows and squash...well it was coming out of our ears. You name it and we grew it... in obscene quantities. He and I worked in that garden every day except Sunday, making sure that it was tilled regularly, weed free and fertilized with our secret mix of "honey" (which I am unwilling to share). Lester's garden, although impressive, couldn't hold a candle to what he and I created and at times we would just stand back and laugh at it's shear size and grandeur.
Little did I know that Grandpa would become sick that summer. Just a few days before he passed he asked to speak with me alone. He had two important things he needed to talk to me about. The first one is private and then second...well it was about our garden. He wanted to know how tall the corn was. He said, "If it's knee high by the 4th of July, we'll be in pretty good shape." He also told me not to leave the job undone and to make sure that I finished the season strong.
That was my last garden for 15years...until now.
It started as Nola's idea. She wanted a garden of her very own and Dennis and I agreed that it would be a great learning experience. He built two boxes last year, 4x8, and placed them in our small yard...a far cry from the garden at the farm, but enough to satisfy a little girl with a dream of growing carrots. And as I pulled my hoe through the soil for the first time, I couldn't help but think of him. My row was crooked, but it didn't matter...I knew plants would grow. I taught Nola how to set the onions and to cover them with a little pat. I explained to Jack why we needed to pull the weeds and held Kate as she picked her first zucchini...twisting slightly as not to damage the plant. With grandpa's help our little garden boxes grew 2 bushels of tomatoes, nearly 100 jalapeño peppers along with a variety of carrots, beets, onions, cabbage and squash.
Last week we collected what was left of our harvest for a large pot of tomato sauce. It was a labor of love as we spent the better part of a day making the most delectable pasta sauce known to man. I fried cabbage with fresh onions and those jalapeños...we used them to make bacon, cream cheese poppers. I forgot the part about wearing gloves when cleaning hot peppers and suffered the painful consequences. That one slipped past me, but no worries, it's all coming back. With just a few weeks left in the season, Dennis and I are growing tired of weeding and watering and the kids are starting to lose interest. Would it be easy to throw in the towel...call it quits? Sure. But I can't. You see, I feel this overwhelming need to finish the season strong.
So here's to gardening...and a grandpa's love.