Organic Gardening Lessons: My Growing Path With a Pastime I Love

A heartland lifelong gardener shares her experiences and what led her to organic gardening.

  • A small-scale farmer with a wooden box full of ripe vegetables heads for the wash room.
    Photo by
  • A raised-bed garden in Morgan Valley Road, Pennsylvania.
    Photo by Terry Wild Stock
  • Beets, carrots and radishes for sale at the Farmers' Market in Santa Barbara, California.
    Photo by Chuck Place Photography

I’ve been a closet farmer since I was old enough to sell packages of Victory Garden seeds during World War II. Teachers handed out the gray-green boxes to us in first grade: We were to sell the seeds, give the money to the military, and live on the produce from the garden. Inside those seeds packages, little miracles of life were locked up in colorfully painted packets of radishes, lettuce and flowers; not much to live on in those lean times, but a sure promise of survival to a 5-year-old. I don’t recall ever actually seeing a Victory Garden, but the idea of it stuck with me for life.

Our first introduction to a “real” garden came by way of our father, the doctor, who often accepted chickens, oil paintings or produce as payment for medical services. Two of his elderly patients owned a 20-acre farm outside of our Midwestern college town and were getting sufficiently on in age to make the actual labor difficult. They had no children — enter the Elliotts. In short order, my mother, sister and I were indoctrinated into the art of harvesting strawberries, peas, corn and lima beans. If this sounds exciting or glamorous, do not be fooled: Picking a quarter acre of lima beans in the hot sun for two entire days is backbreaking, knee-aching work to city girls. Shelling 10 or 15 bushels of them is even worse. Our fingers were sore for days.

Of course, the work was not finished with the shelling. Then it was time to freeze the produce; we formed a production line that included the four of us washing, blanching, cooling and packing. In the middle of each day, we feasted on real farm food — homemade noodles in the broth of home-butchered beef, and home-baked berry pies. At the end of each crop’s season, we took home baskets of food for our own freezer.

All summer we complained from sunup to sundown, and all winter we gloated as we shared the wonderful produce. For at least 10 years, gardening permeated my blood. I had sold my soul to the dirt devil.

The art of gardening

The first garden of my young married adulthood was a 2-by-2-foot square dug with a hand trowel and hoe. The most recent was a half acre, plowed by the farmer down the road. Our first house had very little yard, so I convinced the elderly couple next door to “loan” us the small square. They had a beautiful vegetable garden in the lot between our houses. Having had no amendments, our 4 square feet of soil were poor. We produced one tomato that summer, while the neighbor gave his away to people who were not fortunate enough to have a garden — like us.

With four children arriving in three years, we began to feel the urge for land, so we bought our own little “farm” — a couple of undeveloped acres outside of town. We built a house, bought a horse and pony (isn’t that what you do?), and settled in. Our acreage consisted of dirt and wild morning glories. After some perfunctory landscaping, we turned our first garden by hand (we did graduate from trowel to spade), added fertilizer, and enjoyed our first tomatoes, peppers and zucchini. By the end of the next year, we hired a farmer to plow us a real garden. I was right back where I had started: Harvesting, canning and freezing.

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