We forget how it used to be, years ago, when department stores and the internet were non-existent. Our ancestors had to plan ahead to ensure they would have an adequate food supply. When they came across the “big pond” they not only brought courage and determination, but also starts and seeds of plants they were accustomed to in their old homes. From apples to herbs to ornamental flowers they guarded them and nurtured them and brought them to the New World.

I think of this when I plant my garden, how I purchase the seeds in especially marked packages and can choose from a wide variety of species. Or, purchase already-started plants to give my garden a head start. When my great-great grandmothers gardened, they had to save seed from year to year. So some plants needed to be left alone to go to seed to ensure they had plants for the coming year. A percentage of the crop was used just for this purpose.

Some plants were biennial so they had to be left alone until the second year when they flowered and went to seed. Cabbage and carrots are two examples of these. So it took some planning and hard work to have seeds for the garden each year.

Only the best of the crop were saved for seeds, ensuring a strong seed. They were harvested when the seeds were mature on a dry day, saved in cloth bags or wrapped in paper, tied with string, labeled and stored in a cool, dry place. They knew that those seeds only had a viability for a certain amount of years so each year they were planted to guarantee an ongoing crop. Since their seeds were heirloom and not hybridized, the plants would come true to the parent plant. Hybrids, as most seeds are today, won’t come true but may be a combination of the parent plants, or even be sterile and won’t grow. So if we plan to keep our own vegetable and flower seeds we will have to stay away from most hybrids, although I have had pretty good luck with some flowers such as cosmos and zinnia. Saving heirloom seeds is a wonderful tradition. I raise a tomato that has been in my family for many years. It has wonderful flavor so I keep seeds from year to year.

We all know that germination rates differ on some years, and they were faced with this as well. But for them a failed crop meant more than just an annoyance, but meant less to eat come winter. It was a pretty, serious business to plan your garden and crops for the year. A crop failure was disastrous.

Come spring they had to start some seed in protected places so they could be transplanted to the garden later. During the gardening process they fought insects, weeds, deer and rabbits and disease just as we do today. They shared seeds and plants with others, as well, so if they lost something they might be able to regain it through the kindness of neighbors.

When we buy those canned or dried beans, we tend to forget that our ancestors main diet was beans as they planted large plots so they could be thrashed or hulled out when dry and stored over winter in a dry place. Beans were the basis of many meals, baked beans and bean soup being the most common.

If you have ever seen some of the older varieties of beans you know they came in all different colors and shapes, from black and white to maroon and white, to plain black and brown. They were really beautiful. But the nutrients inside those dried beans kept our ancestors healthy on a diet that was pretty much the same every day.

So many of our plants, wild and domesticated, came over with immigrants who wanted a part of home. Some have become pests, while others we rely on day to day for our foodstuffs. Those cuttings of apple, pears and peach became our fruit orchards. The herbs became medicine and the seeds they brought gave us the variety of vegetables we enjoy today.

Pumpkin, tomato, squash and maize came from our Native American cuisine, but all the others we enjoy came from other areas of the world and were brought here by those trying to find a better life. Broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower came to us from the Mediterranean area, while spinach came from Europe and lettuce, cucumbers, onion and leeks from the Middle East.

Look in most plant identification books and you will see how many plants are actually alien to the Americas and are marked as such. To be sure we wish some of them, those whose seeds tagged along in hidden pockets or seams, stayed away like Canada thistle. Others are quite beneficial and we use them every day.

Gardening is always a challenge due to weather and all the unknowns we face each growing season, but add to that the task of making sure you have seed for the following year, one can see it took some planning and work. It just added to all the other tasks they were faced with each year and took some real garden know-how.


Jeannine Roediger has lived on a family farm all her life, first as a farmer’s daughter and now as a farmer’s wife. She writes weekly for the Times Bulletin and enjoys gardening, quilting, cooking, bird watching and writing.