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
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.
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.
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.
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