Sometimes it is good to rediscover old knowledge that has been forgotten. There is no better way of doing this than striking up a friendship with an older person. My own friendships and acquaintances with older people, whether through reading, or spending time together, has taught me much of what I know. In this post, I want to highlight some peculiar treasures, both people and the bits of knowledge they have passed on.
I first learned to garden from a book written in the 1940’s by a Pacific Northwest horticulturist named Solly. The book was called Solly’s Victory Garden. This wasn’t like the trendy victory gardens featured on the Public Broadcasting show by the same name. These were the victory gardens that, during World War II, the U.S. government encouraged when food was rationed to citizens at home so that soldiers on the battlefields could have the resources needed to fight a war. Every patriotic citizen was encouraged to plant a garden to supplement rations.
Solly shared practical and innovative horticultural knowledge that is still being recycled by the experts. He knew the Puget Sound region intimately, and shared what to grow there, how to grow it, and how to extend the growing season. His advice is adaptable to other regions, but is especially useful for gardeners in maritime climates. I live in a combination maritime/continental climate, and I still use many of Solly’s suggestions. I have long ago mislaid my own copy of this slender, but invaluable, volume, yet, even as I write this blog, I am reminded of tidbits of knowledge that I shall apply in this year’s garden for the first time.
One of Solly’s tips was how to save room in your garden by building a potato box. You make a box using four boards (4 in. x 6in. or whatever you have). You then plant a potato in each corner. As the potatoes grow, you add more boards to increase the heighth of the box, and you fill up the box with good soil up to the potato foliage. The potatoes will then grow up to the next level. When they do, you add another four boards to the box, and fill it again with soil. The potatoes will then grow up to the new level of the box. You keep doing this adding of boards and good soil until you get about 5-6 feet tall. When the potatoes are done flowering, and start to wilt down, you are ready to harvest the potatoes. You take down the boards and the soil will fall free, and you will have a box of potatoes. This is one idea I am thinking of trying for the first time this year. I notice that some trendy garden catalogues sell plastic potato boxes that work this way for a whopping 340 dollars! I think it’s best to try it the old-fashioned way.
Solly guided me through my first gardens, but I have learned tips from other old-timers, as well. In the absence of running water, a 76 year old gold miner taught me how to create an irrigation system for grapes out of tin cans punched with holes. When you plant the grapes, you bury the cans so that the rim of a particular can is at ground level, and the bottom of the can is at the plant’s root level. Before burying, you punch a few holes around two inches of the lower side of the can, and punch a few holes in the bottom itself. You punch only enough holes to allow a steady drip to the grape’s root system. You want the can to be able to hold water for several days, and to allow the sun to warm the water. Many plants prefer tepid water to cold. Coffee cans or other large cans are best. You may need to experiment in other settings (such as with squash or cucumbers hills) until you find the optimum number of holes to punch in the cans. In fact, I use these cans to great advantage in the centers of my squash and cucumber hills every year.
The wives of trappers and gold miners have additionally contributed to my know-how. These resourceful women have given me many recipes for wild or homegrown foods. My cookbook is adorned with recipes for blackberry-honey wine, crabapple butter, elderflower fritters, wild grape leaves preserved in salt, apple farm candy, dandelion wine, green tomato mincemeat, zucchini pickles, sourdough starter, rose petal beads, mashed potato doughnuts, raisin pie, apple kuchen, and lefse, a velvety smooth flat bread. These are some of the earthy offerings I have accepted from some remarkable women over the years.
In my cookbook, I mark my friends’ names on their recipe cards. This winter, I spent time recopying these recipes onto new cards, and remembering the people who gave them to me, and the times when we shared these foods. Many of these events took place twenty to thirty years ago, when the world was a very different place.
One woman, whose family operated a small sawmill on their land in the backwoods of Montana, taught me how to make hamburger soup, a hearty fare much prized by Montanans. The most valuable gift she gave me, however, was her unabashedly big smile missing two front teeth. I was reminded that joy comes from the heart, and not from cosmetically correct features. On occasion, I would sit in her kitchen and listen to her joke as she worked. There, I had the privilege of seeing her heart shine through her eyes.
These are just some of the wonderful tips that older people have shared with me over the years. Many of them have passed on, but they have imparted to me some of their intangible qualities and values, along with their knowledge. It is with joy that I look back and remember a few of them with this blog.by