Tag Archives: gardening

When Life Gives You Hailstones, Make Polentil

Two weeks ago, we planted a beautiful field of heirloom tomatoes grown from seed we’d saved last fall. Later that evening, hail destroyed almost every plant.

We’d never seen a hailstorm like this one: three hours of pea-to-ping-pong-sized hail breaking in waves against the foothills, pummeling first from the east and then circling back even more fiercely from the west. We couldn’t even leave the house to check on the tomatoes, so constant was the hail and lightning that lit the sky like pinball machines in an arcade. Tornadoes destroyed 28 homes just miles east of us as the storm’s “tornadic activity” spun black clouds of hail over our region, leaving a twisted mess of sheered trees, damaged roofs, and cracked windshields behind.

As soon as daylight broke, we walked out to inspect the damage. An empty field greeted us where lush tomatoes had stood the day before. I had to look twice to be sure it was the same field we’d left full of hearty tomatoes. Now, broken stems marked where each beautiful plant had died.


All the crops were tattered, but the tomatoes fared the worst, a loss not only of plants but of the countless hours spent saving and planting seeds, tending the greenhouse, watering, and transplanting into specially prepared fields. Even in good conditions, tomatoes are a high maintenance vegetable but we love them enough to make all the work worth it. Thinking of the effort wasted on row after row of ruined plants, we were all in a bit of shock at the damage they’d sustained.

Luckily, we had started many more seedlings than we needed in the spring. We were able to “cup up” most of what we lost. They’re two weeks behind and not as robust as our first crop, but we’ll make do. If the season’s a long one (we always hope for a late first frost), we’ll have good tomatoes.


We cancelled our farm pick-up for members that first Saturday after the storm. With spinach and lettuce torn ragged and the fields muddy from two days of rain, we had nothing to pick. We’ve only cancelled a couple times in 24 years as a CSA, all for weather events, like the flood of September 2013 when our farm was barricaded behind the security barrier to our nearby town and most members were too busy evacuating to pick up vegetables anyway. Still, we know that farming in this region, we’ve been lucky never to cancel for hail before.

Instead of picking vegetables for the members that Saturday after the storm, the barterers came to cultivate the onion and carrot beds compacted from the hail and rain. We broke up the crust starting to form on the topsoil and weeded as best we could in the sodden soil so the finger-sized onions and tiny carrots could grow more easily.

Mid-week, a welcome crew of barterers and volunteers showed up to transplant the rest of the peppers, eggplant, and basil, which fortunately hadn’t been set out yet because of the cool weather. We cultivated many more beds, working down the long rows to ease the soil compaction and finish the weeding delayed by the recent rains.


Last Saturday’s pick was meager—kale, scallions, arugula, spinach, baby bok choy, and garlic scapes. “Hail kale,” our barn boss wrote on the board, since it didn’t amount to much. Although not all our members are attuned to them yet, scapes were the standout vegetable that day. A scape is the shoot of a hard-necked garlic plant, the part that will flower and form a new seed head. Removing the scapes puts energy into the garlic bulb rather than the flower, forming a larger bulb. We used to compost the scapes until we learned we could cook with them too. Now we chop and use them just like garlic in stir-fry, sauces, or on bruschetta, or preserve them chopped in olive oil in the fridge.


We also served pancakes, since last Saturday had already been scheduled for our annual pancake breakfast. Despite the skimpy pick, or maybe because of it, we wanted to celebrate the farm and say thanks to our members for supporting us during tough times, as well as during more fruitful seasons. This year, we learned again what tough times could mean. As always, folks brought toppings to share—strawberry butter, homemade salted caramel, fruit preserves, canned applesauce, even home-tapped maple syrup from a son’s tree back east. Nothing like sharing a multi-grain pancake and fresh toppings with friends to lift one’s spirits.*


Last night, John and I sauteed our garlic scapes, scallions, kale, and spinach as a topping for what we call “polentil”—cooked lentils stirred with soft goat cheese into polenta just before it’s cooked to firmness, served with a glass of our own chai-spiced honey mead. We layered the polentil with tomato sauce from last year’s tomato harvest and topped it with the hail greens and alliums. It may not have been much, but it couldn’t have tasted better or been more filling.


This week’s pick looks pretty much like normal, a decent size and offering for late June. The broccoli’s coming on, spinach and kale have sized up, and stunned lettuces have grown through their hail-laced moment. More scapes are on their way, and everything else isn’t far behind. Before we know it, we’ll be back in the bounty of the season, the time when a share puts lots of hearty meals on the table. The gardens have their own recovery plan; we just help it along. As with any season, we’ll do our best to follow the land’s lead: we work, we wait, and the earth gives again.


*You can find our pancake recipe in A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography


Filed under ecobiography, memoir, sustainable agriculture

Violet Spring


I’ve been digging up wild violets this week, repotting them for a plant sale in May. A couple years ago, only a few small patches of violets grew around the farm. This spring, I’m finding them all over the place in both purple and white. After coming in like a lion, March is going out like a lamb with gentle breezes and sunshine; I wonder whether a good spring for violets portends a good season for vegetables, as well.

I’m seeing spring from a new perspective this year: the eyes of my two-and-a-half-year-old grandson as he learns about the change of seasons from winter to spring with its promise of new life. We took a little trip to the feed store last week for chicken food and to see the many colors and varieties of baby chicks, from grey-with-brown-striped Golden-laced Wyandotte to yellow-with-striped-wing Speckled Sussex. Back at the Stonebridge coop, I pointed out a Speckled Sussex, all grown up with her red spotted feathers, and we found a tea-brown egg she’d laid in a nest.


In the kitchen, I showed my grandson the dozen blue eggs we’d have for breakfast the next day—not the kind of eggs that have chicks, I assured him (technically, they’re not, since we don’t have a rooster). He’s waiting for chicks at school from incubated eggs. “They’re hatching,” he says, like it’s an adventure of momentous effort and no little mystery. Since we don’t hatch chicks from eggs on our farm, I’m curious to see what he’ll think about this hatching idea once the chicks have emerged from the shells with their tufted heads and bulging eyes—not exactly the sweet peepers of story books, but they’ll soon grow into something more recognizably cute and cuddly.


Along the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies, spring brings wind. Last weekend, my grandson and I both learned about wind as we ran in the park with our little kite straggling behind us. “Run into the wind,” I cried as we ran, him looking behind at the kite and me looking ahead to make sure we didn’t run into a sunbather, pole, or tree. I was winded, myself, from running like that.

On a March day with desultory clouds, sometimes the wind cooperates with kite-flying and sometimes it doesn’t. Our best success was standing still in wait for the breeze to catch our little kite and buoy it just a few feet over our heads. “Which direction is the wind blowing now?” I’d ask. “This way,” my grandson would say, as he turned his face to find it. What fun to launch a kite and see it fly, if only for a minute or two.

Last year my grandson helped us harvest vegetables from his family’s garden, popping cherry tomatoes right into his mouth. This year, he’ll get to help plant them, too. Parents tell us all the time that their kids will eat vegetables they’ve grown themselves or “picked” in the barn at our farm. “Where did this spinach come from?” I asked my grandson last weekend. “The farm!” he laughed—and then ate the vegan spinach lasagna I’d made for dinner. PBJ may currently be his favorite food, but this spring he’s learning new lessons in where food can come from–close to home and grown by someone he loves.



Filed under ecobiography, memoir, sustainable agriculture

Architecture of a Rose

DSC_0283When I was teaching at the university, one of the pleasures of spring break for me (besides my birthday) was pruning my roses. Now that I’m retired from teaching there, I still prune my roses about a week after the spring equinox when the stems start to show signs of new growth. As soon as the days start to warm, I watch the roses for swelling where the nodes emerge from the green stems. That way, I can tell which part of the rose has been winter-killed and which is still alive. Waiting a couple weeks more, until the leaves have started to emerge, is recommended along the Front Range, but we get busy with farming in April so late March works best for me.

The last couple days, I’ve been pruning my roses. I used to have more roses but the last few years have been very hard on them. I lost some to drought, some to winter cold, and even a few to voles that love to burrow in the thick wood chip mulch around the rose bushes and sometimes girdle the rose completely through. I think all but one of my roses survived this winter, leaving me with three dozen or so, which I can prune in about three hours.  I look forward all winter to my pruning time in those first sunny days in the flower garden taking stock of what’s survived and what needs attention.

DSC_0288I plant exclusively “own root” roses, which means that the plant has been reproduced from a cutting of its own stock rather than grafted onto the root of another, generally more vigorous, rose stock. Grafted roses offer many more variety choices than own root roses but, if the grafted part dies, the shoots that emerge from the roots will revert to the parent stock, which is usually a ubiquitous shrub type of rose which lacks distinction in bloom. On the other hand, own root roses are slower to grow and bloom than grafted roses but, in our harsh climate along Colorado’s Front Range, I find that own root roses are more likely to survive.

During the busy farming season, I don’t have time to baby my roses, so I grow varieties that are relatively hardy. My favorite roses—and the ones that have done the best in my rose bed—are the David Austin varieties. David Austin is an English rose breeder who combines characteristics of old roses—particularly fragrance and shape—with repeat blooming varieties, resulting in gorgeous, abundant, fragrant roses with outstanding vigor, color, and scent.

My own root varieties of David Austin roses (not all DA roses are own root), have taken a while to get established, but it was worth the wait. My favorite rose is Abraham Darby for its cup-shaped, apricot-pink, multi-petaled flower. If you only grow one rose, it should be an Abraham Darby.


Another of my favorites is Graham Thomas with its rich yellow blooms. I often avoid yellow roses because, in our dry climate, they tend to turn brown, but Graham Thomas holds its color well.


Both of these roses are classified as “shrubs,” growing about four feet tall in our climate, so I position them next to short trellises to give some extra support—and I Iike the way their heavy-headed blooms drape across the trellis.


Other favorites are Lillian Austin, Gertrude Jekyll, Teasing Georgia, Mary Rose, and Othello—but be careful of the warrior thorns on that one because it lives up to its Shakespearean name. I’ve got a space selected this spring for another rose, and I’m anxious to see what our local nursery carries for new David Austin own root varieties.

Some people like to cut their roses all the way down to the ground in the fall or early spring to let new stems emerge from the root graft. But because roses are harder to grow here, I like to wait until I can see what’s dead and alive and then prune only what’s needed.

When I’m pruning, I think about the architecture of the plant. I generally leave only the strongest three or four stems, depending on what’s there, so that the bottom of the bush has a triangular or square shape. Next, I decide where to trim the remaining three or four stems to 10 or 12 inches high by looking at where the nodes emerge and choosing a top node that points in the direction I want the new, emerging branch to go. I always want that new branch to grow away from the center of the plant, meaning it should be found facing the outside of the bush rather than the inside.

Once I choose the node, I remove everything about a quarter-inch above it by pruning at a 45-degree angle up and away from the node. Last, I trim any branches from those main stems by again deciding where I want the new growth to go. As I trim, I try to imagine the architectural shape I want to create and prune accordingly.


I hope that this spring’s moisture will mean a less severe summer and more abundant roses. Last season, my roses looked miserable and bloomed sparsely. This year, I’m going to feed them more consistently (using Epsom salts dissolved in buckets of water) and make sure they’re heavily mulched. Already, I’ve done a better job pruning than I did last season and that should help.

The most important thing to remember in pruning roses is to wear heavy gloves and long sleeves to protect yourself from thorns. If you’re pruning roses, you will get scratched. That’s part of rose growing–and it’s worth it.



Filed under sustainable agriculture

42nd Earth Day and Still Counting

On April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day, I was a student in Mr. Osborn’s fifth grade class at Sherwood Elementary. Earth Day was organized by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson to bring national attention to the alarming state of the environment through grassroots actions. On Earth Day, people were asked to demonstrate care for an earth whose gifts of clean air, water, and soil could no longer be taken for granted.

My fifth grade class (I'm in the lower left hand corner with knee socks)

Our fifth grade class decided to celebrate the first Earth Day by turning the hard dirt outside our classroom into a beautiful garden of grass and flowers.  All it would take, we thought, were some shovels and a few seeds. We showed up with tools—the girls in pants, which weren’t normally allowed—and worked like crazy all day to get that small square of soil ready for the plants we imagined would grow there. Mr. Osborn even let me run a block home for my wagon to haul away rocks and trash. With rakes and hoes in our young hands, we scratched tiny furrows in the soil to plant our hopeful seeds.  A little water, and we’d have our first Earth Day garden.  At the end of the day we were dirty and tired, but proud to be part of something bigger than ourselves.


Around the world, 20 million participants representing thousands of schools and communities organized events like ours from planting trees to picking up trash along highways in what Senator Nelson called a “spontaneous response at the grassroots level.” Earth Day proved that many people did care about the environment, becoming a symbol for the new ecological movement that at that point held so much promise.

Today Earth Day and its message of stewardship is still part of many school curriculums. Children learn about the value of recycling, saving energy, and protecting endangered species.  Since the first Earth Day, stricter standards have been passed for air and water pollution, cars have become more fuel efficient, and many contaminated areas have been recovered.  But 42 years after the first Earth Day, we are living that fearful future of vanishing species, toxic food, oil spills, nuclear disasters, and climate change-amplified weather crises.

To celebrate Earth Day’s 40th anniversary two years ago, we planted an Opalescent Apple tree at Stonebridge Farm in memory of Mr. Osborn, my fifth grade teacher who had died just a few months earlier.  Many years will pass before Mr O’s tree bears fruit in the old orchard beyond the barn, just as many years have passed since planting my first Earth Day garden. When I tend that tree, I remember how Mr. O inspired us to care about the natural world by getting our hands in the soil. He taught us the Earth Day lesson of working together to care for our environment by visualizing the world in which we wanted to live. Even though the grass and flowers didn’t survive long in the high traffic area outside our schoolroom, it didn’t matter because the real seeds had been planted in us.

Ecology stickers I've saved from fifth grade

This Earth Day we’ll celebrate by learning to forage wild plants on our farm. Foraging lends a new perspective on so-called weeds by showing us that plants we overlook or eradicate can have value. Similarly, Earth Day teaches us that we need to look more closely at the earth’s interconnected ecosystems if we are to be good stewards of this planet.

We’ll plant an apple tree too, one John grafted from the branch of a blush apple tree in our farm’s old orchard. That tree probably came from a seed planted by a bird or squirrel or apple fallen from another tree. Since apple trees grown from seeds don’t come true to the parent tree, until we grafted it, our tree may have been the only apple like it in the world. Now this second Stonebridge apple will bear more wine-fleshed fruit born of this place and bringing the past into a future we hope promises harvests for generations to come. 

In fifth grade, I believed that solutions to the world’s environmental problems would be achieved in my lifetime. How naïve I was to underestimate the economic forces that value profit over preservation and the lack of political will to challenge them. The view that the earth is only ours for the harvesting has led us to disregard its limitations. We should all participate in “green” efforts to plant school gardens, recycle our cans and bottles, or eat locally grown organic vegetables as ways to honor the earth as our home, yet actions like these alone will not save the planet. The changes needed to stop further ecological degradation are monumental and our individual efforts so small, it’s hard to see how the tiny seeds of stewardship planted 42 years ago can still grow.

Celebrate Earth Day on April 22 this year by planting a tree—and then join others in the insistence that the environment must not only be protected for ourselves, but for generations as far as we can count. Together we must create a new vision that inspires fresh seeds of environmental activism, one that looks not only at individual actions but at collective intervention in the mounting crisis of our only earth.

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Filed under ecobiography, sustainable agriculture

Dig Dig Grow Grow

Our favorite tool around Stonebridge Farm is the hori, a 12”-long,  wooden-handled tool with a sturdy blade that comes to a dull point and is serrated along one edge. Japanese in origin, its name hori hori translates as “dig dig,” and that’s one of the tasks this tool is perfect for in the garden when you need smaller holes for transplanting vegetable or flower starts.

We also love a hori for hand-weeding small emerging weeds, furrowing a line for seeds, or digging out the roots of taller weeds like thistles or mullein. At around $35 apiece, horis are an investment but well worth it. Just be sure to wrap the handle with brightly colored tape in case you lay it down in tall grass. When we head out to the fields with a crew, we always bring our bucket of horis because chances are, we’ll need them, no matter what the task.

A heavy rainstorm delighted us with inches of moisture last night, so today was the perfect time for working in the gardens. I used my hori to dig out clumps of grass in the roses, weed small thistles from the herb garden, and transplant errant shoots of spearmint into a sparse bed that winter temperatures and small rodents had diminished.

Late June is wonderful for taking stock of the fields because by now you can see what has germinated, what needs replacing, what needs thinning, and what needs weeding. All the high summer crops—tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, basil, cucumbers, and summer squash–have been seeded or transplanted into long beds and are loving the moisture from the rain. That means the weeds do too, but at this moment, with everything green and fresh, even the weeds are part of the verdant landscape and seem less threatening now than in July’s dry heat.

I dreamed recently of watching a tiny plant stalk growing outward, unfurling a new green shoot right before my eyes, like a time-lapsed film but in real time instead. I’ve noticed many such signals lately, all telling me that my decision to quit a job I’ve nurtured for 17 years is the right one. At 52, it’s time to take my hori and head to new fields and interests. I’m digging in fertile ground again, not knowing exactly what I’ll harvest but eager to see what will grow here.


Filed under ecobiography, memoir, sustainable agriculture

No Frost Yet

“How are you?”

“Doing great! We haven’t had a frost yet!”

“Oh. Uh huh. That’s nice.” Acquaintances nod at my nutty weather report. No frost yet—whatever.

No hard frost as of October 21 may not sound like much to non-farmers or non-gardeners but it’s momentous to those of us on Colorado’s Front Range who work outside in the soil.

In fact, we’ve been working joyously in t-shirts this week, doing things we usually do in jackets. I spread compost around the base of the roses to help get them through a predicted dry winter and John tilled compost into the fields in preparation for fall-planting shallots and garlic. A few of my roses are still blooming and I even picked a bouquet of zinnias for a friend’s birthday dinner.

Early last week our county extension agent sent around a frost warning, so we harvested all that we could to give our CSA members last Saturday–except some smaller peppers just in case it didn’t frost.

And it didn’t.

But that’s okay. The tomatoes and eggplant had pretty much given up with the colder nights and we were ready to pull the stakes and store the twine for next year. John picked the last few of the lonely cucumbers, melons, and summer squash a couple days ago and then tilled the vines into the field.

Yesterday afternoon I walked out to the big field to see what was left. Along the bank of the irrigation ditch, I startled a redtail hawk from the limb of a cottonwood. It flew before me over the tops of the trees. Two weeks ago I surprised a great-horned owl from a similar spot but it flew in front and then around me, close enough that I could see the spots on its breast as it spread its wings perpendicular to the ground. I’d never been that close to such a large flying owl before and it took a while for my heart to settle down. The redtail wasn’t quite as dramatic but thrilled me nonetheless.

So what’s left? I found the peppers still ripening on the plants; we can pick them to give this Saturday or next, which will be the last pick-up of the season. A few small round eggplant are still hanging. Maybe they’ll be big enough for one more ratatouille before the first frost really hits. I found one large Mennonite tomato going red and a few pastes that we’d missed in our previous gleanings. That’s it. I picked some peppermint on my way into the house to make the last watermelon/cucumber salad of the season.

But first frost isn’t just about harvesting plants. At Stonebridge Farm we take our first frost predictions seriously. Around the beginning of September, we start the frost pool for bartering members to pick their first frost dates. Whoever wins garners bragging rights and the title of Frost Queen or King, as well as the largest jack o’ lantern to carve at our end-of-season party on the last Saturday of October.

The frost pool’s pretty competitive out here but the best part is that the winning date is so unpredictable. Who would have thought in September that those daring folks who chose October 24th or 25th would have any chance of winning? Usually the rule is closest date without going over wins, but with no frost predicted until the beginning of next week, the winner this time might be the latest prediction.

We have elaborate rules for what “first frost” means: not just a little nip, but blackened basil and zinnias. This year the frost is so late that we’ve harvested almost all the basil plants already, leaving just a few on which to base the official decision. The zinnias I didn’t pick are pretty faded but we’ll leave them in the field until the frost hits as a back-up to the basil indicator.

Timing’s essential too. Since frost usually comes early in the morning, we date the first frost on the day of the morning we find the blackened basil and zinnias rather than the day of the night before.

Predictions are fun, but most of all, we anticipate first frost because it means our season is almost over. We may still harvest roots and greens that can grow in the cold, but the riot of the harvest is finished—the tomatoes, peppers, basil, eggplant, and squash are a fait accompli. We will have to wait nearly another year for those warm weather crops to ripen again.

A couple days ago, John and I decided to celebrate this long fall by ending the workday early to sit on the patio of a local restaurant, enjoying the late afternoon sun. We were the only people sitting outside, which we found odd on such a glorious day, and, even stranger, the servers were putting away the patio furniture and umbrellas while we toasted the autumn foliage. Soon we were the only table on the patio and we joked that we were the last people to sit outside this year. In this seemingly perennial fall, it’s hard for us to stay inside.

Today we finished the last of the big fall chores: planting 14 beds of garlic for our members next season. With our expert Thursday crew, we cracked the garlic bulbs we’d saved from this year’s crop to plant back the cloves for the next. We started the morning in jackets but soon were in shirt-sleeves as the sun warmed our backs. We don’t always get to plant garlic in sunshine so we welcomed the chance to savor a few more rays before they’re gone.

No frost yet.

But we know it’s coming.




Filed under ecobiography, memoir, sustainable agriculture

Shedding the Old

I weeded the herb garden today, a cool place in the morning’s high-90s heat. We built this herb bed out of redstone slabs two years ago in the hope that raising the soil in stone with landscaping cloth underneath would impede the prairie grass that invades all things perennial on our farm. So far, so good; the weeds are mainly annual dandelions and thistles.

In this bed we grow our farm favorites: chamomile, tall and short oreganos, tarragon, lavender, catmint, Mexican mint, and spearmint, with a little horehound and hyssop thrown in. A whiff of mint while weeding reminds me of my grandparents’ farm, where peppermint grew in a cement crack under the outdoor spigot of the farmhouse. Because we vacationed there throughout my childhood, mint always smells like summer to me.

While I weed, I keep an eye out for snakes that might be hiding from the heat between stones or in the tall grass around the perimeter of the bed. I’m looking for snakes these days because last week I almost stepped on a particularly colorful snake curled along the step inside the greenhouse.

Yellow with rectangular burgundy splotches, the snake slithered its four-foot length down behind the clay pots on a nearby shelf at my scream. Later it emerged outside the adjoining community room, where I was able to take a few photos with which to identify it. A corn snake, I think; I’ve sent the photos to our county expert for further ID.

Two years ago I startled a five-foot bull snake on the same step, or rather it startled me. Large snakes aren’t unusual out here, especially after rainy springs since rain brings tall grass that brings mice that bring snakes. My yellow and burgundy snake was exceptionally vibrant so it may have just shed its skin. I searched the greenhouse for the remains but found only the S tracked in the dirt where the snake had fled.

A friend tells me that snakes are an omen of birth or re-birth, which seems right this summer as John and I both initiate new ventures. We’re both looking ahead to a time when we can move on from our current careers by trying to figure out how best to use our skills toward furthering our own interests.

But moving ahead means leaving something behind as well, just as the snake must shed its old, faded skin to reveal its most brilliant colors. It’s the leaving behind that seems difficult for me, especially at 51.

I don’t know whether a snake notices its skin-sloughing or just glides out of its tired skin as it travels forward, but this shedding is necessary for its growth. What emerges glistens in new light. Perhaps that’s the lesson of the snake for me: keep moving and the old will simply drop away. Keep moving and the old will soon be left behind.


Filed under ecobiography, memoir, sustainable agriculture

Seeds of Never-Seen Dreams

Rather than write this week, I created a digital story based on a previous post called Our Great-Grandmother’s Gardens. I loved putting old photographs to Flora Hunsley Smith’s story. Although she was a quiltmaker herself, none of her quilts have survived, so for background images I used quilts that were passed down to me from my Grandma Short on my father’s side of the family. I had fun with the transitions between quilts and flowers, looking for similar colors and textures. The music came last. I knew I wanted a traditional piece but hadn’t imagined something this melancholy. I loved the title–and Rayna Gellert’s liner notes–and its driving tone captured the sense of perseverance I associate with my great-grandmother’s life. “Coming through the rye” says it all for me–you come through life the best you can by making the most of each day.

Watch Seeds of Never-Seen Dreams:

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Our Great-Grandmothers’ Gardens

On Thursday mornings at Stonebridge we work with a small crew of bartering members in the gardens, doing the tasks for which “many hands make light work.” With the cool weather and wet soil, I hadn’t yet planted gladiolas, but yesterday with the help of two other women—one my age, one twenty years younger—we got them in the ground. Thursdays’ biggest pleasure is the wide-ranging conversation in the field, and yesterday was no exception. As we laughed about the inconsistencies of patriarchal religions that undoubtedly informed our feminist views, we dropped corms into holes spaced three and then two across the bed like cookies on a sheet, but the more we laughed, the more crooked our rows became. Every fifth row or so, we’d have to stop and start again with a straighter line. We planted just over 200 gladiolas, beginning with 60 new bulbs in deep red, violet-blue, and hot pink, and finishing with corms dug last fall and stored in peat moss in the basement. In August, we’ll have a vibrant stand of elegant gladiolas welcoming us to the garden.

Our next task was weeding the long bed of transplanted head lettuce, only a couple weeks away from harvesting. Using our horis—our favorite Japanese digging tools—we weeded with our knees in the clover walkways while sharing stories of our grandmothers, or at least the pieces we know.

With the help of the alumni association at Valparaiso University, I’ve just found my great-grandmother’s name listed in the 1890 Northern Indiana Normal School’s catalogue under the Teacher’s Department pages:

Hunsley, Flora                                           Macon, Illinois

Northern Indiana Normal School catalogue, 1890

Flora Delcina Hunsley had traveled from Decatur, IL, at the age of 22 to get her teaching degree at the same school her brother Jake had attended for music a couple years before. What a thrill to see her name 120 years later, evidence that my great-grandmother was a college graduate and a teacher like me.

That catalogue is one of the few documents we have for Flora’s life; the rest of the story can only be pieced together. At the Normal school, she became friends with Lola Belle Huckleberry, who had a stepbrother named Jasper Lemuel Smith. Although he was 10 years older, Jasper and Flora met, courted, and married after she had taught school for a few years in Illinois.

Flora and Jasper before their marriage

My great-grandparents moved to North Dakota to homestead after Flora’s brother Jake had staked a claim there and her parents, Malinda and Charles, originally from the English county of Lincolnshire, came too. Flora and Jasper raised five children, including my grandfather Kermit, on the Waterloo Farm, named after the family place in England. Their lives were typical of farming families, raising crops and livestock on the windy prairie.

Flora Hunsley on the right with her turkeys

But after their deaths, their children found their parents’ secret in an old trunk: another document–their marriage certificate, dated one year later than the wedding date they’d always claimed. Flora had gotten pregnant before they were married. Since they’d left Illinois, no one but their parents and siblings were the wiser.

Not an unusual story, but I wonder how Flora’s life might have been different without that surprise. She probably would have married her best friend’s stepbrother anyway and as a married woman, would have had to relinquish her teaching position, as they did in those unenlightened days when marriage meant pregnancy and pregnant women in the classroom wouldn’t be proper. She probably would have followed her brother to North Dakota too, just as she followed him to college in Indiana.

But I like to think that she never entirely forgot those days of relative freedom with friends, going to classes and living away from her family. When my aunt was born, my grandparents named her Lola after Flora’s best friend. A college picture tucked into my aunt’s baby book shows the two of them in black dresses with buttoned bodices, their aspirations still ahead of them.

Flora seated with Lola in the middle behind her

It’s a good story and I’m sorry I never met Flora, but I’m happy that I’ve followed in her teaching and farming footsteps. I can’t help but think of Alice Walker’s influential essay “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens,” in which Walker writes of “Sainted” and “crazy” Black foremothers who, denied legal, economic, and political power, still told stories and planted gardens and pieced quilts of “powerful imagination and deep spiritual feeling”: “And so our mothers and grandmothers have, more often than not anonymously, handed on the creative spark, the seed of the flower they themselves never hoped to see: or like a sealed letter they could not plainly read.” If you haven’t read Walker’s essay lately, you should.

These are the stories we tell as we weed lettuce and plant gladiolas and plot the trajectories of our lives. As we search for our mother’s and grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s gardens, what better place to start than our own?

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Filed under memoir, sustainable agriculture, women's writing