Thursday, June 20, 2013

Grandma J.

I just came in all sweaty and dirty from a long day gardening in the humid weather, thinking about my grandma, Bertha Johnson. This is her on her 80th birthday. She lived to be 92 and was vibrant  and independent until her last few months. She traveled to New Zealand - the final destination on her dream travel list - when she was 90. 

My grandma was an irrepressible gardener and I learned to love digging in the dirt from her. I was so lucky to grow up with two grandmothers nearby, my paternal grandma living next door throughout my teenage years (she was more of a houseplant gardener), and Grandma J, my maternal grandma,  just a short walk away on Lake Bemidji.  

Grandma J. had me working with her in the garden even as a very young child.  I would help her start tomato seeds, in eggshell halves set in the egg cartons, in her little screened-in porch that served as a greenhouse.  My sisters and I cultivated the rows of carrots and other veggies, walking backward so as to not leave footprints, and she was patient when we accidentally weeded out the starts. I learned to soak and inoculate bean seeds before planting.  She paid me a penny per dandelion dug from her yard, as long as I got the entire root. We planted sweet corn the Native American way, in hills of four seeds with a fish buried beneath.  Occasionally in the  evenings  Grandma would take me fishing for little perch in the weedy area of the lake in front of her house, not to eat, but just to bury in her garden and enrich the soil.  

She and my grandpa built their house on the lake when I was in  kindergarten, and for the rest of her life she worked to transform what was essentially beach sand into rich garden loam by adding tons of  compost, sheep manure and mulching with her former neighbors' grass clippings and leaves. She watered her gardens with warm, nutrient-rich lake water. She worked out a deal with the resort owners up and down the lakeshore--they would haul their guests' fish cleaning guts to her garden daily during the summer  and dig them in wherever she directed them. 

Her garden was spectacular, a show-stopper, but always a work in progress. She called her style "hodgepodge" - vegetables mixed with abandon with bulbs, berries,  fruit trees and flowers.  And weeds. Always more weeding to be done.  She read Organic Gardening magazine and once told me that she didn't know what the hoopla was about organic gardening, that was the way she always had gardened.  She planted by the moon and also used companion planting strategies. Although she really did not like earthworms, she appreciated them in her garden.  She disliked rabbits. She collected rain water in a barrel on the corner of her house - good soft water for watering her seedlings.  I realize now she was using permaculture techniques!

Another trait I must have inherited from Grandma J was a love of reuse, recycling and repurposing. Her garden was full of garage sale  finds - old birdhouses, wicker chairs, benches - that she repainted and refurbished decades before Flea Market gardening was a hot garden trend. She saved boxes of salad dressing and ketchup bottles for  "vases"  that we grandkids would clean out every summer by swishing a bit of pea gravel and vinegar water inside.  She would sometimes take my sisters and me to the Dairy Queen for an ice cream cone,  but then ask us to fish out the plastic dishes from garbage --the sundae cups were great for starting seeds and the parfait glasses were perfect for  putting stems of flowers in for the county fair.  

Or, I should say "fairs." Grandma entered every county fair in northern Minnesota every summer and she strived to have an entry in every category of flower, vegetable, herb, berry, jam, jelly, pickle, and flower arrangement. Back then you would win $1 for a blue ribbon, $.75 for red and $.50 for white. Maybe $5 for a grand champion purple!  She had a closet full of boxes full of ribbons from all the fairs over the years. I told her it would be so cool to wallpaper her house with her ribbons! She earned enough money from her fair winnings and from selling plant starts (dug from her garden) at the end of her driveway each spring to pay for her world travels each winter.

When I am gardening now, trying to figure out what to plant where or how to tackle a problem with weeds or insects or soil, I often find myself  thinking "What would Grandma do?"  When I hear the chug-a-chug-a-p-r-r-r-r of the lawn sprinkler, I often flash back to  gardening with her.  Wearing my cropped pants, sleeveless blouse, plastic shoes and gardening gloves, I  realize I am wearing pretty much her exact summer attire. When I come up with an innovative  garden repurposing idea I think how she would appreciate it. Oh how she would have loved having a high tunnel to extend the northern Minnesota growing season and get a head start for the fair! I wish, wish, wish she could see my farm and gardens and know how much all those summers gardening with her influenced me and how much I love growing things, thanks to her. 

Several years ago, Rog and I were on a backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon.  Being in such a vast, quiet place without the constant bombardment of radios, phones, computers and other such stimuli, we all found ourselves having very vivid dreams.  One night, in the wee hours of morning,  my grandma appeared and said "I am so proud of you." That was all.  It felt more like a visitation than a dream.  So maybe she does know. 


Marcia said...

Susan - what an incredible tribute to your Grandmother. You should send it in to "Green Prints - The Weeder's Digest". It's just the thing he likes to publish. Pat Stone is the editor/publisher Their website is

Anonymous said...

That was very touching. I'm a grown man with tears in my eyes as I read that memory of your Grandma. I too had wonderful Grandparents who lived close and gardened. Your story was so heartfelt and sweet. I believe somehow she is smiling down on you as you tend your gardens. Thank you for sharing your memories and reminding me of my own cherished memories. Todd , from SW Illinois

Gardeningbren said...

Thanks for sharing that. So touching and well written. I agree with Marcia.