In the Adirondack Mountains of New York State, home gardens are a way of life. What I mean is, those who are native to the area have a home garden because it is needed to survive the winter and shave off some of the cost of living in that harsh, alpine environment. Most everything is trucked into the region, so it costs a lot more to live there. It’s still cheaper than down the line in New York City, but wages are much smaller here so any increase hits the wallet pretty hard. Thus a home garden helps to make ends meet.
What complicates matters is that the growing season is quite short, about 90 days on average. Our last frost in the Spring comes around Memorial Day, and the first frost of the Fall always hits our area near Labor Day. As a result, what people grow in the rocky, mineralized soil has to be hearty and fast growing. Potatoes do well, as do carrots, beats, squash, eggplant, kale, green peppers and pumpkins. Tender plants like tomatoes, and any of the vegetables that take longer to mature, like sweet corn, just take more care and some creative measures to ensure their chances of survival.
One thing my father used to get a jump on the growing season was a “cold flat”. This was a simple technique that took advantage of a south facing slope and a few glass windows. Old railroad ties were used to create a large raised garden box in a sunny location. This was filled with soil late in the Fall, and then a healthy portion of cow manure and compost were both mixed in as well. Next old windows from a remodeling job were laid over the opening and they were attached to the boxes with heavy hinges. These laid flat over the opening and let the sun in, but could also be propped up when it got too hot, and that allowed for ventilation.
“Cold flats” sit all winter so the soil in them can “season”. Then in the early Spring they become very inexpensive greenhouses and can be used even when there is still some snow on the ground. The large temperature fluctuations common in our area do not impact anything growing in these. Thus, my father planted herbs like chives, thyme, basil, sage and rosemary and they all thrived. He also got an early start on some other plants for his garden well in advance of others. Tomatoes, green peppers, and many other kinds of vegetables got a healthy jump in those beds. These eventually were transplanted into the open air after the danger of frost was gone.
That ingenuity paid off by keeping food on our table. It also managed to stretch dad’s small paycheck so he could pay the bills, keep the heating oil tank full and keep the electricity on all through the long Adirondack winter. To be honest, as a kid I failed to see the point in why my father did all this back bending and time consuming extra effort? He fished and hunted, and that wild game was normal fare at our dinner table. So why did he do all this extra hard work in the garden? What I discovered years later touched me deeply and told me a great deal about the man he was. More than that, it told me about the depth of the love he had for my mother.
Why did he do it? He did it for my mother, who was the only love of his life. Jennie Maria Rossi was the Italian beauty he had married in 1941, and they were totally devoted to each other. To all our joy, she was the creator of the most amazing meals you could imagine, and she had been taught by her mother, Louisa Maria Vincenzo (Rossi). The key that unlocked this heavenly cooking was fresh, garden herbs and vegetables. It was a divine romance between the food of life and the life found in food. In other words, this was dad’s way of continually saying to my mother, “Jennie, I love you. Here is the best I have so you can do what you love to do best”.
The food mom cooked was an event at our house, and no one ever wanted to miss a meal. However, that meal was always preceded by the same daily routine. You could almost set your clock by the things that were undoubtedly going to happen. At 5:30pm dad arrived home from being a caretaker and guide on Upper St. Regis Lake. He drove his 1954 Willies Jeep in the driveway and parked in front of the garage , which also served as a barn. Upon entering the house, he took off his hat and coat, washed his hands and mom called us all to the dinner table and we sat down to eat. She then delivered the food on serving plates and we prayed a blessing over the food that was about to be consumed.
The colors, aromas, textures and tastes were amazing. What sat on those dishes just made our mouths water with anticipation. Each thing on the menu was not only prepared with mom’s loving care, but the vegetables had come from our garden and the main dish was either caught or shot by my father. It was so much more than just a meal. It was an act of love and provision that made us feel special, secure and safe. That food spoke love to us at every level and it settled our world, calmed our minds and made us a family in every possible way. It WAS love, and we enjoyed every steaming, delicious mouthful!
Now that I am older and my mother and father have both gone to be with the Lord, I too have a garden. It is not huge but it is productive and it fills our dinner table with nutrition and joy. My wife Esther loves what I bring in daily and my children and grandchildren enjoy what I drop off for them. They may not know it yet, but in doing this, I am expressing in a tangible way, what my father so wonderfully spoke to my mother. With every tomato and bunch of escarole he handed her, he proclaimed his faithfulness and love to this remarkable woman. More than that, he gave her the very things she needed to express in a meal, the boundless love that was in her heart for us.
By these simple actions, love was made real and our lives were changed forever! My question for you is simple; “who have you given a tomato today?” Why not go and hand a few out….you never know how it might change a life!