In Olden Days

With all of the recent blogs about seed starting and plant buying, it makes me wonder how in the world my grandmother managed to harvest anything!  I don’t recall her starting anything indoors except a jar of sweet potato starts.  She had no peat pots, no plastic trays, no heating mats, no special lights or sterilized potting soils.  And yet her pantry was always filled with jars, the basement shelves and bins were full, and in later years when she finally agreed to get one (they seemed to be an unnecessary, expensive frivolity) her freezer was full.

pie safe pantry

She did save seeds and kept them in tins or jars in the pie safe shown above (the one I now have in my Lady Cottage) on the unheated back porch.   She just had to wait for the ground to get warm, plant lots and plant fast, and hope for enough good weather for everything to mature.

I do remember going with her, when I was about 5 or so, to the local feed store to get a few tomato plants.  The plants were growing densely in a shallow wooden box, about 4″ deep.  She told the clerk the amount; the clerk sliced a square of soil containing the correct number of plants, slid it out of the wooden box and onto a piece of newspaper, which he wrapped around the plants like a cone.  He dipped it in water before wrapping a couple more pieces of newspaper around them (no plastic bags or Scotch tape in those days,) folding the top edge to secure it.  I don’t remember there being more than one box, so apparently there was no choice of variety.  I remember how proud I was; I got to carry them home!  Gma explained that these were special slicing tomatoes that would be much earlier than the seeds she’d sow directly in the ground for the canning tomatoes.

And seeing the variety of peppers people are growing today; it’s just amazing.  When I grew up, pepper was black and in a sprinkle jar like salt.  The green bell-shaped things were always called “mangoes.”  Really!  Not the fruit, the green bell pepper.  Maybe that’s just a Hoosier thing, I don’t know, but regardless, that’s the only variety I ever saw in anyone’s garden until I moved to Texas in 1969!  No one in our area ate hot peppers!  Growing up, we never ate the bell peppers raw.  They were tricky to grow, needing such a long growing season, but I can remember we always chopped them and cooked them with the tomatoes that were destined to become ketchup.  Yes, we bottled our own ketchup, and my mother still does.  There are some family recipes that would just not taste right with store-bought ketchup!  “Mangoes” were also chopped finely to add to pickle relish, and yes, we still make that and can it, too!

Gma grew lots of potatoes, and some years no one ate potatoes after mid-February, because all that were left must be kept for planting a new crop.  Otherwise, potatoes were served at least once a day on the farm (often more) and were kept in big, big bins in the basement.   There were three bins, probably 6′ x 6′ and 5′ deep.  The front had horizontal boards that slid out one at a time to make reaching the potatoes easier as the pile dwindled.  I wouldn’t want to have to dig the bushels and bushels of potatoes she grew each year.  Fortunately, digging the potatoes was a job for the menfolk, but kids had to pick them up, wipe them off and put them in wooden crates that the men carried to the basement to be dumped into the bins.

Onions were harvested, cured, and stored in burlap bags or flour sacks hung in the basement.  I only remember yellow onions.  She only grew bush beans, and saved her seed from year to year.  I don’t know the variety, but I remember they had brown seeds, because she canned most as green beans, but a few canners of green and shelled beans mixed together.  Carrots and beets were all canned.  I don’t know why she didn’t have a root cellar or store them in the basement, but she didn’t.

Cabbage seed was just planted in a short row in the garden, and when they were about 3″ tall, they were dug, separated, and spaced apart in long rows, usually where the early peas had been.  Cabbage was a major crop, used for a variety of slaws and of course, canned as saurkraut (except during WWII, because then it was too “German” to tolerate, and they were the enemy, after all.)  And yes, we still make our own saurkraut, using Gma’s “Never-Fail Kraut” recipe.  For the recipe, visit my website at http://www.caroleesherbfarm.com

One of things I remember was her “End of the Garden,” which was a mixture of bite-sized anything left at expected frost time pickled together, or immature cucumbers, or carrots, onions, etc. that were still in the ground and wouldn’t grow more once it froze.  We always had it for Christmas dinner, along with cans of tiny green tomatoes pickled with garlic.  Mind you, these were not cherry tomatoes, but 1″ tomatoes that were still on the vines.  Any that were slightly larger were picked and chopped for green tomato relish.  NOTHING was wasted.

It’s fun to have those memories, and to know that I could (and did during my homesteading days) grow without plastic or modern techniques, but I’ll keep my heating mat and divided trays and plastic domes, and soaker hoses and fluorescent lights, thank you.  And I’ll also keep my seeds in the antique pie safe, just as my grandmother did.  There’s no better place!

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About carolee

A former professional herb and lavender grower, now just growing for joy in my new potager. When I'm not in the garden, I'm in the kitchen, writing, or traveling to great gardens.
This entry was posted in gardening, Memories, Seeding, seeds, Uncategorized, vegetable gardening and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

36 Responses to In Olden Days

  1. Rita Rosol Shields says:

    Your Grandma sounds like a truly amazing woman. How lucky you were to spend time with her and have those beautiful memories. Thank you for sharing them. I guess she passed the gardening gene to your mother, and of course, to you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Laurie Graves says:

    Such an interesting, evocative post. Sounds a lot like the old-timey days in Maine, except we never called green peppers “mangoes.” We simply called them “green peppers.” To tell you the truth, I don’t think many people in Maine had even heard of mangoes. 😉

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  3. Thank you for sharing such wonderful memories! I grew up on a farm and we too grew our on food. My mother and her siblings still can vegetables, jellies and jams.

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  4. bcparkison says:

    Well no wonder you are such a good gardener. It is part of your makeup. How wonderful!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. curioussteph says:

    Great story. And fits right in with my awakening this morning and pondering about getting started on this season’s garden plans, including getting a new grow light. Here in CO, with our short growing season, if I don’t start my seeds, I won’t get tomatoes (unless I buy plants of course). Time’s a wasting!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Wonderful gardening memories

    Liked by 1 person

  7. 42daysfarm says:

    Excellent read, I loved ever line. My Nana came over from france after the war and while they lived in the city and couldn’t have a garden, she would grow a few tomatoes on the fire escape, and if she was in the country she would walk anyone’s yard and make a salads out of dandelion greens. Never was my particular cup of tea, but she would fly through a yard with a little knife and paper bag and clean it out. Really love the pie safe too..

    Liked by 1 person

    • carolee says:

      I LOVE dandelion greens, even though as a child it was usually my job to go dig them. In fact, I just ordered some Italian dandelions from Territorial Seeds. Crazy to grow them when they are free, I know, but these are upright and have ruby stems. Plus I get some run-off from the neighbor’s field that is chemical laden, so I am becoming hesitant to dig from my lawn.

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  8. It’s truly amazing that those of [Organic Gardeners] us old enough to remember and still grow/garden as our Gma’s did can outdo and out think all the “youngsters” who have suddenly decided organic gardening and seed starting, etc is something new and just discovered by them.
    Thanks for sharing show much great experience and values.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. No wonder you are such an amazing gardener and lovely person. It is in the genes!

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    • carolee says:

      So nice to hear from you! Yes, it is probably in the genes, but I think most humans have that desire to grow something, especially in spring. The trick is sticking with it come the heat of summer! Thanks for following. I loved your last pantry post!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. terrifortner says:

    Thank you so much for sharing. This was a delight to read this morning 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Ali says:

    I love your seed cupboard, and these memories of your grandmother. I find it fascinating to read about gardeners from around the world and their different ways of doing things. Bottling and pickling has a particular magic. Thank you.

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    • carolee says:

      I love my pie safe, too. It was my grandmother’s great aunt’s, so it has been in the family a long, long time. I’m fascinated with all forms of preserving. Had some fresh salmon the other day that was cured in pickled beet juice rather than cooked, and it was delicious!

      Liked by 2 people

  12. Lisa Hill says:

    My husband who is the main cook at our place (I do the cakes and puddings) has just discovered pickling as a way of preserving excess crop from our vegetable patch. So the time may come when I need a special little cupboard to put them in…but it would have to be indoors – inside our garden shed can reach up to 40 degrees sometimes in summer.

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    • carolee says:

      I love a man that cooks! And many folks are revisiting fermentation in all its forms. Jars would burst in my shed in winter because it is unheated, but I had it built with a very high ceiling and windows for cross ventilation, so it doesn’t get too hot in there even if it is 100 degrees F in summer. Thanks for reading!

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  13. Thank you for writing this article. I enjoyed reading it very much. Knowing how farming was done in the old days helps us better understand farming today. It also helps us know how to make do when modern conveniences are not available. Mary Ames Mitchell

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Margy says:

    My grandmother had a quarter acre garden. I loved all the fruit trees, grapes and berries. Vegetables were also grown and she did canning. I remember jars on the shelf in the garage and she had a very large freezer as well. I didn’t like going in the garage very much because of the many wasps that made nests in the eaves. Grandma lived about a seven hour drive away so I never got to see what she did at planting time, but I remember the harvests well. We lived in the city so my mom didn’t do any gardening for food items, but when she retired my dad prepared the back yard for lots of great things to grow. Now I’m doing the same in my retirement. – Margy

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    • carolee says:

      I’m sorry you had to wait to retire to finally experience the joy of growing your own food, but better late than never! I didn’t like having to go to the dark, spooky basement to get potatoes out of the bin either!

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  15. ohsureican says:

    Everything was so simple back then. There was no complicating things. Just plant some stuff and eat it. We tend to over think everything these days.

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    • carolee says:

      Hmmm. Simple? Maybe. I look at the pie safe and think “That was one of the few places where seeds or food or cloth were safe from rodents.” That was a constant battle. Most women had a baby every year, and lost many, but gardening when always pregnant could not have been easy. And what if you weren’t a good gardener? Did your family want? Fencing and wildlife was always a problem, so keeping plants to harvest was an even bigger challenge than it is today. I spent years as a homesteader, “living the simple life.” It’s not nearly as simple as those who haven’t tried it imagine. I am happy to be gardening now. At least if a crop fails, I can easily fill in the blank.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Stefanie says:

    What fantastic memories! My growing season in Minnesota is so short if I want tomatoes or peppers I have to start them indoors or buy the plants someone else started. You make an interesting observation regarding all the varieties of everything that are available these days. It’s really astonishing sometimes especially when trying to pick which ones to grow!

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    • carolee says:

      I will try not to complain that I can’t yet be in the garden, since your season is even shorter than mine. But doesn’t it get hard to not feel behind (left out?) when all the British and Australian blogs are already enjoying a season without us? I get so impatient! This is when I miss my commercial greenhouses most. They would be a sea of green by now, and violas and pansies would be budded.

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      • Stefanie says:

        Oh yes, it is so hard! My fingers are itching to dig right now. But, it is indoor seed starting time so I get to have fun setting everything up this weekend to get ready. I can only imagine how fantastic any kind of heated greenhouse would be.!

        Liked by 1 person

  17. Island Time says:

    What a wonderful post! I enjoyed reading your lovely story on this sunny, spring-like morning at my island homestead! So full of interesting and useful tips. Your Gran and Mom and you, all peas in a pod, know what it is all about. No, it’s not easy growing one’s own food, saving the seed, raising the babies, battling the varmints, living the so-called simple life, using what is available to make it all happen. Exhausting at times, but oh so rewarding if one can hack it! In the past there was no choice but to hack it! A healthy life though; good food and exercise all in one! A very inspiring life story. Thank you so much.

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  18. Thanks for the marvelous walk down memory lane. My grandfather was the gardener, but my grandmother did all the canning; and there was lots of it! She had a huge, deep pantry in the basement and I loved going down there with her in the winter months to select items for dinner. My grandparents weren’t “homesteaders” but they certainly saved a lot of money growing and preserving much of their food; and we were all healthy and happier for it.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Helen says:

    Interesting look at what people used to do. It shows you we don’t need the plastic we think we do!

    Liked by 1 person

    • carolee says:

      I’ve decided that plastic pots and flats are a good exception, when properly used. Those I have I’ve used 20 years or more and they’ll probably last my lifetime. That to me seems good value and hopefully when I’m done with them they will be recycled. I keep them out of the sunlight when not in use and keep them stacked.

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  20. Eva O'Reilly says:

    The best part about summer holidays with my great-grandmother was going out to the vegetable garden to pick fresh peas and strawberries. Thanks for some great memories 🙂

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