Notes from Shipmeadow

Grandmother Never Threw Anything Away


We had one glorious glimpse of spring yesterday. This reluctant gardener was suddenly eager to get going on a project as was my husband, the person who really makes everything happen. I had tried to winter over the strawberries from the hydroponic set-up by tucking them into class-covered seed beds. They, like we, were perking up at the thought of spring so we brought out the Mr. Stacky tower, which is one of those inventions you wished you’d thought of. Instead of becoming increasingly smaller as the tower rises, each same-sized pot is offset from the next. The entire set up is quite expensive but you can buy the pots separately. Again, the person who makes everything happen, used a length of PVC pipe and a tub which previously had held mineral lick for the sheep as a reservoir. A small fish tank sized pump and an equally tiny aerator, and we were back in the strawberry business.   


Like many of her generation, my grandmother was born and raised thrifty. Her motto of “make do with what you have” had gone out of fashion in the glut of consumerism in previous decades. That attitude is changing as society at large began to realize that resources are finite. I asked my mother, who was born in 1924, about growing up in the Depression years. She replied that she and her sisters didn’t realize what was happening.  Insulated in a rural area far from the dust bowl, the girls had everything they needed. My mother is thrifty too. Me, not so much. But I am learning. 


One beautiful example of Grandmother’s thriftiness is pasted in an oversized school teacher’s ledger. Grandmother had briefly taught school before her marriage – and remember, she never threw anything away. Instead, she pulled the ledger out and, with her three young girls and Great-grandmother Alice, created art out of circa 1920s- 1930s seed catalogs. Season after season of beautiful flowers, fruits, vegetables, and farm crops were patiently cut from the pages of the catalogs and artfully pasted them into the pages of the ledger.   Many of the crops represented in the scrapbook were varieties grown on the farm. My mother gifted this heirloom scrapbook to me some years ago, and I treasure it. Their work raises scrapbooking to a work of art, and demonstrates that it is not necessary to buy a cartful of scrapbooking supplies from a craft store. All that is really needed is scissors, glue, and imagination.


Today, if we do part with a seed catalog (who doesn’t until the new edition arrives?), we feel good when we recycle – and we should. Before recycling, why not consider an adaptive use of the catalogs that preserves their beauty and teaches children something about fruit, vegetable, and flower varieties during some rare and precious family time when spring is teasing you about an early arrival but then Old Mother West Wind begins to blow and temperatures once again plummet, reminding us of my grandfather’s proclamation that nothing much happened on his farm before April 15. 


A resident of USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 5A, Elizabeth Janoski writes often of the history of her family’s farm and her reluctant but inherit compulsion to garden. Write to her at

Christmas Greens and Dreams of Spring

A polar vortex is swirling down upon the last of bit of green vegetation in the unheated greenhouse at the farm. I planted this coz lettuce in the hydroponic unit in October, thinking it would spring to life much like the Bibb lettuce did last March. Not so. The cos lettuce grew slowly to about 4 inches tall, then stalled. When we drained the hydroponic set-up, I transplanted a half dozen plants still in their net pots to a soil bed under glass. The plants haven’t grown a great deal but they are giving the odd leaf or two for sandwiches, which is a treat, considering there is about 4 inches of snow on the ground outside and I don’t want to talk about the temperature!   I’m also still picking a bit of fresh dill, though its feathery fronts are slowly succumbing to the cold and there’s a rather sad little mini cabbage about the size of a tennis ball lingering in a corner box. Still, there’s enough there to inspire me to new heights of cold weather growing.

I’ve been perusing my favorite reference, the 1908 edition of Sutton and Sons’ The Culture of Vegetables and Flowers from Seeds and Roots. With its talk of great glass houses and extensive gardens, this British gardening book harks back to Downton Abbeyesque estates and large market gardens. Still, there is always something of interest and useful to the modern organic grower. The monthly note for December leads off, “Only the idle or the half-hearted gardener will complain that he [she] has no work to do in the short dark days of this month.” The entry goes on to suggest that this month is the time to put things in order and do some planning for spring. 

The Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) website is a terrific time sink on a cold day. Each tantalizing listing leads to yet another small seed supplier committed to breeding unpatented, open pollinated seeds that enable growers to explore and preserve the genetic diversity of seeds, which is the backbone of heritage seed preservation. Buyers are free to continue to develop and these seeds for desired characteristics, and local growing conditions.  

Two independent seed companies who are members of the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) are on my list to try in 2017, mostly for their freely available information on four season gardening. Victory Seeds is a family-owned business based in Oregon offering open-pollinated seed varieties. One stand-out among the tomatoes was Isbell’s New Phenomenal (1933), which is a name nearly as appealing as the Mortgage Lifter (1920s). Another tempting variety bred for organics is Fertile Valley Seeds’ Beef-Bush Brown Resilient dry bean.

It certainly is easier to reach for varieties already bred for specific conditions, such as hydroponic and high tunnel growing. But in the darkest week of the year, taking a virtual trip through the many “freed seeds” available through OSSI member seed companies. If you have an interest in using these varieties join me in a walk through the OSSI website and let me know what you find!   

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