My History with Gardens (Part 2)

. . . feeling out of place in a land of farms, what do you do?

In 1966 my husband and I, both life-long city dwellers, moved from The Big Apple down to the Eastern Shore of  Maryland where he had secured his first full-time faculty appointment.  We rented a cottage on a farm,  and were surrounded on all sides by fields.  We arrived in September in what was to be a year of surprises.  Having been told that we were 50 miles away from Baltimore and DC, we discovered that it was 50 miles as the crow flies.  By car, it was not only more, but it was across the dreaded Chesapeake Bay Bridge.  Driving across that bridge was so fearsome that a local lady, living on the Eastern Shore side and working on the urban/suburban side, needed to have her car driven over and back by a county policeman.  As “outsiders”, we were not so lucky and so our trips across the bridge were rare.  We were told that the  Eastern Shore had mild winters.  There was a blizzard on our first Thanksgiving there and my husband had to drive up to Wilmington to meet my mother arriving by train.  What took 45 minutes normally took four hours as the chains kept coming off the tires.

We learned right away the importance of the hunting season in a rural area.  There were no Pampers™ back then, so we really needed our washing machine installed right away, but we couldn’t find a plumber to save our souls.  We asked our landlord, the farmer, who also happened to  be the Superintendent of Public Works for the county, why we couldn’t find a plumber and he laughed heartily at the city slickers and then took pity on us and used his influence to get a plumber on the first day of the hunting season.  We heard about it all during the installation – what a fine day he was missing in the woods with his shotgun (I think it was his shotgun – or was it his rifle?  I’m still not conversant).

Not too far from the house there was a small barn and next to it a field.  The agricultural environment inspired me in the spring to put in a tomato plant in the strip of land between the barn and the field.  I really don’t remember doing a whole lot to the plant.  I had one of those conical supports and that was it.  I don’t remember watering it, but it yielded these huge, succulent, deep red fruits the likes of which we had never tasted (that’s hyperbole, but I think that’s the DIY effect).  My husband beamed.

Lush fruit ripening on the vine

“You’re a natural farmer,” he said.

Some months later I heard that the field next to my tomato plant had been plowed under with soy beans.  I didn’t know exactly why then, but it sort of  dampened my self-confidence as a “natural farmer”.

That Fall we had another new experience – not gardening, but agriculture.  We had a hurricane blow through and one farm in the county was in the direct path of the high winds and driving rain that blew down two of his corn fields.  An immediate notice went out “Free corn, all you can pick.  Everybody come.”  We went with a bed sheet and picked the most unbelievably beautiful corn we had ever seen.  We were not alone.  Families were all over the two fields picking up the corn.

Why was it for free? I wondered.  The corn was not sweet corn – it was “horse” corn meant for animal consumption.  The farmer’s fields were insured against such damage only if he didn’t sell the corn.  And the corn, while seemingly ripe, was not ready for the market.  Nor, apparently, was the corn marketable in its distressed state.  And so while we got free corn, we also provided free labor for clearing his fields.

Nevertheless, eating the free corn, just picked from the fields, was an unbelievable treat.  It may not have been sweet corn, but in it’s not ready for market state you could not tell the difference.  We didn’t take away much corn because it was our first time with such an experience and did not yet know about the economic quid pro quo – or about the possibility of blanching and freezing. We didn’t have a full size freezer anyway. But many of the local families did take away a sizable quantity of corn – much more than could be eaten in one sitting and I found out that they did indeed blanch and freeze their corn for six months of eating.

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