Story collected by Karl Novak
After interviewing my grandmother for “green” cultural practices she participates in or organizes herself (particularly in a garden setting), I was astonished at the amount of different stories she had to share with me. I chose to interview my grandmother because she tends a garden in her backyard that is unbelievably colorful and vibrant, like something out of a magazine. My grandmother volunteered at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Highland Park, Illinois, typically for a day per week. At the garden she mentioned how volunteers, including herself, went around “dead heading” – removing dead flowers to promote growth – the plants found throughout the landscape. The volunteers also checked for insect infestations and reported to the proper authorities if they noticed anything. Finally, she mentioned how the Botanic Gardens offer a class on botany and horticulture for the aspiring gardeners, providing useful tips and nifty tricks to the public interested in such topics.
My grandmother informed me that she had learned many of her outdoor garden practices from her mother, who was from a poor background in Sweden. Because my grandmother’s mom came from a family with meager funds, she learned to “make do with what she had”, and spent a lot of time outdoors tending the garden. My great grandmother first began the growing season in early spring (around late April or early May) with tomato seedlings she grew indoors to avoid an overnight frost. After the threat of frost had surpassed, my grandma’s mom would move them into the garden in the freshly turned soil. Throughout the growing season, all the yard waste was collected and put into a pit at the edge of the yard that was lined with bricks. The pit my grandma’s family used was described as a compost bin, but my grandmother took pride in the fact that her family composted before it even became a well known thing to do for a garden. My grandmother said that they would put grass clippings, unwanted weeds, rotted vegetables, and even fish guts in the compost bin, and the deep bin would be filled by the end of the season. Over winter, the waste would produce heat and keep “cooking” to prevent freeze, and would be ready for use the next season. My great grandmother would spread the compost over the turned soil. Between the naturally healthy earth and the compost they spread, the soil was “so light and fluffy, the vegetables would grow like the dickens”. The light fluffy soil would promote good drainage for the plants so that water near the plants’ roots would not be stagnant. Stagnant water near the roots would actually rot the roots and ultimately hurt or kill the plant.
In the early 1960s, my great grandmother visited her brother in Sweden after moving to America and collected two plants: a geranium and another called “The Star of Bethlehem”. Although it was illegal to transport the flowers back to America, my grandmother’s mom smuggled them in her bra and placed the twig in water back at home. The plants established roots in the water and eventually grew into several more sections. My grandma obtained a portion of these plants from her mother and kept them alive since the 1960s, and these carried a special meaning to her and consequently my mother as well. Unfortunately, the Star of Bethlehem contracted a virus about 3 years ago and died, but the geraniums received from her mom are still doing very well to this day. My grandmother shared that the geraniums help her remember her mother and liked to share with both my mother and I how it became a special family plant in that way. My grandmother moves the geraniums inside during the winter and takes especially good care of them.
My grandmother gardens to attract golden finches, blue jays, cardinals, and other migratory birds to her yard as a source of entertainment for herself. As an additional benefit, the birds eat bugs that would otherwise damage the plants in her garden. On a particular occasion, my grandmother was looking out the window and noticed a group of sparrows that seemed to be very interested in the beans growing in her garden. After watching some time, she found out why when a sparrow flew to the beans and grabbed a Japanese beetle from the leaf. All of the stories my grandmother shared in the interview were very interesting to me and I learned a lot from interviewing her. It also gave me a greater sense of connection for me with that side of my family and my ancestors. It made me very happy to have the time to talk with her about something she was so passionate about and it in turn made me even more excited.