When I was young, in post-war Germany back in the 1950s, I promised myself that I would never have a garden. Mother was to blame. She had a huge garden. Since she also worked in the family store, she eagerly drafted as many of us seven girls as she could for garden duty.
Our garden was the first one in a huge community garden. A concrete path led down the middle. To the left and the right of it stood apples, plums, pears, and sour cherry trees, along with countless currant and gooseberry bushes. Vegetable beds, raspberries, rhubarb, and a few flowers filled in the gaps.
And that was before our garden neighbor died, which made his garden available for a new owner. Mother didn’t waste anytime getting it!
On the right, a short path led to the garden house (my father had it built by a couple of employees who were trained carpenters). The little attic above its two rooms housed the tools. I remember a time when we had no garden house, only a large box on stilts to hold our tools. When it rained then, Mother got wet.
The garden house was a nice gift to Mother, but a source of resentment for us girls. Since it rains a lot in the region I came from, the ground was always wet and muddy. We had to wear gardening shoes, loose-fitting, decrepit things with dried mud crumbs inside that could never be completely removed. Their worn heels made walking difficult, so we could never run and play. There wasn’t much room to play, anyway: Trees with branches full of bugs (it seemed to us) were everywhere.
The garden shoes dragged mud into the garden house, so every weekend one of us four oldest girls had to wash the floor. We used a rag that we hung on the plum tree to dry. When we took it down a week later, earwigs fell out of it. Earwigs also fell out every time we opened the shutters on the garden house’s back window. Every German knows the story Balduin Baehlamm by Wilhelm Busch, about a young poet who was lying in the grass to think—and an earwig made its way into his ear. I was young! I believed it.
Spiders built webs in the window corners of the rooms, webs that filled up with dead bugs. When ripe fruit fell and turned to mush, bees and wasps feasted on them—so we didn’t dare walk barefoot.
Raspberries often had little tiny worms in them, so you had to check before you popped one into your mouth. Speaking of raspberries, our garden plot had no toilet, so when the urge hit, you had to dig holes among the raspberries and hope that no one was looking.
When all those fruits and vegetables ripened, we had to pick them, all of them, every last little current berry that we had left because it was so small. Buckets upon buckets of gooseberries, cherries, raspberries, plums, green beans, carrots, and more—all of it made its way into our kitchen, where we had to wash it, pit it, peel it, slice it, and can it.
The work made my fingers black and dirty-looking, especially around the fingernails. And that on a Saturday, when a girl wants to primp in preparation for Sunday!
Mother did not allow us to have boyfriends. Of course I had one anyway, a secret one. But every summer Saturday afternoon, Mother would make some of us go out with her to the garden. Not everyone had a telephone in those days. If I made a date and Mother suddenly drafted me for garden duty, it was real agony for me. I worried that my friend might interpret my no-show as a break-up.
We couldn’t even escape Mother’s gardening at home: She kept plants on every window sill. If I dared to throw away a sickly plant, she promptly pulled it out of the trash, put it back on the sill—and gave me a lecture!
No, I was never going to have a garden when I grew up.
Then I came to the United States and got married. It didn’t take me long to get tired of tasteless, store-bought tomatoes. So I went out and bought some plants.
I have been gardening ever since. ❖