I have no doubt that Grandma’s garden, and her love of it was a major force in her active lifespan of ninety-one years. It covered a double-lot and for her young grandchildren it was an immense playground and wonderland. Up to her last year with us she was never so alive as the day every Spring she declared the risk of frost was no longer to be feared. Now what had been covered with snow and ice was a verdant landscape. There would be no more icicles from the tree branches or a skim of ice in the birdbaths. Bent with arthritis and dependent upon a cane she walked into her special retreat with a vigor that belied her age. Her first and most important inspection was her fig tree, more a huge bush than a typical tree. It had been brought over, clandestinely, from her birthplace in Sicily. Everyone with any knowledge of figs was certain the climate of her new home would mean certain death to her precious fig. She knew otherwise.
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Every fall she would have her grandchildren assemble a mass of coverings she had collected during the year. We would sort the pile by shape and size and then cover the fig bush with the old blankets, tarpaulins, sheets, and carpet segments Grandma would sit on a kitchen chair in front of the bush and direct our placement of the coverings over her beloved fig bush. Every spring the ritual was in reverse, and sometimes we would discover frost between the layers, the last Winter survivor. Grandma would gently examine her patient stem by stem to determine how it survived the winter cold. Some years with mild winters the process was uneventful but in years with harsh winters we would eye her activity with great concern as she carefully snipped off damaged branches with the precision of a surgeon.
Assured her pet would produce her beloved “fico” she moved on to her next inspection, grandchildren following like so many excited goslings behind Mother Goose. Grandma was an “organic gardener” well before the term grew popular. She was of an age and tradition where nothing was wasted. Virtually anything of an organic nature—kitchen wastes, leaves, pulled leaves and grass clippings—made it into her compost pile alongside an ancient shed. It was bordered by snow crocuses and hyacinths, there early blooms a time-clock for her to determine the readiness of the compost. The boys would take turns shoveling out the compost, dark moist earth like devil’s food cake, filling the air with a rich perfume of earthworms and soil. She had assembled a variety of recycled boxes and the boys would fill each with the potent fertilizer and Grandma would assign her granddaughters to box according to size and then direct them to various spots in her garden. There was never a shortage of the natural fertilizer. Grandma was always thinking ahead and would have us collect grass clippings during summer and leaves in autumn, piling each individual collection on top of the last. We would marvel how our giant mounds would shrink like a deflating balloon under Winter rain and snow.
Next on the tour would be her fruit trees, important to us since we all knew in a few months we would be enjoying eating fruit we picked ourselves and collecting the remainder for pies and preserves. She would point out how early blossoms were damaged by late frosts, and make us guess which buds would grow to be flowers and which would be leaves. Pointing with her cane like a horticultural conductor she would point out which limbs to prune, and we knew we were becoming “big kids” when she would let us use her pruning shears or saw. Sometimes all that would be left would be a stout truck and thick branches, only to transform into a leafy testament to her knowledge.
Her grape trellis was next on her inspection. Years before our time our uncles had crafted a tall arched tunnel of sorts out of pipe, almost fifty feet long. When covered with grape leaves it was a cool escape from summer heat. The older boys would bring rickety ladders from the shed and cover the vines with cheesecloth and whatever other netting Grandma had stored. She did this to keep the birds out, but often to her dismay the birds would become trapped in the barrier, and she would summon her neighbor to rescue the frightened bird. We learned how important they were in controlling insects, and later in the spring as we planted vegetables she would sing in broken English, “uno for you, uno for birds, uno for you, uno for birds. Her garden was on every local bird’s “must visit” list, and the garden was always full of their songs, like a tribute to her generosity.
The last step in garden preparation was the hard work for the boys—turning over the various garden spots that dotted her garden like so many dark islands in the green sea of new grass. Her granddaughters would help her in the kitchen, preparing lunch or dinner, depending on the time. She would always admonish her grandsons to look very carefully so we did not damage any young plants before we dug in with our shovels. At first we didn’t understand why, and it became a tradition to initiate other cousins as they became strong enough to use a shovel. Grandma had saved her coins during the year and would send one of our uncles out the night before, sprinkling the dirt with pennies, nickels and dimes. It was a special harvest for their hard work and now-blistered hands.
When winter turns to Spring we think of Grandma. She died but her garden lived on and somehow the old fig bush remained alive despite the lack of Grandma’s care. We still wonder if the new owners puzzle over finding coins in odd spots of their backyard.
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