True Love and Home-Grown Tomatoes
With farmers' markets on the horizon, columnist looks back to "victory gardens" of his youth.
"Only two things that money can't buy/That's true love & homegrown tomatoes."
This saying has been around for ages, and I have no idea where it initially came from —an old-timey country music person like Ralph Stanley? Not Pinetop Perkins because he mostly just played the piano. Patch found it in the lyrics of a Guy Clark song. In any event, it is a truism which is demonstrated over and over again afresh with each new spring and summer growing season in these parts.
Wilma and I can’t wait until the farmers’ market in Towson starts stocking local produce in June, and other markets including ones in Waverly and downtown Baltimore. (The downtown market, by the way, opens Sunday.)
My mouth waters just thinking about it. Some years ago, we used to put tomato plants in a spot in our backyard where sunshine was adequate, but the shade trees have now made that no longer feasible.
Two years ago, first lady Michelle Obama made press when she turned some of the White House lawn into a vegetable garden as part of her campaign to encourage Americans to eat fresh vegetables, improve their diets and combat obesity. But she wasn’t the first first lady to do this.
So in whose footsteps was Obama following? Look it up, hon, and you’ll be surprised to see that the last time this was done was in World War II, when Eleanor Roosevelt initiated “victory gardens!” The U.S. was at war and food, like virtually every other commodity (gasoline, shoes, clothing, meat, etc), was given priority to help support the troops overseas. We had food stamps, meat points, coupon books and the like to ration supplies here at home.
So Roosevelt went on live radio, in the newspapers and in newsreel clips in the movies—TV wasn’t really around yet and there were no iPhone apps because there were no iPhones—to promote growing your own vegetables. Roosevelt made it an act of patriotism for citizens to have victory gardens. By raising your own vegetables, not only would you be able to eat fresh goodies, but you would also help to support our guys abroad and get the war over sooner.
Wow! Suddenly all through Stoneleigh, portions of lawns were turned into plots producing fresh spinach, kale, Swiss chard, string beans, wax beans, strawberries, peas, squash, red beets, rhubarb, lettuce, tomatoes, spring onions, asparagus, even grapes, etc. I don’t remember broccoli, but I’m sure it was there. There were trees producing cherries, apples and peaches, too. And more than a few yards sported an American flag on a pole erected in or near the vegetable garden to let passersby know that this was indeed a “victory garden.” We started a sizeable plot on our side yard on Ridgeleigh Road opposite the farm.
As a nine-year-old, my job was to keep the weeds out, spread fertilizer (good old fresh, pungent, horse manure that my father acquired from a farmer out in the county) and water when needed. He did the heavy work of digging up the plot and planting, and we all pitched in at harvest-time. Mother canned much of our produce using a pressure-cooker on the stove and “Ball” jars, for use later in the year. I kept a small notebook listing the work I did and my father paid me weekly, according to a pre-negotiated scale—2 cents for this, 5 cents for that—in lieu of an allowance, which pleased me very much. I was envied by some of my friends who offered to help for a commission.
Victory gardens became history in the late 1940s, but some veggies are still grown at home—tomatoes, especially and notably. You know, tomatoes you buy at the supermarket throughout the year taste kinda OK, but the ones we get from the Eastern Shore farmer at the Waverly farmers’ market each summer are wonderful. They are the closest to home-grown I have found…and that, my friend, is as close to true love as you can get!