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Sunflowers and Black Bonnets

This year I want my garden to look good. In August I will host a Fairview School Reunion when three generations of Amish and Mennonite family members who once attended school in my house will return to reminisce about baseball games and Christmas pageants, practical jokes and spelling bees. They will bring their old song books and report cards. Their old teachers will travel from Ohio and Indiana and find their way through the gate to sit on a bench under a big tent, sip iced tea, and eat a potluck lunch. When the children take up the softball and bat, the elders' eyes will drift through the fence toward my garden. Rows of black bonnets will either nod in approval or politely remain still.

My gardening is a solitary, contemplative endeavor. I'm there 99% of the time with my hoe, my wild matt tomatoes winding up the trellis, the black swallowtail butterfly and wide, open sky. During days like the Fairview School Reunion, my kitchen garden steps out of seclusion and becomes connected to a wider social world.

So, this spring I'm abandoning my grandmother's Shanty Irish school of garden design and opting for a more Germanic one. A few days ago, I sat at my kitchen table drawing in a worn, frayed, 20-year-old garden notebook. With a pencil and ruler, I sketched in lines depicting the wide rows of vegetables - peas, beans, beets, carrots, turnips, potatoes, lettuce, Swish chard, cabbage and broccoli - that I would be planting in my plot in just a few weeks.

I grow my broccoli in a garden located on the grounds of an old Amish one-room schoolhouse located in the biggest Amish/Mennonite settlement west of the Mississippi River. My garden sits a top a gently rolling hill that looks down on a valley dotted with white farm houses, red barns and lush, green fields worked with horses and 1940s vintage tireless tractors. The fields are planted in a rotation of crops: corn, beans, alfalfa and oats. Up and down the road, the Amish and Mennonite women work their own gardens that are both practical and artistic. The clean, straight rows that feed families of ten are ringed with borders of bright red cannas, orange cosmos, and yellow marigolds. Pink roses climb trellises and white clematis winds up around the poles of the purple martin houses.

Throughout the years, I, too, have rotated my crops around my garden. In my notebook I've kept track of what I've planted where, what kinds of seeds I've used, and how each variety ultimately faired in my conditions. Each fall, I've selected out the best seeds of the best varieties, recorded the dates of their harvest on the front of little Manila envelopes, and slipped the kernels inside the flap. In mid-winter, I start my seedlings in a sunny window in a white flat. I place the container on an electrical heat mat to jump-start germination. When the leaves of the broccoli sprouts are just beginning to fan out over the edge of their little peat pots, I usually begin to think about design. In my head, I formulate a concept of what shape my garden will take as it grows and develops, which plants are companions and will complement each other in size, color and texture.

Until this year, I'd given up the idea that I would ever live up to my Amish neighbors' standards. Until this year, I'd given up the idea that I would ever live up to my Amish neighbors' standards. The many children in Amish families keep the gardens spotless, weed-free throughout the season, and centuries of expertise go into the cultivation of the soil, the growing of the food, and the preservation of the produce. Hundreds of jars of tomatoes, sauerkraut and peaches line Amish families' larders and their root cellars are stuffed with bins of potatoes and squash. But Amish women pour as much creativity into their garden design as they do the patterns of their quilts. In a culture that does not promote or have the leisure time for the rest of the arts - painting, drawing, singing and dancing - Amish women find expression in their quilting and gardening.

My garden sits just east of my house, barely visible from the road. Most of my neighbors passing by in their buggies have no idea what weird thing I'm growing. They rarely glimpse the pink blossoms of my red okra or the thin little leaf blades of my perennial lettuce inching its way out of the soil. But when an Amish neighbor stops to ask for a ride to the dentist or doctor, they inevitably scan my garden and ask about my scarlet runner beans winding up the garden fence. Or, they might ask about the variety of my sunflowers that draw brightly colored goldfinches to my plot. Or they might even compliment me. An Amish woman might nod toward my garden and state flatly, "Your garden looks good."

I lament the decline of kitchen gardens in contemporary society for many reasons. I lament the decline of kitchen gardens in contemporary society for many reasons. There is nothing more intoxicating than a fresh-picked sweet corn steaming in a pot, nothing more enticing than a patty pan squash still fresh with morning dew, nothing more exhilarating than the snap of a fresh pea, its pod splitting open in your hand. But when we give up our small vegetable plots for fast food, restaurant meals and pre-washed, pre-packaged lettuce, we give up more than just freshness and self-sufficiency. We give up the wider, social net of fellow gardeners, the nodding bonnets of approval, the exchange of seeds, or small jars of jam or apple butter during the holidays. We give up a whole topic of conversation, a sense of bonding with the fabric of our communities.

This winter I made a trade with my Old Order Amish neighbors. I wanted help with housecleaning and they wanted help with the germination of their seedlings. I knew that they had several teenage daughters who could whiz around my house with a broom and leave it spotless in two hours. They knew that I had an electric heat mat. So every two weeks Martha has appeared at my door in her black bonnet and shawl, and I've started another couple of flats of the impatiens and geraniums on the heat mat for the Yoders. Martha and I have watched the seedlings pop their necks out of the soil, cheering the speedy emergence of the impatiens and coaxing the slowpoke spikes to please, please, please surface. Martha, with her bright, open, blue eyes, has brought lightness to the dark days of winter. She has reminded me of the many reasons why I have chosen to live in this magical place among these people.

The first day she arrived, I began to explain to Martha my cleaning methods.

"I don't clean with chemicals," I said, and then readied myself to launch into instructions to scrub surfaces with baking soda and vinegar.

"Okay," Martha said. "But what do you mean by chemicals?"

I explained that most "English" scoured everything from their toilets to their ovens with toxic chemicals that they often sprayed from pressurized containers.

"I've never seen anything like that," Martha said.

On another day when we discovered that I had mismarked the "ruby" petunias as the "orange" petunias, Martha stood by the seed flats in the window and put down her cleaning rag.

"Can I ask you a question?"

"Sure," I said.

"What's this?" she pointed toward the window.

"Do you mean the air conditioner?" I asked, glancing at the window unit that was snuggly wrapped in its winter insulation.

Martha nodded. "What does it do?" She asked.

When I explained its function, Martha looked at me with astonishment.

"On a really, really hot day this summer, come on over and we'll enjoy the coolness and have a lemonade."

On another morning, I had just flown back from a trip to Denver.

"What's it like up there in the sky?" she asked. "Do you just see clouds?"

"When you are above them, yes. But when you come down for a landing you look down at the ground and do you know what it looks like?"

"What?"

"A patchwork quilt."

Martha giggled a skeptical little laugh.

"Truly," I said. "Each farm looks like a quilt block."

The social "fabric" of my garden reached far beyond my own imagination this winter. By spring, I not only had a new friend, but I'd experienced some of the joys of living a less "worldly" life. I'd bonded with a neighbor, another woman, in a way that would have been missed if we both shopped for our produce at Hy-Vee. Once Martha and I had transported all the Yoder's seedlings back to their farm and lined them up on shelves in their greenhouse, I returned home to my potting table to start my own seeds.

I dreamed of giant heads of red cabbage, of tender Yukon gold potatoes, of tiny young beets with their delicious green leaves still attached. I sketched my garden with a perfect design, each plant complementing the other, the pole beans winding up the popcorn stalks. I saw my yard filled with horses and buggies for the Fairview School Reunion. Stories would drift through the air — of children learning their sums, sledding down the hill to the creek or playing tag. Then all the black bonnets would turn toward me as if they were the dark centers of sunflowers following the afternoon sun. They would glance toward my garden and nod.

Graphics Credits

  • Amish family, courtesy of Kristina Sowers.
  • sunflowers, courtesy of June C.Oka.
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