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Hanging Baskets

With the rear seats folded up, the entire back of my Toyota Rav-4 was packed with hanging baskets, white plastic containers teeming with bright red and pink impatiens and ruby, orange, pink and purple petunia blooms spilling over the rims of their pots. Their cousins were stuffed down into the hollows near the doors and the floor of the front passenger seat. Two more rode on the seat. I had loaded up the stash at my Amish neighbor's greenhouse, my car backed up to the door so Ada, her daughter Martha, and her three sisters could carry out the baskets one by one.

All winter I had traded the Yoders house-cleaning for the germination of their seeds on my electric heat mat. Martha had arrived once every two weeks and whizzed around my tiny converted one-room Amish schoolhouse with a broom, routing the dust bunnies out of their holes. All the Yoders' seeds germinated nicely — but for the super spikes, Cordyline indivisa, a decorative container plant with long, green grass-like leaves. I spent a month fussing that perhaps I had the temperature too hot, or not hot enough, and then only one lonely spike rose up out of a whole tray of seeds. I felt as if I had failed and wasted the Yoders' money. Even one wasted packet of seed is a loss in a system with little cash flow.

In February, in a single day, Martha Yoder's older brother framed in their greenhouse and then covered it with plastic. The winter nights were still too cold for the delicate seedlings, so he installed a wood burning stove and the Yoders kept it stoked with wood from a tree that had fallen down in the their pasture. They made shelves from old milk crates and boards. And as the petunias and impatiens matured, they transplanted them into plastic baskets.

After I had germinated the Yoders' seedlings, I pulled out my own flats and filled them with broccoli, cabbage, kale, tomatoes and peppers, parsley and basil, petunias and marigolds. The seedlings sprang right up. Then I faced the tricky task of uprooting the delicate baby sprouts from their trays, surrounding them with potting soil, and transferring them to their black plastic six-packs where they would blossom forth into sturdy adolescents.

"I've never been good at this," I confessed to Martha one day as I bent over my dining table, the seedling trays stretching out before me. I stared at my bag of potting soil, thinking that there probably was some expensive professional tool sold in the gardening supply stores that would solve the problem.

"Mom always uses a pencil for transplanting," Martha said.

"A pencil?"

When I drove Martha home that afternoon, Ada demonstrated. First, she poked the pencil down into the middle of the pot filled with soil, readying a circular depression. Then, with one twist of her wrist, she gently dug the pencil under the sprout in the tray, lifted it into the air and placed it down in the depression in the pot — every tiny leaf and root hair intact. I returned home and transplanted my seedlings in record time in record condition, a cheap #2 pencil my only tool. I carried eight trays of seedlings down to the basement to drink in the rays of the grow lights lower down close to their leaves. The knowledge and handiwork of one woman's small invention passed on to another.

A few days later, I looked out the kitchen window to see a horse and buckboard in the front yard. Ada, dressed in her black bonnet and shawl, tied the reins to my garden fence and strode toward the door.

"I'd like to see that dryer of yours," she said.

My solar dehydrator looks like a big slide and is nestled in my yard between the pear trees. Its long glass solar collector slants south and generates enough heat to rise and warm the compartment on top filled with trays. The compartment could be mistaken for a bird house with a sliding Plexiglas door that allows access. One winter when I didn't shut the door snugly, the compartment did become a birdhouse, with a family of sparrows taking up residence, long strands of big bluestem grasses woven into their nest. In just a few hours the dehydrator dries my oregano, sage, parsley, chives, lemon balm, and thyme. I fill spice bottles with these herbs at holiday time and give them to my neighbors and friends as gifts.

The dehydrator itself was a gift from the Prairiewoods Franciscan Retreat Center and another example of the bonding power of gardening exchange. I had led a retreat on food at the center, an ecological paradise in the middle of urban sprawl where the entire complex — even the dog's house — is heated with solar panels. I talked about self-sufficiency, growing and preserving my own fruits and vegetables. At the conclusion of the event, the director asked me if I would like the gift of a solar dehydrator.

"Sure, that would be wonderful," I said, pulling out of the parking lot, waving good-bye. I drove home thinking that in a month or so I would receive a small box about the size of my electric dehydrator.

One year later, on Labor Day weekend when I was entertaining out-of-town guests, a pick-up truck appeared in my drive. A man leaned out of the cab and said, "Where do you want your solar dehydrator, ma'am?"

The huge apparatus filled the back of his truck. It took the delivery man and one of my guests, who had once played college football, to carry it to its home near the pear trees. We anchored it down with stakes, wire and bricks.

"How do you control the temperature?" Ada asked, peering inside the compartment.

"You have to tune into the intensity and position of the sun," I said. "Then if it gets too hot, you can use the vents." I slid open two tiny doors on the very top of the compartment. Warm air flowed over our hands.

Next, Ada wanted to see my root cellar, so we walked over to a garbage can I have buried near my screen porch. I lifted up a piece of plywood, then the lid, and reached into the can of sawdust to pull out a handful of potatoes — fresh and firm, without a single sprout — that I had buried there in July.

"Haven't they over-wintered nicely?" I asked.

"We would need more than just one garbage can to hold our harvest," Ada said. Then, before I could even think of an alternative, she came up with an idea on her own. "But we have an old refrigerator in the barn. I bet we could bury that in the ground."

Ada climbed back up in her buckboard. "There's so much to learn about gardening. I'm always open to new ideas." She poked the horse with the whip, turned around and headed down the road.

A few months later, Ada was back with the news that they were going to set up a roadside stand and sell produce and flowers. In addition, they would try to sell their hanging baskets to businesses in town. She also offered me the opportunity to sell any extra produce I might have from my garden. The next Saturday morning I arrived with a basketful of herbs and found radishes, asparagus, eggs, freshly butchered chickens and rag rugs all on display.

A row of bright white, pink and ruby red baskets was lined up in front of the produce stands. Hundreds of mauve petunias ringed the Yoders' garden — half the size of football field. The one lone spike spilled out of a planter near their front door. I bent down to stroke its leaves.

"Don't worry about those spikes," Martha said. "They all came up."

"When?"

"Oh, it took them a couple of months. They were slow."

But the Yoders were fast the next day when they placed the hanging baskets in my car. The seeds I'd germinated had transformed themselves into strong, healthy plants. My end of our trade had taken a new form. I agreed to transport the hanging baskets fifteen miles to the food co-op where they would adorn the produce aisle and sell to shoppers to beautify their patios and decks.

I pulled onto the gravel road and headed north. I breathed in the scent of fresh growing flowers. Neighbor to neighbor, gardening draws us closer to each other. Martha Stewart herself couldn't have done better, I thought glancing in the rearview mirror at the splash of color that filled my car. But how far apart were the worlds of Martha Stewart and Martha Yoder.

Graphics Credits

  • hanging baskets, © Mary Swander. All rights reserved.
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