Serve – Sep ’13 Real Dirt


Learning About Grandma’s World
The Real Dirt is Doing Real Well

Learning About Grandma’s World

Sue Sensenbaugh-Padgett

Grandma's books pic by Sue S-P

My first gardening experience was the “chore” of weeding. Gardening meant sweat and dirt but it also meant spending time with Grandma. When Grandma passed away, I dug into gardening as a way to stay connected to her. In a search for more information on gardening, I scoured Grandma’s book shelves, but found the real treasure in her attic. What I found was a series of garden primers for beginners from 1937. I never imagined what I would learn from these books.

Instead of learning about gardening, I learned about society when Grandma was growing-up. This series was written by Cecile Hulse Matschat and consist of five slim volumes: How to Make a Garden, Planning the Home Grounds, Bulbs and House Plants, Annuals and Perennials, and Shrubs and Trees. The similarities are interesting but unremarkable. Advice such as “plan ahead for your purpose” and the “growth of the plants”, “test the soil” and “use the right plant in the right place” ring with the sound of Master Gardening classes. Plant anatomy and physiology remain unchanged as does the admonition to use pesticides according to the label.

The truly interesting aspects of the series came in the differences. For books directed at beginners, there was a high level of assumed plant knowledge. Fertilizers were very different. Today we would use the term organic or green for the humus based fertilizers but Matschat simply refers to the family compost pile. She does refer to the more expensive artificial powders that are “… of little long term use.” This points to the pre-WWII period, a time when artificial nitrogen was still expensive. Also the spray Matschat recommends contains lead. Purchasing seedling or even seed starting soils is referred to as an “…expensive indulgence available in a few areas.” The largest change is seen in the advice on planning a home grounds. The list of items needing space include coal wagons, grocery deliveries, compost area, garbage incinerator, and laundry area (outdoor washing and clothes lines). Even an area for chickens must be added. Today we don’t have coal and grocery deliveries and trash is sent to the landfill. But compost piles and chickens are reappearing. The changes aren’t linear but more of a cycle. In the end, I found so much in these books to help me form a deeper connection to Grandma.

The Real Dirt is Doing Real Well

Whitney Miller

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