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By Staff | May 22, 2009

Words I hate to hear in late spring are “frost advisory tonight. Please take precaution to cover tender plants.” These are akin to “the pigs are out,” or “there is a heifer having trouble calving can you come out to the barn?”

Last Saturday’s forecast kind of caught us off guard. We had been going through spring by planting tomato, pepper, eggplant and celery planting, according to our records of good dates to plant by.

The nights have been mild enough that we hadn’t thought much about frost.

Now a dozen days after our average late-frost date, the warning comes out. No doubt that is what makes it an average frost date. It can have its last frosty temperatures occurring a month before or month later. But once frost is in the forecast, we pay closer attention to the weather radio listening many times to make sure we aren’t just imagining things. It’s repeat throughout the day has us planning ways to protect young, not so hardy garden plants.

It takes a bunch of material to cover all the rows of green beans, that decided the soil temperatures were warm enough to sprout and grow, the hundreds of peppers, tomatoes, zucchini, sweet potatoes that are adjusting to the outdoors. Because the wind needs to die down before the covering can begin in earnest, we wait until sunset to start covering.

Our work is made pleasant by the fragrance that comes from the chokecherries. Normally they go unnoticed, tucked in their spot behind the chicken house. The perfume that fills the air could only be designed by the Master’s hand.

We use a variety of covers, including black landscape fabric. It unrolls nicely, covering long rows. I keep new washcloths in the cedar closet for this purpose alone. Eventually they do end up being used for cleaning purposes.

We store old sheets in tubs like other families do Christmas decorations. Once we hit the tub with the old familiar sheets the older children are prompted to tell the younger one’s. “Yup, mom used to pull the sheets right off our beds when the frost warnings would come out.”

Of course, I deny it. But they quickly reply to their youngest sister and brother, “You know how important this garden is to mom.” Whatever that means.

Well, of course that garden is important to me. It provides good, healthy, nutritious food for us and our many customers at the local farmers market. It is more than that. It is where my children got their first taste of actual farming.

Their first summers were spent in a stroller nearby as my farmer and I grew enough food for our small family. They learned early on to tell the difference between weeds and plants. They learned early that with some planning, effort and patience on their part, there would be food on the table. It didn’t take them long to realize that a garden was a wonderful place to be.

For a few years, the three older children had their own gardens, each choosing a variety of strawberry from a catalog, a few flowers and vegetables. That space disappeared as the austrees and fruit trees grew.

Today the children work together in the big gardens, choosing their own areas of expertise.

Second son is proficient in growing watermelon and muskmelon I know where they are planted, but that’s about it. He chooses the varieties, plants, weeds and harvests. In past years he and Grandpa enjoyed a sense of comraderie as they both set out to grow the best-tasting melons.

One small area along the cattle fence wasn’t being used until youngest son staked that for his Indian corn and popcorn. During the fall the chickens found it a virtual buffet dining on fallen colorful corn kernels.

This year youngest daughter has claimed that for a flower bed. The transplanted peonies have survived with some flower seeds actually coming up. So are the weed seeds. What we need to do is train the chickens to prefer weed sprouts to vegetables and flowers.

She will be adding some dahlia tubers from my mother after a niece’s graduation. The tubers originally came from a friend of mine who has now died. I shared them with Mom. When my flowers got neglected for a few years, they also vanished. I was glad when Mom said she had some extra.

Most days some one is in the garden working. Through the ages it has sustained life when food was scarce. With today’s abundance of food, the garden isn’t seen so much as a necessity, but a luxury or place of relaxation. It is still all of that and so much more.

A garden is the perfect place for any youth to put their imagination, their energy, their natural curiosity to good work. It only takes one growing season for them to see how a small seed can go through an entire cycle of life.

They can see the result of idleness and neglect on their part when weeds take over. Plants do not produce unless care is given. They also reap the reward of disciplined hard work.

Vander Schaaf is a Farm News staff writer from northwest Iowa. Reach her by e-mail at renaefarmnews@gmail.com.

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