“So how did you learn farming?” I am frequently asked. I always gulp, because the answer is rather long-winded. My folks were partly to blame for what I know. They were both avid gardeners, although Dad was more inclined to fuss over grandiflora roses, while my mother tended toward growing produce to put on the dinner table. Garden chores were therefore an integral part of the childhood summers I shared with my younger siblings.
A biology degree added academic rigor to the hands-on experience, and gave me an understanding of plants’ dark and dirty secrets, known otherwise as physiology and genetics.
In truth, though, most of what I know about cultivating plants comes from a dead guy named J.I., a magazine called Mother Earth News and a gal named Rosie. The latter two are very much alive, I’m happy to say. From them, I learned the practical how-to’s of soil conservation, healthy crop production and the control of undesirables — weeds, insect pests, and diseases.
J.I. of course, is Jerome Irving Rodale, founder of Organic Gardening magazine, among many other publications.
In its early days, this little journal was as much political as horticultural, and judging by letters to the editor, the current readership is still about evenly split as to whether the modern iteration of Organic Gardening has sold out its creator or simply mellowed with time so as not to alienate the other half of its readership.
I don’t take sides. As much as I love radicals, I can’t complain that today’s OG editors are filling the pages with solid articles on the newest eggplant hybrids or the best way to propagate chives. The advice is easy to follow, and at a couple dozen bucks per year, is something I can afford even on a farmer’s budget.
Mother Earth News has the same devotion to sustainability as Organic Gardening, though it covers a wider range of topics. If I’m in need of clever ways to make recycled garden structures or a cheap method to capture solar heat, I’m likely to get help from Mother.
But even the best published advice can’t match what I learned from Rosie, whom I met through Indiana Organic Gardeners, a lively club dedicated to the advancement of chemical-free gardens and a well-fed membership. Rosie is a retired schoolteacher. Her Facebook page slyly claims she’s 107, though she looks about 60 and is likely upwards of 70. Rosie has always said she “yardens” rather than “gardens,” and her lawn-free urban plot in a charming historic neighborhood on Indy’s near-southside is solid proof, miniature frog pond and all.
Among many other things, Rosie taught me not to plant my new raspberry patch near wild blackberries. Since both are members of the rose family, disease can spread easily from one to the other. Who knew?
The most valuable trick I got from Rosie is called solarization, a process that involves spreading large sheets of plastic across planting beds in late winter. The trapped solar heat kills overwintering weeds and their seeds, giving crops a clean head start when the plastic is taken up in spring. Though I haven’t told Rosie, I’ve found that less time with weeds means more time with a good glass of wine, which is not a bad trade-off.
Then there’s Rosie’s “tricky grandma” lesson. It starts with the so-called tomato hornworm, a green caterpillar that devours tomato plants. Worse yet, it resembles tomato leaves and stems so closely that it’s a real effort to find it. Turns out the grower has an ally, though, in the form of a tiny wasp of the genus Trichogramma.
In one of nature’s more spectacularly gruesome adaptations, the wasps lay their eggs over the surface of the hornworm. The resulting wasp larvae, whose bright white cocoons now make the hornworm easy to spot, feed on its insides, leaving the shriveled, dead hornworm behind. The wasps then emerge from their cocoons and go on to inflict the same punishment on adjacent hornworms.
Rosie thinks that such resourcefulness is worth remembering. Trichogramma, she says, can easily be recalled as “tricky grandma.” Rosie should know. When it comes to garden lore, she may well be the trickiest (and wisest) grandma of them all.