Before Nancy and I married, my gardening “career,” such as it was, consisted of mowing and raking leaves on my parents’ lawn, and cutting brush as part of a summer job. My parents bought their first and only home – newly constructed for them – in the mid-1950s when I was about 11 years old. They saved some birches and other trees on the lot, put in a few evergreen shrubs, planted a lawn and, until after I went to college, did little else.

With that kind of background, my career as a garden columnist would have been short-lived.

Fortunately, Nancy had much better training. While her parents didn’t garden much either, Nancy lived less than 100 yards from her grandparents for much of her childhood, traveling a path cut through the woods so she wouldn’t have to deal with what her grandparents called the heavy Cape Elizabeth traffic.

Nancy’s grandparents lived on what had been a truck farm – growing lettuce and strawberries for the Boston market – in Cape Elizabeth. Our house, which we had built in 1975, is on the last parcel of that farm, still owned by a member of her family.

Nancy’s grandfather, Philip Dearborn, earned a degree in pomology from the University of Maine and taught school at Leavitt Institute in Turner before returning home to take over the family farm. As a result of his education, he planted many apple trees on the property, including unusual varieties such as Red Astrachan – a tree that has since died but is reputed to have produced wonderfully flavorful fruit in early August.

Her grandmother, Stella Fotter Dearborn, grew up in Stratton and taught school before and after attending Farmington Normal School (“normal” was the name for teachers’ colleges in the early 1900s).

Nancy spent a lot of after-school and summer vacation time at her grandparents’, learning to cook and clean as well as to garden.

Her grandparents had read Upton Sinclair and followed many aspects of the pure-food movement from the early 1900s. For example, her grandmother used only King Arthur Flour, because it wasn’t (and isn’t) chemically bleached. Grammy Dearborn was a basic, meat-and-potatoes type cook but proud of having taken cooking classes at the normal school. Thanks to those classes, she made super cream puffs and heavenly yeast rolls. She was slightly suspicious of potluck suppers because she worried about what other people might put into their casseroles, and she used Crisco for pie crusts because, who knew what was in lard?

That attitude still colors how the family eats today. When Nancy visited my parents in Farmington, she was hesitant to eat lobster. In Cape Elizabeth, her family knew – and probably were related to – the people who caught the seafood. Basically, the family’s philosophy was/is not to eat vegetables if you couldn’t see the garden and not to eat seafood if you couldn’t see the ocean.

By the point at which Nancy was spending time with her grandparents, they had stopped farming commercially, but they did have a large vegetable garden, with corn, peas, beans, carrots, tomatoes, peppers and squash.

We can’t remember all the vegetable varieties Nancy’s grandmother liked to grow, but we do know a few, and they all came from Allen Sterling & Lothrop in Falmouth (since 1911).

Her favorite bean was Low’s Champion, great eaten either fresh as a green bean or as a dried bean. The seed store/nursery no longer carries it, but we have ordered it occasionally from Vermont Bean Seed Company. The potatoes were Kennebecs and Green Mountain. I remember Seneca Chief as the corn, but Grammy Dearborn also grew an earlier ripening bicolor. I don’t understand why raccoons always eat our corn, but they never ate hers.

The rhubarb was grown in a separate area behind the barn, and when we built our house, we took part of that patch to start our own rhubarb.

Grammy Dearborn had a huge perennial flower garden, part of which was planted while the house was quarantined after Nancy’s Aunt Mary came down with infantile paralysis as a young teen. Many of the plants at our house – including peonies, Siberian irises, a double daylily and a unique double rugosa-style rose – came from the garden at her grandparents’ home. Nancy’s aunt eventually recovered from polio and went on, with the help of an innovative woman who would now be called a physical therapist, to learn to walk again.

Aunt Mary graduated from Cape Elizabeth High School, married, had a child and moved to Florida, while what Grammy Dearborn called “the long garden” went on for years.

It was from her grandparents that Nancy learned to stretch a string between two sticks, to create a straight line for a row of vegetables or the edge of a flower garden. Her first crop to plant was onion sets – probably still a good way to start a 5-year-old in gardening since it’s difficult to get an onion set upside down. She learned that when planting small seeds, such as for carrots, you don’t need to cover the seed with soil – just lightly pat it down or step on it.

Her grandparents taught that you always use the correct tools, not an improvised soup spoon but a trowel or a shovel. Nancy says they always wished they could find gardening gloves for children because they thought everyone should wear gloves while gardening. They also stressed neatness. You pick up your tools right away (something Nancy still gets after me about). You don’t leave piles of pulled weeds in the garden, planning to gather them later.

I learned to garden from Nancy and from her grandmother. When our home was built, we helped her grandmother whenever she needed us, and I was usually available days because I worked evenings at the Portland Press Herald. I worked alongside them in the garden, learning as I went.

In the 1950s, her grandparents were still using compost from under the barn, where manure had been shoved through trapdoors from the ground floor level back in the 1930s. Nancy’s grandparents were building a new compost area because they were sure the compost under the barn would run out one day. But as of 20 years ago, when that part of the property left the family, there was still compost under the barn.

Nancy’s grandfather died at a fairly young age. But Grammy Dearborn lived into her 90s, and continued to garden – including mowing the lawn – well into her 80s.

When we had our house built, we hadn’t planned on a new vegetable garden because we took over hers. The soil was rocky, as most Maine soil is, but there was a lot of organic material that had been worked into the soil over the last hundred years so that garden produced really well. After her grandmother died and the family sold the house, we moved to our present vegetable garden, a former lettuce and cabbage field that also produces really well. I try to add more compost or chopped leaves to it every year.

The peach tree planted by Nancy’s grandfather in front of his house and a prune plum planted beside the barn continued to produce well into the 1980s. Our children especially loved the small plums. We tried planting fruit trees ourselves, but they never have done as well as those Nancy’s grandfather planted. I guess two degrees in journalism don’t amount to one degree in pomology.

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