By Karen L. Ranz
When I was a little girl, probably only three or four, our backyard neighbor, Charlie, hauled out a big, growling, downright violent rototiller and tore up his garden. Then a few days later he knocked on our back door, opened it just a enough to poke his head in as was common, and hollered, “Yoo-hoo, Trudy?!” for my mom. Real important-like, he told her that he was in need of an ‘A-No. 1 First Class Pea Planter Helper’ and did she know of one? I was always hiding behind her skirt hanging on her leg because I was shy, but I was also afraid of that rototiller of his. Still, she told him that she thought I was up to the job.
And so Charlie and I walked across our yard together hand-in-hand over to his garden where he showed me how to tie a string line between two stakes and hoe a straight furrow. Then he opened a packet of seeds and showed me that the little peas we plant actually look like peas we eat. The packet had a picture on the front and lots of words on the back. I liked the picture. He put a little bit of them in my hand and showed me how to plant one in the furrow, then space it with the width of my hand and plant another – all the way down the row, handing me a few more of the very important seeds as we went. Then we covered them up and patted them down and marked the end of the row with the seed packet poked over a stake so we’d remember.
Next Charlie pulled out a packet of lettuce seeds and showed me how tiny they are and how they don’t look like lettuce at all! So very carefully I sprinkled them all the way down the next row, a very shallow one because they are very tiny, and I covered them up and patted them down too, and we marked that row just like the first. Then he brought out the onion sets – realbaby onions! – and they also got planted just as ever-so-carefully, right side up. It was an exciting job to have! Later we’d get around to the beets and beans and corn and the rest. (Beet seeds, it turned out, are actually square!)
I think I planted Charlie’s whole garden that year. And for several years after he would come over in the spring and yoo-hoo in the door for my mom, announcing his need for an ‘A No.1 First Class Pea Planter Helper.’ I was still frightened by his rototiller, but I was always right there behind Mom’s skirt saying silently, “Choose me. Choose me.” So I helped Charlie plant and tend, and watched it all grow. When we had some of “our” vegetables, dinner was special. I grew up to love my vegetables.
Sometimes Charlie and Helen would come over of an evening and we’d all sit outside shelling or snapping, and I would listen to the grown-ups talk. I learned that I was part of a community of people that cared about me and about each other. And I learned that my comments were welcome too as long as I didn’t interrupt anyone.
I never really knew why Charlie always came for me. But I like to think Charlie was being deliberate in allowing me a greater lesson — that of working together, helping and sharing, and of realizing those are just as important as anything in life. It’s how people get along.
So this year when it comes time to plant the early peas and lettuce at the new gardens in front of the winter farmers market, I’ll be there with official colored construction paper badges for our next generation of gardeners that say, ‘A-No. 1 First Class Pea Planter Helper.’ After all, I believe like Charlie that each child needs to be entrusted with something important, that every child should have a garden to plant, tend and watch grow with fresh vegetables to share, a first job with official status, and the reward of helping.
I also believe that the context of neighbors working together provides the best foundation to start them off early. Each child needs to understand that there’s a place in the community for them along with their individual value and responsibility in being part of that. And I think everyone can learn to love their vegetables the way I was taught. Good things do grow in our neighborhoods. Isn’t that really what Rutland’s about?
We are fortunate to have a number community gardens here. The Rutland Recreation Department makes several available around the city, and Rutland Housing Authority residents are planning their own near Forest Street. RAFFL also runs an educational gardening program at the Southeast community gardens called Rutland Grows.
The Vermont Farmers Food Center is expecting ten raised beds this first year at the West Street winter farmers market location, dedicated to launching first-time gardeners regardless of age or ability. Everything necessary to make them a success, including intensive mentoring, will be provided with several demonstration beds supplementing local food security and education. Youth, family and community programs are especially invited to adopt a bed or to otherwise utilize them for summer learning experiences, free of charge, for the many integrated educational opportunities that gardening provides at every age level.
Karen Ranz considers herself now a former ‘city girl’ glad to be back in a small town with new friends and neighbors and a supported opportunity to brush up on long-neglected gardening skills. Anyone interested in more information can contact the Rutland Rec Department or call her at 802 / 345 –0910.
Originally published in the Rutland Herald.