By Anne E. Macdonald
Everything in the garden could be touched, explored, tasted, and felt. We learned the season for the strawberries, asparagus, carrots, radishes, peas, turnips, grapes, peas, beans, and blueberries. We learned that strawberries ripen to a luscious, juicy redness. Peas are sweetest when the small swell of the pea inside the pod is visible. Sweet and tender when they are small, peas become less sweet the larger they grow and the drier the pod becomes. Corn swelled inside its protective layer of green leaves until they are ready to be picked when the silk tassels are golden with brown at the ends. We learned to pick strawberries, shell the peas, snap the beans, pull the corn, and enjoy the garden’s bounty.
My grandparents’ 5-acre farm and garden in North Hampton, NH, had a house that sat on a small hill with woods and a trail to a meadow behind it, and flat land on one side for the garden. It was about 2 miles from the beach and served as a farm, a meadow, and a summer beach retreat for the extended family. This place was an important part of the first 10 years of my life and my relationship with my grandparents. I remember them best and most in the yard and garden. My siblings, my cousins, and pretty much everyone in my family loved this farm. It was a place of love, safety, of warmth from Easter to Thanksgiving each year. After Thanksgiving, they headed to Florida for the winter, where they lived on the beach, collected shells, and did not garden. The farm and gardens were summer and sunshine; my grandparents were the world of summer vacation.
We learned to pick everything, that is, except the blueberries. The blueberry bushes were different. They were to be observed by my grandfather and his childhood friend, an agriculture professor at the University of New Hampshire. The two men seriously inspected and observed the blueberry bushes for three years, treated them for bugs, wrapped them in netting to keep the birds and the hands of young grandchildren away, and watched and recorded the development of these hybrid experimental blueberries for three years.
Blueberries need full sun and acidic soil to grow. It’s best to have two or more varieties for pollination. Highbush blueberries are a popular home garden fruit for both fresh and frozen use. They grow well throughout the southern half of New Hampshire and satisfactorily on warmer sites in northern New Hampshire where the planting is protected from prevailing winds and winter temperatures rarely fall below -25F. They don’t bear much fruit in the first 2 to 3 years and the harvest is biggest after 5 years. Blueberry plants grow slowly and reach full size in 10 years. In New Hampshire, blueberries ripen in early July and reach peak production in August. Birds frequently eat unprotected blueberries so it’s best to have netting to keep the birds at bay. Tiny flies called spotted wing drosophila may attack the fruit, especially later maturing varieties. Harvesting fruits as soon as they ripen, and refrigerating or freezing fruit right away, can reduce the damage caused by these pests.
Each time I drive down the road, I hope that the garden has miraculously returned. And each time I’m greeted by the flat, green lawn where the garden once was. My grandfather had a heart attack at the airport on his way back to New Hampshire the spring I was 10. Three years later, no longer able to maintain the house, the land, and the garden, my grandmother traded it for an apartment in an old Victorian down the road. The plan was for the young family to take care of the land and she would have an apartment with no rent and unlimited maintenance.
It was never an even trade, and it didn’t turn out the way she intended. The farm wasn’t maintained, and the relationship grew contentious as her place required maintenance and the family she had traded with didn’t respond to her needs very well for the following 9 years. We enjoyed the new place with its large yard and snowmobile trails, but it wasn’t the same. My father had the first right of refusal to purchase the farm for the next 25 years, but the new owner held onto it for a little more than 50 years before selling it just before my father’s death.
When unveiled, the fruit of the hybrid blueberry bushes my grandfather and his friend the professor had worked so diligently on was inedible. It was a failed experiment. Even the birds refused to eat them. The blueberry bushes were gone after that summer, just as my grandfather didn’t return for my 10th summer. In my mind, I can still taste the juicy red strawberries, savor the sweetness of the peas, hear the snap of the beans, and enjoy the succulent, ripe corn directly from the garden. And I still approach blueberries with a need to taste one first before diving in.
One of my cousins and I talked about scraping the money together to buy the farm when it went on the market but the asking price at that time was beyond our means, or so we thought. It closed for about 1/3 of the asking price. The garden was long gone, replaced by a lawn. The owner my grandmother had traded homes with kept a portion of the land at the back edge of the garden, near where the blueberries had once been, to build a small, one-story retirement place of his own.
Anne E. Macdonald is a writer with deep New England roots. She is working on a book inspired by members of her rather ordinary, Melrose, MA-based family, who were involved in some of the extraordinary events of WWII, including the Manhattan Project and the 10th Mountain Division. She has self-published two mysteries and is planning the third. She and her husband live in Melrose and enjoy the beach any time of year and traveling to new places for adventure as well as research. See her blog at: https://anneswritinglife.blog/.
Anne began writing her essay, “Bittersweet,” in Neema Avashia’s May 2022 writing session at FYACS, “Natural Wonders.”
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