Blog Update!
For those of you not following me on Facebook, as of the Summer of 2019 I've moved to Central WA, to a tiny mountain town of less than 1,000 people.

I will be covering my exploits here in the Cascades, as I try to further reduce my impact on the environment. With the same attitude, just at a higher altitude!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Urban farming with the Nonagenarians

non·a·ge·nar·i·an /nänəjəˈne(ə)rēən/
Noun: A person who is from 90 to 99 years old.

A few weekends ago I went to a book release party and ended up hanging out with the parents-in-law of the author. The dad had a birthday coming up that week and was turning 91. His wife was also turning 91 this year, in August.

I don't know how we got on the topic, but our conversation turned to gardening, raising chickens and canning. They had been doing it all for decades and still grew a huge amount of food in their yard and canned like fiends every year.

They were excited to find someone my age so involved in doing something that, in the intervening decades had lost its "popularity", so to speak. Having lived through the Depression and WWII, victory gardens weren't something they did just during time of need. They were a wealth of information, sharing tips on pressure canning, canning peaches and nectarines and secrets of canning green beans.

My own grandparents didn't make it to their ages. Both grandparents on my dad's side passed away in their 50s, long before I was born. My grandparents on my mom's side lived longer, but there was no tradition of raising food since they lived their entire lives in Brooklyn. My great-grandparents owned a farm in upstate NY and my mom remembered visiting them, with stories about chickens and the like, but otherwise there was no shared knowledge to pass down.

On my husband's side of the family, being of Italian roots, there's a lot more by way of food traditions. My mother-in-law is quite a green thumb, growing tomatoes and herbs in her tiny backyard in Philadelphia, but not much else. Her grandparents used to make wine out of their Philly brownstone, which made it a popular place in the neighborhood. But, all that knowledge has been lost to us.

So, needless to say, I was excited to spend some time gleaning as much information from these two knowledgeable, elderly folks. Especially since they were still so energetic and proud about continuing these activities. They had so many years of trial and error to learn from that I rarely run across. Most people I know who are interested in urban self-sufficiency are my age or younger. And we are still in the trial and error stages. And, more importantly, most people my age are more concerned with getting the latest iPad than with growing their own food.

How about you? Do you have older folks in your life that are a resource for your urban homesteading? People who you can share experiences and learn from?


Unknown said...

I have wonderful memories from my childhood..I was lucky to spend summers with my Grandparents..Even my Great Grandmother, who always kept Canaries because my Great Grandfather had worked in the mines and the Canaries were used to find out if the air was breathable. They reminded her of him..She spoke very little English, but that is where I first learned about herbs, flowers, chickens & chicks in her Urban Homestead of East Los Angeles..I wanted to pet the chicks so bad, That I opened up the coop and reached in..and the chicks jumped out..I had to catch those critters before anyone found out and spanked my bottom...ha..And my Grandfather who married her daughter, was 30 years older than my Grandmother also, spoke very little English. He had huge worn hands and fingers the size of sausages and lived to be 93. I have fond memories of being out with him, in his Urban Garden also in East Los Angeles. They had a huge Craftsman home with a huge back yard where he grew figs, squash, corn, garlic, sugarcane & flowers. He also was an amazing grafter and had prize fruit trees. His most prized tree was an avocado that bore fruit almost a foot long. He was 92 years old still climbing up in those trees. My Papa always kept a sharp pocket knife in his pocket. He would cut a ripe sugarcane stock and peel it for me to chew and suck on. He also taught me to braid the garlic into long braids and hang them to dry. I could go on and on with the memories..I was so blessed to have had the time with my Grandparents..They started me on the knowledge that I continued to learn in school and now that I share with my four year old son. Someday I hope that he shares this with his children..

Annie*s Granny said...

I don't know any gardeners older than I! I'm just a septuagenarian, but my maternal grandmother gardened until her death at 87, so I might have a few years left in me.

Anonymous said...

My grandfather would have been 116 years old on our shared birthday this year. He and his seven brothers and sisters grew up on a farm outside of town (six generations of our family have lived here). He served in France in WW1, grew a HUGE victory garden during and after WW2, and was so frugal that his nickname was "Tightwad". I grew up watching him and Grandma being proudly frugal. Grandma did mending by unraveling the thread in the garment and using it again. That is the stock from which I come. I think they would be proud of what I am doing now.

Erica/Northwest Edible Life said...

Absolutely. I have memories of my grandpa's garden up on Camano Island. I remember the peas and tomatoes and Rainier cherry tree I would climb with my cousin.

My grandpa was, on the whole, not an agreeable man, but as gardening has become more important to me, the memories I have of him and that garden grow in significance.

Kate said...

Sadly, no. Both of my grandfathers were dead by the time I was born, both grandmothers by my adolescence, and I didn't live anywhere near the grandmother that outlived my toddler years. I regret the absence of grandparents from my growing years keenly. It is a sad state of affairs that my generation and younger generations are largely on our own for re-discovering so many of these skills. To those who have access to the skills - any skills - of an elder generation I would say: acquire them.

Fleecenik Farm said...

When I was growing up I have memories of walking among corn stalks in my aunts garden, slicing cucumbers for a community canning of bread and butter pickles, eating carrots that my grandfather just pulled out of the ground and wiped off with his shirt.

Unfortunately, there was no one left in my family to pass this knowledge along when I was learning it myself. But I feel very lucky to at least be instilled with the childhood memories to affirm that, in fact, it could be done.

Michelle said...

My Mom cut a vegetable garden into our heavy, awful clay backyard when I was 6 (and my brothers were 13 and 14 - Mom was great for planning ahead!). I watched her, and helped when coerced, and over the years she amended that soil until it was just gorgeous. She froze produce; she hated canning.

The gentleman across the street was a retired Air Force Colonel, who moved in the year before I was born. He was grandfather-figure and mentor to me. (His youngest was the same age as my oldest brother) I spent summer evenings on his front porch, listening to stories and spitting watermelon seeds. He taught me how to turn a pumpkin into a pie, how to prune blueberries and grapes, how to make jams and jellies. (He also flew down to NAS Pensacola to attend my graduation from Aviation Officer Candidate School and swear me in as an officer)

Recently I went to the middle school here and did "rabbit day" - took a recently killed meat rabbit and opened it up in stages so the 7th grade science students could see the connective tissue between skin and meat, see the digestive and circulatory systems in situ, etc. I also took a crock pot full of cooked rabbit meat for them to try if they wanted. The teacher had bought the house next door to the Colonel after I was off to college, so he knew the old man well, too. He commented more than once how proud the Colonel would be of me (he died in 2006 at the age of 89). That did my heart good.

Now I'm teaching my children as they grow, so there's some continuity of knowledge. It's so important for skills not to be lost!

Adrienne said...

My grandparents had a garden under the power station tower thingy... I don't know the right word for it, but a big metal tower with wires going to and from it. It was pretty much in their back yard. I remember going down there to get tomatoes. My grandpa is 92 now and i don't know if he still gardens at all. My mom and her bf are in their 60s and just started gardening a couple years ago. =)

Anonymous said...
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adventuresindinner said...

I was really lucky to spend every weekend at my gran's farm (in the family since 1821 with the graveyard within site) and now my daughter visits my elderly aunt there at least once a month.

I really had no idea how lucky I was at the time to see my food in situ.

With our own burgeoning, URBAN homestead my 89 year old, father-in-law has just moved in with us and is gearing-up to give us as much of his master gardener knowledge as possible.

Paula said...

I wish I did have some older person to help me along, but the only gardening done in my family was my mother's during WWII. She did tell me the story of walking into the living room as a kid to find her father kneeling on the couch, taking aim through the window with his .22 at a rabbit in his garden, which is kind of a fun mental picture for me. He died of pancreatic cancer when I was six, but I still have a few good memories of him.

My grandmother got shipped off to the farm (her mother's parents) when she was five, and the only thing I remember her telling me about the farm (that had anything to do with farming) was that they'd have to put the turkey poults in with the chickens to teach to how to eat, and that they'd put marbles in their feed to get them to eat. Maybe all it boiled down to was the turkeys didn't like the menu....

Great post by the way.

Robj98168 said...

Older folks- alas no,But I do have a plethora of people at the community garden to exchange knowledge and ideas with.
But when I was but a wee little rob, our neighbor, Mr. Wilson, use to grow a huge garden and was more then willing to take a young gardener under his wing, while my dad and his son played basketball!

Crunchy Chicken said...

Ah, you guys. Such great stories. Keep 'em coming! I love hearing about them.

Sandy said...

I had been gardening quite awhile when I moved to Easton, and sadly had no gardening space. My neighbor's grandpop, "pop" let me have one of his long garden beds in the outskirts of town. He shared stories of horsedrawn vegetable wagons that came into town with hand ground horseradish, early-automobile times when there were no tunnels in the Poconos and a boy ladled out water for the radiators at the top of the hill for a nickel, groundhog hunts and homemade cabbage slicers with me. I learned a lot from Pop. He died when he was 100, and was active until 6 months before. What a guy. I'm lucky to have known him.

Anonymous said...

How about urban homesteading with a decagenarian?
My grandmother who is nearly 103 years old not only grew up on a farm in eastern Europe, working the fields, tending the animals, spinning and weaving, but also 'urban homesteaded' in Pittsburgh, PA with backyard chickens, fruit trees and a serious garden.
Up until a few years ago she still puttered in the garden. Now she gardens vicariously, giving marching orders to her granddaughter (me) and great-granddaughters.=)
I use seed that she has collected through the years.
A paragon of thrift, she doesn't waste a morsel of food, electron of power or drop of water. She even uses cloth for incontinence management.
I cannot even begin to list all that I have learned from this amazing woman!
Love your blog! Just found it recently and have enjoyed mining the past posts. Annika

Sam said...

I only have my own memories from my family since the tradition of food is pretty strong. However estrangement issues have prevented me from continuing the learning process so I have found friends much older than me to pass down these lessons. And obviously, I read a lot of blogs...

Farmer's Daughter said...

Great post! I was fortunate to have not only ALL of my grandparents (who are/were all farmers) but 3 great-grandparents. I often write about my great-grandma Rose who lived to 99 1/2. I can't even begin to describe all I've learned from them :)