The Free Press, Mankato, MN

June 8, 2014

Bit early by the gardening bug

Late spring means anticipating the first strawberry dance

By Edie Schmierbach

---- — Disclaimer: I am a good gardener, but far from great.

In the annual race with quack grass, it's always been a safe bet to choose the weed over me. I've never won a ribbon at the county fair for the most beautiful blossoms or best potatoes — and that's not just because I've never ever entered an exhibit.

However, planting seeds in soil and overseeing the progress of what comes up have been summer rituals for me since I was a kid.

Each spring as the hours of daylight increase, so does my urge to be outdoors digging in dirt. Most of my three-day Memorial weekend was spent in my community garden plot.

The 6-year-old me would not have believed contentment could be found so close to home. Back then, in Big Stone City, South Dakota, her chores included cleaning a row of green beans. Each week, she would trudge down her 5-foot assignment, tearfully muttering about her mean father who sentenced all of his children to time spent pulling weeds.

As the years went by, the rows I was responsible for became longer and my love for gardening sprouted.

The summer after my freshman year in college was spent working side by side with my father as we cleaned flower beds and watched birds hunt for worms in soil we had just turned over. I began to recognize gardens as places to find serenity and relief from stress.

At my first full-time newspaper job in Marshall, I hooked up with co-workers who also loved to talk about compost. We took over a backyard space below a reporter's rented apartment. It hadn't been tilled for years.

That fall, we celebrated a splendid harvest by playing croquet and sampling dishes made with our homegrown vegetables. A boom box played a cassette tape of Rick Nelson's “Garden Party” while we feasted.

Years later, after I began on the staff of The Free Press and moved to St. Peter, I became part of another group of people who liked to plant stuff. We've united against gophers that tried to take over, and we’ve agonized together about squash-bug infestations that laid ruin to most of our butternuts and Hubbards.

The first growing season at the community garden, my partner, Chico, graciously offered to break ground in my new plot. We share a love of art and other interests, but gardening did not seem to be his thing.

About three years ago, he jumped in to the hobby, a rake in one hand and hoe in the other. Now, his summer days are spent closely monitoring the tomato and pepper seedlings he started indoors. The trenching technique he's developed keeps our weeding time down and lots of water moving to the roots of thirsty plants.

As for me, I continue in my roles as keeper of the perennial flowers and designated fruit picker.

This week, I'm on watch for the exact time to celebrate my favorite garden ritual. Little white flowers were abundant this year in a small patch on the edge of my plot. That's a signal it will soon be time to do The Dance of the First Ripe Strawberry.

Free Press summer essay series continues Every Sunday this summer, Free Press staff will be writing essays about what summer memories and traditions they and their families hold dear. Staff writer Edie Schmierbach continues the series today. Look for forthcoming essays right here in the Currents section.