I was talking with my neighbor in Sag Harbor, Ellen Carney, about memories of gardens. She is from Switzerland. The first and most emphatic thing she said was, “We never planted asparagus. We only ate white asparagus and it came from France.”
She was 13 and living in Zurich when the Second World War began. All the houses had window boxes with lush plantings of germaniums or begonias, and even during the war vegetables were available at the market. People also bought cut flowers at the market to put in the house. These had been grown in greenhouses specifically for the cut flower market.
But some people also had home vegetable and berry gardens, usually at the front of the house, or they might have a plot in one of the Schreber Gardens in the city. Started in 1864 in Leipzig, Germany by Dr. Ernst Houschild and named for a colleague, Schreber Gardens seem to be the starting point for the idea of community gardens. Dr. Houschild wanted children living in cities, places that were bleak with the effects of the industrial revolution, to have a chance to experience nature. He leased a meadow and let school children plant flowers in small plots of land. Soon the whole family was involved and they were planting vegetables for the family table. This concept of gardening in the city soon spread to many other countries in Europe.
By the time Carney was a girl, Schreber Gardens were an established part of life for many families in Zurich. A plot would be used to grow a variety of vegetables and berries and some flowers. But it also had a small building for tools and often these buildings were used as getaways on the weekend for the family. In these gardens and the ones at a residence, the plants of choice to grow were: beans, peas, lettuce, cabbage, kohlrabi, tomatoes, beets onions and snow peas. Gladioli, primulas, daffodils, blackberries, raspberries and especially strawberries were also grown there. Corn was not planted, though, as it was grown by farmers as feed for animals.
Carney lived for several years in Africa as an adult in places such as Mali and Chad. Here the houses were surrounded by tall walls and it was impossible to see into the area around the house, but, she says, the women must have had a small vegetable patch because they were at the market with things to sell; very small amounts of just a few vegetables on a small piece of cloth. The vegetables were used in the making of the everyday pot of stew and were only a minor part of that stew, meat being the major ingredient. When Carney wanted to buy vegetables for herself, she often had to visit several women to buy enough for a Western-style portion.
Shortly after coming to this country, Carney lived in a self-governed community in Pennsylvania called Tanguy. There she grew the vegetables for her family in a 12’ x 24’ plot. She planted in close rows and put plastic between them to prevent weeds. She was able to grow almost all of the vegetables the family needed for the entire year with diligence and succession planting. She had to bring the seeds of snow peas from Switzerland, though, as she could not find the seed here at that time. Soon she was supplying seed to all of her neighbors.
At the end of our talk, she told me that one of her favorite gardens was a small bed of edelweiss at her grandmother’s house. That grandmother, who lived in a farmhouse, had tenants in her home who each had a small plot on which they could grow vegetables, but she only grew edelweiss.