|Is a child watching?|
“What do you think they are?” asked Mr. Rau as he lifted me high enough to peer into his rain barrel. I must have been five or six years old, and Mr. Rau was our next-door neighbor on Main Street, Alloway, New Jersey.
My eyes focused on several living and moving things just below the waterline in the oak barrel. I had no idea what they were.
“They’re mosquito larvae,” Mr. Rau explained.
That encounter took place at least 65 years ago. Mr. and Mrs. Rau—I never would have thought to call them Carl and Mary—welcomed my daily visits. At first Mr. Rau lifted me over the fence that separated our yards. Later I learned how to climb over myself. Mr. Rau called me “Farmer.”
“Yes, sir, you’ll always be Farmer Nixon,” Mr. Rau chucked as he puffed on his pipe years later when I visited as an adult. “Mrs. Rau and I had a good laugh when we looked out the kitchen window one January day and saw you planting seeds. You were having a tough time with your gloves on, your thick Mackinow coat, your hat, the packet of seeds, and a trowel. But the next summer that bed produced the best crop of zinnias we’d ever seen.”
I’m sure I had zero skills for growing great zinnias. In fact, as I recall those early years, I realize I was the learner and Mr. Rau taught me important principles of good gardening just by practicing them and letting me watch and help.
Mr. Rau’s rain barrel: The rain barrel sat at the corner of the Rau home closest to their large garden. The rotund oak barrel sat on several bricks, and Mr. Rau bored an overflow hole near the top and built a wooden top with handle. He painted the exterior white to match their house but hadn’t thought of installing a screen at the top to keep out the infamous Jersey ‘skeeters or a spigot near the bottom. Rain water Mr. Rau used from the barrel meant he didn’t have to pump water from his well.
Mr. Rau’s drip irrigation system: Mr. Rau would be fascinated by today’s simple and inexpensive drip irrigation systems, but he made do with the simple materials he had at hand. I used to watch him dig-in clay flower pots between his tomato plants and fill them with buckets of water from the rain barrel during summer droughts. Today I place five-gallon plastic buckets with holes drilled in the bottoms in my Tomato Patch.
Mr. Rau’s pole limas: In post-World War II years when nearly every backyard in Alloway still contained a vegetable garden, Mr. Rau often commented that other gardeners—especially Mr. Bowling just a few houses closer to the center of town—were trying to see who would grow the best pole lima beans.
Beans are beans, I suppose, to most modern shoppers, but pole limas were the prized vegetable in South Jersey gardens in those days. They’re notoriously temperamental. If the weather is too wet or cold, the seeds may rot before sprouting. And when they grow, sometimes they produce a huge harvest—and sometimes little or none.
I used to watch Mr. Rau set up his two rows of bean poles in late spring. He used a heavy, pointed steel bar to make holes every four feet for the cedar poles that were all approximately the same size. He’d plant hills of lima seeds around each pole. Then he’d string binder twine across the tops of the poles and in huge Xs between them. As the plants grew, he’d guide them along the twine.
Growing limas took lots of work, time, patience, and good weather, but near the end of the growing season the rewards were mouth watering, a “mess of limer beans,” as a visitor from New York City once joked, or one of the signature dishes of South Jersey cookery, lima bean potpie. Lima bean potpie also was work intensive, but I’ll not detour there.
Planting onion sets: One early-spring day I watched over the fence as Mr. Rau worked in his khaki shirt and pants in his garden in early spring. I climbed over for a closer look.
“What are you doing, Mr. Rau?”
“Planting onions, Farmer.”
“Can I help?”
“Do you know how to plant onions?”
“Well, watch what I do. First, take a set from the paper bag. … Put the round end down in the row I’ve made with the hoe. … Put the next set down about here. …”
Mr. Rau took my small left hand and placed it between the two sets he had placed in the row.
“See,” he said, “that’s how you do it—one set every five fingers.”
I must have finished planting the onions in a reasonably acceptable way because Mr. Rau didn’t redo them before he carefully hoed soil up around them. When he had finished, he said, “Here, Farmer,” and placed a dime into my dusty hand.
I can’t recall whether I climbed over or flew over the fence on my way home, but I remember yelling as I ran into the house, “Mom! Look! A dime! Mr. Rau gave me a dime!” Ten cents then was enough to buy two huge single-dip ice-cream cones at Ewen’s General Store or Dunham’s Market, the two small groceries at town center.
Thank you, Carl G. Rau, 1893-1971, for lifting me over the fence and letting me learn by helping in your garden.
Is a child watching as you work in your garden? Lift him or her over the fence into the fascinating world of gardening.