Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Gardening: Passing along my rural heritage & much more May 2, 2023

Seeds for sale at Seed Savers Exchange, Decorah, Iowa. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo September 2018)

SEVERAL DAYS AGO, my 4-year-old grandson excitedly shared that his broccoli was growing. His mom, my eldest, clarified. Sixteen broccoli seeds and one carrot seed had sprouted, popping through potting soil in three days. That surprised even me, who grew up in a gardening family with most of our food from farm to table, long before that became a thing.

Annuals that are easy to grow from seed. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

A year ago, I gifted my grandchildren with several packets of seeds. Flowers only. Zinnias and bachelor buttons, easy-to-grow-from-seed annuals that blossom throughout the summer. Isaac and his mom planted the seeds in flower pots. And then watched seeds emerge into tender plants that grew and bloomed in a jolt of color.

Old-fashioned zinnias grown by my friend Al and sold at the Faribault Farmers’ Market. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo September 2019)

That was enough for the preschooler to get the gardening bug. This year, in selecting seeds for Isaac and his older sister, I added vegetables to the mix of flowers. Spinach because I knew it would grow quickly and flourish in Minnesota’s still cool weather. And carrots, because Isaac wanted to plant them. Later, he told his mom he also wanted to plant broccoli because he likes broccoli. I’m not sure that’s true. But Amber bought broccoli seeds for her son, whom she’s dubbed Farmer Isaac.

“Summer in a Jar,” sold at the Faribault Farmers’ Market. This photo published in the book “The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder, The Frontier Landscapes that Inspired The Little House Books” by Marta McDowell. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo September 2015)

I can’t think of a better way to encourage kids to try vegetables. And to teach them about plants and that veggies don’t just come from the grocery store. With most families now a generation or two or three removed from the land, it’s more important than ever to initiate or maintain a connection rooted in the soil.

Several types of tomatoes grow in the garden outside Buckham Memorial Library, Faribault. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

Soil was the gardening starting point for my grandchildren. Once when they stayed overnight, I got out the gardening shovels and directed them toward a corner flowerbed and a patch of dirt. The dirt flew as they dug and uncovered earthworms and half a walnut shell and bugs. I didn’t care if their hands got dirty. I simply wanted them to have fun, to feel the cold, damp earth, to appreciate the soil beneath and between their fingers.

My great niece waters plants inside her family’s mini greenhouse. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo May 2018)

I was a bit surprised when my eldest embraced gardening with her kids. But then again, she was the daughter who always watered flowers and observed that “the flowers are opening their mouths” (translation, “the tulips are blooming”) as a preschooler. I never had much of a garden due to lack of a sunny spot in my yard. But I usually grew tomatoes in pots and always had pots overflowing with flowers and flowers in beds. So Isaac and Isabelle’s mom did have a sort of gardening background.

Heirloom tomato at the Faribault Farmers’ Market. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo September 2019)

As a farmer’s daughter and a grandma, passing along something like gardening is like passing along part of my rural heritage. My Grandma Ida always had a big garden, an essential with a family of 10 kids. She continued to garden throughout her life, long after her kids were gone and she moved to town. Likewise, my mom planted a massive garden to feed her six kids. My siblings and I helped with the gardening—pulling weeds, picking vegetables… And shelling peas. Of all the garden-related tasks, the rhythmic act of running my thumb along an open pod to pop pearls of peas into a pan proved particularly satisfying. Plus, I loved the taste of fresh peas from the garden. There’s nothing like it except perhaps the juicy goodness of a sun-ripened tomato or leaf lettuce or a just-pulled carrot with dirt clinging to the root.

My friend Al vends flowers and vegetables at the Faribault Farmers’ Market. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo September 2019)

I don’t expect my grandchildren will garden like their great great grandma or great grandma. But that’s OK. They’ve been introduced to gardening. They see now how seeds sprout and develop into plants that yield beauty or food. Hopefully they will gain an appreciation for garden-fresh, whether fresh from the pots on their patio or deck, or from a farmers’ market.

Purple beans grow in the library garden. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

Even though they live in a south metro suburb, my grandkids remain close to the land with farm fields within view, not yet replaced by massive housing developments. It’s important to me that Isabelle and Isaac always feel connected to their rural heritage, that they value the land, that they grow up to remember the feel of cold, damp dirt on their hands. That they understand their food is not sourced from grocery stores, but rather from the earth.

© Copyright 2023 Audrey Kletscher Helbling