Tavern Onions

27 01 2011

My first memories of vegetable gardening were those of my maternal grandfather and the garden he put out every year on a vacant city lot that he rented.  He would turn the garden by hand once a load of cured manure was brought in and basically grew enough produce to not only last from early spring through summer but on through the next winter by means of canning, freezing and storage in a root cellar.  I think the primary reason he put out the garden, spending hours of hard work early in the morning or late into the evening, was to save money but I think he also enjoyed the time away from my grandmother.  Their’s was a turbulent relationship.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s a large percentage of the population in towns and cities were the first generation not to live their adult lives based on an agrarian life-style. Of course, that generation was what would be called the WWI generation and definitely had a different value system than their children, the Greatest Generation, and their grandchildren, the Baby Boomers.  For my grandfather’s generation, gardening was simply another necessary task like painting the porch, mowing the grass or changing out the window screens for storm windows in Spring and reversing the process in Fall.  Still, I think above and beyond the utilitarian aspects of my grandfather’s garden it was the source of personal pride for him; I can identify with that.

I will freely admit that he was not an easy man to get to know and I think a lot of that was intentional.  Still, he could not hide his satisfaction when he produced the first ripe tomato of the season to the dismay of fellow gardeners in the neighborhood.  He definitely had a “green thumb.”  By training, he was a boilermaker for the Southern Railroad; a dirty, difficult and dangerous job that took both strength and skill.  Yet, he could pinch off a piece of nearly any plant he came across and get it to grow.  I always thought that was a paradox within him.

Besides the regular vegetables you would expect to find in any well-planned garden, he also grew what were called “tavern onions.”  Tavern onions can best be describe as a Vadalia or Walla Walla variety of sweet onion.  Most small towns with German heritage, including Princeton, had as many small taverns and there were churches. Both establishments were patronized by the same crowd.  Anyways, the taverns would serve customers these sweet onions at the bar as they consumed their drinks. I guess it is like peanuts or pretzels in a bar today.  Grandpa Arvin’s tavern onions were always in demand and brought a premium price.  This was the only thing grown in his garden that was not meant to be consumed by the family.  According to him, the onions paid for the rest of the garden.  Or, at least, that is what he told my grandmother who counted every penny and knew where every cent was spent and earned, usually.

I don’t remember how much he sold the onions for but I do know that the price per pound that the tavern owners paid and the amount of money turned over to my grandmother was not the same.  See, Grandpa Arvin loved to smoke and Grandma Arvin thought cigarettes were a waste of money.  The profits skimmed off the top of the tavern onion enterprise went to covering the cost of Grandpa Arvin’s smoking habit.  I often wondered how in the hell two people get to that point in a relationship–another topic for another essay.  The point is that vegetable gardening has been part of my life since my pre-school days.

One of the first tasks we undertook when we bought the land where our home is located was to plant fruit trees and to have a neighbor plow up a place for a vegetable garden.  Let’s face it; even if you put aside the financial savings and the health benefits of growing much of your own food, one of the main motivators is a romantic notion of a return to the land.  Having that vision during some of the dark days after my divorce was all that kept me going many times.  I am often reminded of just how strong this motivation is when I read our youngest daughter’s blog, Back To Her Roots, and she writes about her childhood memories of going out to the garden and eating sun-warmed tomatoes along with fresh green beans and raw sweet corn just pulled from the stalk.

I can tell she and her husband have the yearning to live a life and raise their yet-to-be-born children in the same type of environment that she grew up in.  Maybe, with the right planning, they will be able to make that dream come true just like we did. Every spring, that romantic scene complete with fruit tree blossoms, asparagus shoots and leaves sprouting on Concord grape vines renews my faith that raising your own food may only be second to raising your children as a satisfying long-term endeavor.

This weekend I will plant heirloom tomato seeds, sweet and hot pepper seeds along with many herbs in small starter trays in preparation for transplanting them into the garden sometime in the first part of May once the danger of frost has passed. Knowing what is not in my food is so reassuring.  Thinking about the rich, acidic taste of the Black Krim tomato or the fleeting access to freshly-cut asparagus grilled with sea salt, cracked pepper and a lemon juice-olive oil drizzle makes me realize that this January-February funk will only last a short time in relation to the lifelong rewards and pleasure derived from growing our own food.  Don’t get me started on thinking about a meal of fresh green onions and steamed baby spinach for supper in late spring–my mouth is watering already.

Where are those seeds, I may not wait until this weekend to get started.





2 responses

7 02 2011

Hello 🙂 I read your daughter’s blog almost religiously and stumbled on yours through a link in hers. I live in an urban area and I’ve never learned how to garden. I know I’d like to grow a few things of my own this year.. I was thinking of building a planter box for my deck. Do you have any tips or pointers to getting started?

7 02 2011


I only have limited experience with container or planter boxes for veggies although we do have lots of flowers in containers on our porches and decks. We also do quite a bit of raised bed gardening in our veggie garden.

Besides the obvious need for at least six hours of sunlight per day the next big thing to consider is watering. Containers or raised beds will dry out quicker than plantings in the ground. As long as you have good drainage, you probably cannot water too much. All of my suggestions assume you want to be as organic as possible.

Start with good potting material. I would suggest something like mixing up top soil, organic material (equal parts aged manure and peat moss or just buy compost) and course sand in a 4-2-1 ratio. You don’t have to be real exact, that is just a rule of thumb. Cassie’s husband Craig came up with what I thought was a good planter system using concrete blocks. You may want to check with her on how he set it up.

Next, I would suggest you follow the Square Foot Gardening method. It is a form of intense gardening in which you maximize your available growing space to produce the most food. There are several good websites on the subject, just Google the term.

Next, I would focus on what is called an eating garden. In other words, you don’t plan to can or freeze much or any of what you grow; you will eat it and then rotate crops throughout the growing season. Keep in mind that with a clear piece of plastic can extend your growing season for lettuces and greens a month or so in early spring and a month or so in late fall. I suggest you focus on lettuces, greens, radishes, determinant varieties of tomatoes (these plants stay smaller) carrots, peppers, summer squash/zucchini, eggplant and herbs. You can also either early plant or late plant broccoli, cabbage and bok choi.

If you want to start everything from seed I would suggest you go to Seed Savers Exchange at http://www.seedsavers.org. We get our seeds from them and have never been disappointed. They are not cheap but good seed is much cheaper than produce bought even at a farmers’ market.

If you want to grow some new potatoes, I have used a method that takes up very little space. Make a wire cage out of fencing about 2′-3′ in diameter and about 4′ tall. Put the planter potatoes (you can also get them from Seed Savers) in contact with the ground as per directions inside the cage and cover with about 12 inches of straw –not hay–and water heavily. When the potatoes start to sprout through the straw in about three weeks add any six inches of straw and keep watering and adding straw as the potatoes grow. When the potatoes set blooms, it is time to dig down in the straw and pull out the new potatoes. If you want bigger potatoes let them grow until the green leaves wither and turn brown.

I hope this gives you some food for thought–pardon the pun.

Let me know if you have any other questions.

Thanks for reading my blog.


If you want to start everything from s

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