Nature Notes: Rites of the Seasons

The annual turning over the earth
When The Star’s nature columnist was growing up in Southold in the 1940s, tractors in the fields, like these at Wesnofske Farms in Bridgehampton, meant it was time to start working on the home garden. Carissa Katz

It was pleasant last Thursday afternoon as I drove from Noyac to Southampton. I had just left Edge of Woods Road for David White’s Lane when I came upon about 50 gulls landing in a just-plowed strip on the west side of the road. 

A few hundred yards down the road, I came upon a farmer on his tractor. Three or four of the gulls were looming over the soil, closely following the plow. Through the windshield they looked like mature herring gulls, but a closer look revealed yellow-green legs, not the characteristically pink legs, and their yellow bills had black rings, not red blotches. They were obviously looking for grubs and other insects turned up by the plow. Ring-billed gulls often overwinter here before taking off in mid-April to go to their breeding grounds along the shores of Lake Ontario and other northern lakes throughout North America. Yes, the annual turning over the earth, so widespread a practice on the East End of Long Island, was in progress and a wonderful sight to behold.

I was immediately reminded of that wonderful time in my youth on the North Fork when on a sunny day in April just about every operable tractor was out plowing. I knew the names of the tractors — John Deere, Farmall, Massy-Harris, Ford, Allis Chalmers, Case, Ferguson — better than I knew the names of the automobiles. It was the moment we all waited for. Just about every inhabitant in Southold and Riverhead Towns had a garden. We were still fighting the Germans and the Japanese. It was the break we needed after a tough winter of ice and snow.

As soon as the locals saw the tractors out of the barns, an annual signal, they knew it was time to get working on their gardens. In the 1940s your home garden, sometimes called a victory garden, was normally much less than an acre, and divided up into many smaller plots, each plot dedicated to a particular vegetable. Almost everybody also had patches of asparagus and rhubarb. The former appeared early as erect dull-green spears sticking up from the ground. Sometimes we homeowners would hire a man and his tractor to plow our plot, other times we would plow it ourselves with a hand-pushed cultivator.

Growing food, or crop farming, dates back to the rise of civilization in eastern Asia and northern Africa thousands of years ago. By the middle of the 20th century it had not changed all that much. One scarred a piece of flattish earth, dropped seeds in the scars, and covered them up, maybe added some water if it was a dry period, and perhaps a little fertilizer. The hoe was the principal tool. The standard gardening posture was bending over, legs semistraight. 

We began to prepare for the annual event not long after Christmas. First we imagined what it would be like, then we got out the seed catalogs, in particular the Burpee catalog, and began to think about what we were going to plant. It seems that each year we added a new item or two as the seeds became available. In 1945 it was popcorn, before that it was honeydew melons.

But we never forgot the old standards: peas, lettuce, green beans, corn, squash, cucumbers, beets, carrots, melons, pumpkins, turnips, cabbage, and cauliflower. One made space for each and planted the different seeds successively as the right time in April and May and June came along. Peas, lettuce, beets, and carrots were generally the first to be seeded, cabbage and cauliflower the last. Some of the different seeds were ordered from the catalogs in March, other purchased at the local hardware store just before planting.

Of course our spirits were high and the youngest of us would go out each morning before school to see if any of the seeds had germinated. It was like Christmas morning when one woke early and tiptoed down to the presents under the tree. Most times it took at least two weeks for the seeds to sprout up above the earth’s surface. When the first plants shot up it was a most happy time. We youngsters compared notes, bragging if our seeds sprouted first.

As each species of vegetable came up we would be there to mark its appearance. The family plot began to look like a garden after all, with neat row after neat row filling up the space from one end to the other. It was very rare that particular seeds didn’t sprout.

As pleased as we were with the flourishing assortment, when it came to weeding, sometimes by hand, sometimes with a hoe, some of our joy subsided. Weeding, or cultivating, was as important as planting or harvesting. Some of the weeds, for example, lamb’s quarters, were fed to the chickens and pigs. Very little went to waste.

We all raised livestock, as well. Most everyone had chickens, some had a cow or two, pigs, goats, turkeys, and ducks. Before school and after school and on the weekends there was always something to tend to. Next door, my grandfather ran the largest chicken farm on eastern Long Island, but, nevertheless, we had our own chickens — Barred Rocks — as well as Muscovy ducks.

Part of the fun of raising livestock was trying to catch them when they got loose from their pens. As soon as the ducks could fly they would start practicing. I would be dispatched to find them once they landed, usually less than a few hundred yards away.

The pigs got loose once and my brother and father made a “deadfall,” covered it with reeds and baited the middle of it. It worked, but it wasn’t easy getting half-grown pigs out of the deep hole.

Oh, there was another side to all of this work. We sold some of the food by the side of the road: strawberries in late May, corn in July and August, melons and pumpkins come September. The daughters were the chief salespeople, a card table was the counter. 

Moms had the most difficult and time-consuming jobs of all. We harvested more than we could eat and the surplus had to be preserved for fall and winter dining. Every home had a canning closet, a system of shelves on which Mason jars were kept, either clean and empty or filled with canned food. Just about every home had a pressure cooker. The Mason jars would be filled and placed in the pressure cooker, which sat on a stove burner until the food in the jars was “preserved,” that is, cooked and sterilized.

Cucumbers were pickled and stored in jars.

We also played games, but we didn’t have TVs and being outside was preferable to being indoors. When we had a little time to kill, we would pick berries and fruit. Some of us raised raspberries, currants, gooseberries, and the like, but better than those, the blueberries, huckleberries, black cherries, and beach plums were sweet, bountiful, and you could eat as many as you saved in containers. In certain falls, the Penny family would drive over to the South Fork and pick cranberries, the last items to be harvested each year.

One of my very best memories, which came late in the season, was sitting on top of our pigpen building, eating watermelons one after the other with the Presbyterian minister’s son, then throwing the rinds to the pigs. We were pretty tired out after all the harvesting and preserving was done for the year, generally by Halloween. When the fruit and vegetables were gone, and after we rested up a bit, we’d be out in the creek or bay digging clams, soft and hard, later, sometimes, duck hunting. It sure beat Little League baseball and school.

Funny, I can’t remember ever seeing a “soccer mom” in town.

Larry Penny can be reached via email at