Will Bontrager
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Amish Cooking: Stories, Techniques, and Recipes

Learning How to Hoe

Little William Learns the Seed-to-harvest Cycle

A little Amish boy — any boy barely big enough to hold onto a garden hoe — is best supervised while learning how to hoe weeds in the vegetable garden. If unsupervised, well, a wonderful outcome may still come from the resulting disaster.
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A version of this story was first published at the popcorn stories section of this website.

Oat plants and bag of flour

Mom was working in the garden. And I was wandering about looking for interesting things to do.

According to my memory, I was almost 4, the time of year being just before my birthday.

There was an invigorating spring freshness in the air. I remember that. And I was an inquisitive little boy.

A garden hoe

When I spotted the hoe laying on the ground at one end of the garden, possibilities flashed through my young mind.

Dragging the hoe to her, I asked Mom, "Can I help do what you are doing?"

She straightened up, looked around the garden, then smiled at her 4-year old.

"William, you can hoe the radishes."

At the row of radishes, she pointed out a radish plant and carefully explained, "This is what a radish looks like when it's small. See the leaves? All the radish plants look like that."

I must have nodded my head to indicate I understood. Mom, knowing her son in ways he didn't know himself, figured I didn't fully comprehend or I would have verbalized a "yes".

"William, show me three more radish plants."

While I was uncertainly pointing at this plant and that plant, Mom kept showing me the type of leaves radish plants had.

Radish leaves

"The leaves are slightly rounded with a little point at the end. Do you see?"

Finally, I got the idea. It made sense. If the plant had a leaf like that then it was a radish plant.

When she was certain I understood which were the radish plants, Mom brought a short-handled hoe.

As she handed the hoe to me, one of my younger siblings woke up from a nap with a cry and she hurried into the house.

While Mom was gone, I carefully hoed each radish plant.

When she came back, the whole row was done.

It was a few moments before Mom got her voice working. Remembering the scene, the moments were required because she was rapidly bouncing between trying not to cry and trying not to laugh.

She said, "William, I see you hoed exactly where you intended to hoe, not missing even one."

Then, she explained gently, "William, when you hoe again, hoe the weeds around the radishes, not the radishes themselves."

I realized I had misunderstood. It almost made me cry.

So I asked, "How can I fix it, Mom?"

That afternoon, Mom and I did a new radish planting.

"This can be your first crop," Mom explained.

I learned how far apart to place the seeds. And I learned how much loose dirt to cover them with.

Mom let me water them all by myself so, as she explained, "the seeds will sprout and grow and become radishes."

After the watering, I stood there watching the dirt, waiting.

"William, what are you looking for?" Mom asked me.

"Mom, I'm waiting for the radish seeds to sprout and grow."

"William, it will take a long time." she said. "They must decide to become plants and then grow out of the ground. Go play and look again next week."

The ground was damp and the air was warm and it took a little less than the stipulated week for the seeds to sprout.

The very day the radishes started to poke up out of the ground, Mom told me, "Those are your radish plants. You may take care of them so they grow into radishes that are good to eat."

That day, I did more laughing and smiling and running around and enjoying life than I had all the previous week. The world smelled good and the sun felt warm. And there was love everywhere.

Every three days, except Sundays, I proudly hoed the row of radishes — the weeds, not the radishes. And I watered them whenever Mom said they needed watering.

But hoeing wasn't easy. The hoe would try to hoe where it wanted to hoe rather than where I wanted it to hoe. Sometimes the hoe would hoe a radish by mistake.

Mom lovingly suggested, "Use your fingers to pull the weeds near the radish plants. Then hoe the weeds that are further away."

A radish

"It will be easier if you hoe a little slower," she continued. "And stop pulling if the hoe goes where you don't want it to go."

The weeks progressed.

Mom showed me how to gently push soil away from the side of the root to see how big the radish was. Then how to push the dirt back so the radish could grow bigger.

"When it's as big as two of your thumbs put side by side, then it's big enough to harvest," Mom told me.

Finally, Mom helped me choose the four biggest radishes to harvest.

I ate two and Mom and Dad each ate one. Everybody smiled.

Those were the best radishes I ever ate, then or since.

They were my first crop. Mom said so.



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