A garden party Dad would have loved

One of my earliest memories is of my three brothers and me picking berries.

I was 6 years old and my family had moved into a decrepit farmhouse along a dirt road. Dad used an old Farmall Cub tractor to plow enough space for a garden there, and he planted two long rows of strawberries.

We picked during the cool mornings of early June. Pebbles gouged my knees as we brushed leaves aside in our search for ripe berries. 

Ken Bradford

On good days, we would fill dozens of brittle wood quart baskets. Some berries were headed for our dinner table, some would be frozen for later and others would be sold at a market somewhere along Lincoln Way in South Bend. The few nickels and dimes we earned were the first trickles into our bank accounts, which turned into our college funds.

He planted red raspberries too. Those were smaller and more delicate, and they would go into pint baskets. If the wild black raspberries in our woods were ripe as well, they would be mixed with the reds in delicious pies.

When the berry seasons were over, during the late summers or early autumns, the Bradfords would get into our old Studebaker and head north to the orchards of Michigan. We would pick and bring home six or more bushels of peaches and sometimes a dozen or more baskets of apples.

Mom would freeze the extra peaches in round cardboard containers. Our extra apples and potatoes would be stored long into the winter in a cool, dry cistern near the barn. Whenever we ran low of fruit in our house, we would remove the cover to that cistern, climb down a ladder and haul up the apples that had remained remarkably fresh.

I didn’t know of any other farm families that did this. I suppose I never thought much about my family’s devotion to self-picked fruit until I began studying my family history.

My father and his three siblings had been raised by his maternal grandparents on a small farm outside Lima, Ohio. His great-grandparents, Ephriam and Luticia Roush, were fruit and vegetable farmers. Dad’s family often ran short of food. In his writings, Dad told of helping Ephriam in his orchards and he would always bring home bags of whatever fruit was in season.

The cistern and its baskets of potatoes and apples suddenly made sense to me. Like my father, I was part of a family with four children. If we were hungry, we could climb a ladder and get food.

This is why I need to tell you what I know about a project in the works by Unity Gardens.

I’ve volunteered one morning a week at Unity Gardens for about a decade. My superficial benefit is that filling and emptying wheelbarrows, sometimes in extremely hot weather, have helped me maintain a decent weight and muscle tone.

The larger benefit has been knowing that I’m doing a small part to support an organization that provides free, nutritious fruits and vegetables in neighborhoods where many families otherwise might go hungry. There is no cost to anyone. If you walk by and see a ripe tomato, it’s OK to pick it and eat it.

If you don’t know about founder Sara Stewart and this remarkable community treasure, you can find out by visiting their website or by reading this brief article I wrote for Notre Dame Magazine a while back — A Planting of Gardens | Stories | Notre Dame Magazine | University of Notre Dame (nd.edu).

A few years ago, at the main garden on Prast Boulevard, I spent some of my volunteer days putting in raspberry bushes as well as pear and apple trees. This orchard is right across the street from the Beacon Heights housing project, where many children don’t have a lot of good snack choices after school.

At the time, I thought about how wise and kind-hearted this was. If I were a hungry schoolkid, I’m not sure I would cross the street for an onion or a bag of kale. An apple, a pear or a handful of raspberries? Count me in.

On Friday, Sept. 15, the gardens will have a tailgate party at 5 p.m. at its main garden, 3701 Prast Blvd. Part of the program will be a ribbon-cutting for the new dome there.

The major news will be something bigger. Unity Gardens is working with a new donor to create 20 or more urban orchards on lots throughout South Bend. I’m imagining children throughout our city enjoying apples, and I’m looking forward to hearing the details. 

My family’s fortunes have improved since the days of Ephriam Roush and the bags my father brought home to his younger brothers and sister. 

The hunger and need are still there, but it is felt by others, not by us. I don’t know how to fix that. I just know that, if he were still around, my father would be planting orchards.

You can too.