After 52 years, Shirley Pratt has the right gardening knack

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Gardeners are a gregarious bunch. Get two of them together and the talk quickly turns to anything green-related. Advice and tips are exchanged, vegetable yields compared, canning recipes traded, weather complaints aired, Japanese beetle horror stories narrated. The screensavers on many of our cell phones default to that gorgeous rose or huge watermelon we grew.  Dedication, obsession, call it what you will, but all gardeners know that experience counts. You can learn a lot about horticulture from books and websites, but the one-on-one you get from someone who has dug in the dirt for many years is invaluable.

Imagine my delight when I found out that just such a couple lived down the street. Our neighbors, Shirley and Guy Pratt, are founts of gardening information and personal stories that they dispense with humor and modesty. 

“I’ve had a garden from the first year we were married and we’ve been married for 52 years. I would really miss a garden if I couldn’t put one in and I’ve always canned what we’ve grown,” said Shirley, a blonde bundle of energy. “Although it’s a wonder we all didn’t die of botulism the first year I canned our produce.”

She was so intent on tightening the lids on the jars that “I pressed down so hard that I ruined the rubber and the jars didn’t seal.” That one flub didn’t slow Shirley down. After the first year, she figures she canned about 500 jars each summer.

Guy and Shirley’s garden during this drought-plagued summer prospered while mine didn’t exactly dry up, it just didn’t produce. I watered every day; the couple from the Bootheel only gave their plants a drink periodically and only if there was no rain. “Our opinion,” said Shirley, “is that the garden is better off if you give it a good soaking about every ten days.”  If you water the surface every day, the plant roots won’t have any incentive to seek the moister, deeper dirt. In other words, you are enabling the plants to grow only shallow roots and not produce as well.

Shirley also has an opinion about weeds: she likes them. “Weeds are okay. They aerate the soil and shade the plants.” She uses newspaper and straw to hold in the moisture around her plants.

And she shares her crops. The other week Shirley loaded me down with cucumbers so that I could make pickles. And she came with copies of two of her favorite tried-and-true pickle recipes—and her not-so-secret ingredient, kosher salt. Here are the recipes but she cautions: canning salt will NOT work.

Shirley Pratt

Tomato plants are more productive when planted with a posthole digger, says longtime gardener Shirley Pratt. She buries the plants to the top leaves. This way, she says, the roots grow deeper, which is especially good in drought conditions.

Chunk Pickles

Chunk 4 cups of cucumbers (don’t peel; I did that the first time I made pickles and it doesn’t work!). Add 6 medium white onions, thinly sliced, and 2 diced green peppers. Sprinkle with 1/3 cup kosher salt. Cover with ice cubes and let stand for three hours. Drain.

Bring a mixture of 5 cups sugar, 1 ½ teaspoon turmeric, 1 ½ teaspoon celery seed, 2 tablespoons mustard seed and 3 cups cider vinegar to a boil. Place cucumbers and onions in the seasoning mixture and simmer a few minutes. Pack in hot jars and seal.

Sometimes Shirley improvises and experiments. Once, her jars of Chunk Pickles didn’t come out even and she happened to have a knobby yellow squash. She cut it up and added it to the jar, and decided that she and Guy liked the end product. Shirley’s dill pickle recipe also uses kosher salt. “Kosher salt is a must, otherwise they are too salty,” she says.

Dill pickles

Soak 6 quarts of sliced cucumbers in cold water overnight; drain. Pour boiling water over the cucumbers and let stand 10 minutes. Pack in hot jars and add 2 cloves of garlic and 1 head of dill to each jar. Bring to boil a solution of 2 pints white vinegar, 3 pints water and ¾ cup kosher salt. Pour in hot jars and seal.

Guy, a positive and happy sort of guy, walks past our house four times a day for his health. He keeps an eye on our orchard, and, this dry year, surprisingly, we had three trees full of peaches. After fighting off the Japanese beetles, the peaches survived, but, again, because of lack of rain, the peaches were not robust, only slightly larger than a golf ball, but they were tasty. It’s not any fun to peel and de-seed fruit of any kind for freezing, but small fruit is the pits (sorry!). Boiling in hot water for a few seconds helps, but small fruit gets mushy quickly, making it even more difficult to peel and pit.

Shirley and Guy came to the rescue again. They remove the pits, but do not peel the fruit. The yummy, easy cobbler that Shirley makes disappears quickly. Here’s the recipe.

Peach Cobbler that makes its own crust

Wash, pit, quarter, but don’t peel about 4 cups of peaches. Sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar. Chunk one stick of butter and spread in 9×12” baking pan. Mix together 1 cup flour, 1 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon baking powder, 1 teaspoon almond or vanilla flavoring and 1 cup water or milk or 1 can peach soda. Pour on top of butter in pan. Smooth the peach, cinnamon and sugar mixture on top and bake at 350 degrees for about 1 hour.

What about the dozens and dozens of red plums we harvested? Once again, their growth was stunted, but the fruit was sweet. Ever try to peel and pit table-tennis-size plums? Not pretty. Here’s what Shirley said to do: Boil the small plums in water until soft. Strain the plums and place them in a large square of cheesecloth. Squeeze and make jelly from the liquid. Or can and use later.

You’ve got to love wise gardeners who are always ready to share their cultivated wisdom.

Jeanne Duffey is contributing editor of GREENE Magazine. She is a Master Gardner and FOG board member.

George Freeman is a veteran journalist and photographer. An award-winning writer, editor and columnist in Springfield, Mo., with more than 50 years experience. His preference is for positive and uplifting stories about people, places, traditions and trends that make the Ozarks one of the most livable regions anywhere. A member of the Garden Writers Association of America, he is a past-president of the Society of Professional Journalists of Southwest Missouri, the Kansas and Ohio AP societies; a board member of Friends of the Garden and a member of the Rotary Club of Springfield. In 1976, he traveled to India as a member of a Rotary Foundation Group Study Exchange Team.

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