GARDEN WORKS: Getting through times of change

Elisabeth, 14, in an office in Babelsberg, Germany, in 1954. (contributed photo.)

Advice from a survivor of WWII

Emily Catesby Emily Cates

Well, folks, I was planning on writing another article in my series about good finds from seed catalogs, but with everything happening with COVID-19, I figured it would be prudent to write about something more relevant. In this new era of uncertainty and social distancing, many of us appreciate helpful information on how to get through it all.

While unprecedented to most of us in modern America, these circumstances are surprisingly similar to events experienced by those in our area nearly a century ago during the Great Depression, and also by folks who made it through World War I – World War II in Europe and beyond. In this article I will share with you a few things I gleaned from discussions I’ve had with my mother-in-law, Elisabeth, who survived World War II and lived for decades in Communist East Germany (DDR) before a dramatic opportunity in 1969 led her to Maine. While her story could fill an entire book, I’ll try to highlight the weightier points, and add a few that other family members have pointed out to me.

One of the first things she mentioned was how grocery shopping in the past week or two reminded her and family and friends back home of grocery stores in the former DDR. Many shelves now, like then, are empty as shoppers engage in panic-buying and hoarding. Back then, you had to buy something when you saw it, since you never knew when or if you’d see it again. However, she remarked how unnecessary it is for shoppers here to behave this way, since our infrastructure — unlike the DDR’s — is intact and operating.

Yes, Elisabeth thinks it’s always a good idea to be stocked-up on necessities at all times, but preferably before a crisis, so that others who have a real need are able to obtain their groceries. “You’re not going to starve to death,” she says, “since even if your food gets stolen, you can go outside to your garden and also find edible weeds. You might not get what you want, but you will find something.” I’ll take that advice, since it comes from someone who oftentimes refused to eat so that her little sister would have food.

Another point she mentioned was how useful it was to have a garden. With her thick accent, she affirms: “Plant lots of beans and peas; plant carrots, beets, and other root vegetables.” In the aftermath of World War I, in the winter of 1919-1920, many inhabitants of Continental Europe, including Elisabeth’s father, had mostly turnips to eat. Every recipe you could imagine was made with turnips, including turnip jam. Naturally, when other foods became available, few folks ever wanted to even think about a turnip again. While one could argue we’re not — yet — in the same situation here, the point is to never underestimate the power of root vegetables to sustain humankind through turbulent times. How much better, though, to have a nice variety of them, rather than just one!

As they were able to, many folks in Post-World War II Europe did what they could to get by. Those that had the room and circumstances took advantage of every opportunity to be self-sufficient, including raising chickens, scooping up horse manure from the street for the garden, and bartering. Regarding sweets (from which many of us would be hard-pressed to abstain), Elisabeth’s parents had a huge washtub in their cellar in which they boiled down sugar beets for syrup because they couldn’t obtain granulated sugar. They would have this syrup as a sweet treat once a week and for special occasions. They also raised goats for milk and meat, but on one occasion they fell in love with the baby goat, and after Oma spent hours preparing a roast of it, nobody in the family could eat it. They gave the roast to their neighbor.

The last thing that comes to mind from our conversations is the importance of a meditative space in stressful times. Oftentimes overlooked, but equally important, is the mind-healing properties of a garden. When everything around us seems to crumble, the natural world reassures us of the bigger picture. In the garden we share a place where we can be nourished, grounded, and guided. May we never lose sight of what really matters, and be there for each other no matter what comes our way.

In closing for this article, I’d like to hear your thoughts. What do you think would help us get through tough times? Please leave a comment on our website or Facebook, or email me at

Take care, be safe, and best wishes for the Springtime.


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