It’s safe to say that in bygone years everyone who had a little ground cultivated a vegetable garden. Not only country folk, but many town dwellers had a fenced back yard garden, often a chicken pen, and maybe even a pig or two.
On warm days toward the end of February, mother would say, “I think I’ll sow my early cabbage seed.” In the fall she had collected a few buckets of dry earth from her garden for starting seeds and stored them in the cellar. Now she would put some of that ground in an old dishpan and put it in the oven of the kitchen stove until it was done steaming. When she took it out, any weed seeds or fungus lurking in the soil would be dead.
True to the Pennsylvania Dutch tradition of using up and making do rather than buying new, old agate-ware basins were her starting “pots.” In my boyhood in the 1950s, her cabbage seeds came in brown envelopes from the W. Atlee Burpee Co. But a generation or two before, women would harvest their own seed. Incidentally, in Pennsylvania Dutch folk culture, most work was gender specific, and the garden was the woman’s domain. Men might spade it and spread dung in the spring, but that was all.
A cabbage head produces a flowering seed stalk the second summer of its life, but if left to overwinter in the open garden, here in the north, cabbages will freeze and later rot. So, in the old days, a few of the best cabbages would be pulled up, roots and all, and left to over winter in the root cellar or the graut-loch—cabbage hole—a rye straw lined pit dug right in the garden. Come spring these were replanted, and if our experience at the Antes House 1750’s style kitchen garden is typical, by late summer the gardener will have A LOT of cabbage seeds.
Mother would fill the basins with the soil after first putting some stones on the bottom. The soil was smoothed, seeds planted, and a thin piece of cloth was lain atop the ground and watered. After the seeds had sprouted, the cloth was removed and a piece of old glass laid on top of the basin forming a kind of greenhouse. The basin was placed on a second floor, south facing window sill. I can well recall watching the daily progress of the seedlings through the water droplets condensed on the underside of the glass.
Growing food in the old days was only half the struggle; sufficient quantities had to be preserved to last the winter. In the late fall some perishables such as root crops, celery and the like could be held in the cellar or “cave” for a few months. But in addition, many gardeners would make a graut-loch, right in the garden.
Victor Dieffenbach in a 1950 issue of The Pennsylvania Dutchman newspaper describes his grandmother’s graut-loch: “This hole was about six feet long, four feet wide and deep enough to get below frost level….She would line the sides and bottom with rye straw; then she would start at one end and plant the cabbage just as it had been in the garden., only now one head against the other. Apples, beets, parsnips, turnips, celery, etc. were put along side and the entire assembly was well covered with old carpet, bags, etc. A roof of boards was put on top. This would now stay closed up until the supply in the cellar was used up. On a nice sunny day someone would open the pit at one end and withdraw the required amount for several week’s use; this was then stored in the cellar until it was used, and thus the pit did not need to be opened in very cold weather.”
Traditionally, cabbage for winter use was buried in the garden on “Aller Heil und Aller Seel” (All Saints and All Souls day). This method of preservation was widely practiced, and some people liked the flavor of cabbage better after it had been buried for several months. When interviewed by the Goschenhoppen Historians, informant Sally Landis remarked in an interview in 1961 that she preferred it that way and also by late winter the cabbage was “schee gehl”—a nice yellow.
In one important way, though, my mother’s gardening habits differed from most of the old Pennsylvania Dutch. She placed absolutely no credence in the folk beliefs such as, “if you never hoe your cabbage on Wednesday then it will not be infected with mildew”; or “if it was planted in the sign of Libra then the resulting crop will be very heavy” and so on. To all such she would remark, “Ach, there’s nothing to it.”