Article in Radish Magazine

Feb 2, 2015

Apr 22, 2014 07:59AM

The Amana Way: Author shares rich history of gardening at the colonies

By Sarah J. Gardner,
(This article originally appeared online in Radish Magazine:

In his new book, "Gardening the Amana Way" (2013, University of Iowa Press, 172 pages, $27.50), author and gardener Lawrence L. Rettig explores the communal-garden practices that were at the heart of life in the Amana Colonies, seven villages founded in the mid-19th century by the members of the Ebenezer Society. He offers history, insight and even recipes that connect the practices of the past with life in the Amanas today. It is a fascinating lens into these unique communities. Radish recently caught up with Rettig through email to learn more.

Radish: Your parents were part of the communal life of the Amana Society. How did that heritage shape your gardening interests?
Lawrence L. Rettig: Because gardening was such an integral part of life in the Amana communal society, I was immersed in the gardening tradition at an early age. I grew up surrounded by gardens, not only those on our property at home but throughout my village and the other six villages that comprise the Amana Colonies. Even though I was born nine years after communal life was abandoned, and there were no longer any communal gardens, everyone still had gardens surrounding their homes. During World War II, the importance of those gardens increased, and usually their size as well, as everyone was encouraged to plant Victory Gardens.

By the time I was a teenager, I had already had years of gardening experience, working in the family vegetable garden and in the flower beds. My parents were both avid gardeners, but it was a kindly old neighbor who took me under his wing and really cultivated my interest. Not only did he acquaint me with plants, both vegetables and flowers, that I had no knowledge of, he taught me to graft. I thought it was absolutely magical that one could take the bud or the scion from one plant, graft it onto another and have it actually grow and thrive.

Another tradition that has remained with me through my gardening life is that of saving seeds. In fact, my wife, Wilma, and I have a seed bank that preserves some of the old vegetable varieties that were brought from Germany and grown in the communal kitchen gardens.

Finally, how could someone with a German name like Rettig not be a gardener? You see, it means "radish!"

R: Could you talk about the importance of "planting for the future," as understood by members of the Amana Colonies?
LLR: Planting for the future was, of course, essential to the success of Amana communal life. It kept the communal kitchen houses in good supply of fruit and vegetables year round. Not all plants in vegetable gardens were harvested. Some of each variety was held back for seed. The amount and quality of that seed determined the quality and quantity of future meals at the kitchen houses. Fruit and vegetable varieties that canned or dried well or could be stored fresh over winter were especially valued.

But fruit and vegetables affected the community's future in another way. Some of them became cash crops, especially cabbage, onions, and potatoes. Onions and potatoes were sold fresh, but the cabbage was fermented to sauerkraut. Some of it was shipped in large barrels to markets in the Chicago area. So the gardening enterprise was also a plus for the Society's economy.

R: Who were the Gardebaas and Gardeschwestre, and what were their roles in the communal life of the Amanas?
LLR: The Gardebaas, quite literally a "garden boss," was in charge of raising food for a communal kitchen. She was usually an older lady, well-versed in the Amana gardening operation, who cooperated closely with the Kichebaas, (kitchen boss) of the kitchen for which she provided produce. She directed the Gardeschwestre (garden sisters), who were usually younger and provided the labor needed to sow, plant, tend, and harvest the various crops.

R: A lot of vegetables familiar to gardeners today -- cabbage, beans, potatoes, peas -- were grown in the Amana gardens, but some less familiar produce, too, like citron melon, celeriac, salsify and ground cherries. Given the growing interest in heirloom vegetables in recent years, is there a lesser known vegetable you think is ready to make a "comeback"?
LLR: Definitely celeriac. It's a "root celery" that's still very popular in Europe and increasing in popularity here in the U.S. I'm seeing it occasionally in supermarkets in our area of Iowa now. It's a celery that is grown not for its stalks, but for its bulbous root which grows above ground, has a mild, pleasing celery flavor, and is used raw in salads or cooked in soups. The stalks are small, strong-tasting, stringy and generally unpalatable. If finely chopped, they may be used to flavor soups and other dishes.

(Celeriac's) culture is slightly different from regular celery, in that some effort must be put forth in order to harvest a reasonably large bulb in the fall. Plants must be kept well-watered, especially during dry summers. Outer stalks are removed periodically in order to encourage large bulb formation. Bulbs store well after harvesting, a definite advantage for pre-1932 communal kitchen cooks. Plants usually do not produce seeds the first year and are not winter hardy in Iowa, so a few bulbs must be saved to replant the next spring to produce seeds.

R: What role has the Amana Heritage Society played in preserving seeds from Amana gardens?
LLR: Our seed bank's official home is the Amana Heritage Society, but my wife and I run it from our home in South Amana.

R: Not everything prepared in the communal kitchens in the Amana colonies came from the gardens. What sorts of plants did the members forage to eat?
LLR: Dandelion, lamb's quarters, and stinging nettle were often gathered in the wild by the Gardeschwestre. Dandelion greens were harvested in early spring, chopped into small pieces and combined with a salad dressing and sometimes with bacon bits or chopped boiled egg. Lamb's quarters and stinging nettle were cooked like spinach.

R: How did flower gardening take root among the very pragmatic residents of the Amana Colonies?
LLR: Flower gardening was pretty much taboo when the Society settled near Buffalo, N.Y., and began communal life in earnest as the Ebenezer Society before moving on to found the Amana Colonies here in Iowa. It was considered frivolous because it did not produce food. Even trees had to be utilitarian. If one wanted to plant a tree in one's yard, it had to be either a fruit or nut tree. To this day our gardens here at Cottage-in-the-Meadow Gardens reflect that practice, as we have fruit trees scattered throughout our lawns and garden beds.

An exception to this early view was already made during the sojourn of the Ebenezer Society in New York. A young man named Joseph Prestele, who had become a well-known lithographer in Europe before he and his family immigrated to Ebenezer, began to plant flowers around his home soon after he moved in. There was considerable consternation among the elders who ran the Society, but Prestele argued that he needed the flowers as subjects for his lithographs. Prestele was paid quite handsomely for many of the lithographs he produced, and those payments all went straight into the Society's treasury. By the time the Amana Society came into being, flowers appeared here and there in gardens, but not in great profusion, as was later the case.

R: What do you think are some of the valuable lessons or techniques contemporary gardeners can learn from the practices of the Amana gardeners?
LLR: Plant heirloom vegetables and save their seeds.
Keep accurate and detailed notes. Each Gardebaas kept a garden journal from year to year. When planning the plantings for the coming gardening season, she consulted her journal often.
Avoid chemical insect control. Use companion plants to ward off pests. Hand pick insects from plants when feasible.

R: How do the recipes included in the book relate to the gardening heritage of the Amana Colonies?
LLR: The recipes all have at least one ingredient that comes from our gardens. More directly related to the Amana gardening heritage are the vegetables we grow in our seed bank.

R: Do you have a favorite recipe?
LLR: Wilma is an excellent cook, so it's really hard for me to come up with just one recipe. I'll choose one from each of the categories in my book.
Salads: Rettig Salaat (Radish salad) Given what I've already revealed about my last name, this is a no-brainer!
Soups: Tomato (Hands down, Wilma's tomato soup is the best I've ever tasted.)
Breads: Chocolate zucchini bread
Vegetables: Kardoffelklees (Wilma's potato dumplings)
Meats: Pork loin with apple cream
Desserts: Strawberry rhubarb pie

Sarah J. Gardner is editor of Radish. Copies of "Gardening the Amana Way," are available through the University of Iowa Press,

Contact Info

Cottage-in-the-Meadow Gardens
306 Hwy. 220 Trail
PO Box 107
South Amana, IA 52334
Lily Auction Username:Larryr

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