Among the wise and prudent, self-sufficient PA Dutch people, their Americana folk calendar has always called for the planting of onions and peas on March 17, St. Patty’s Day.
Since Colonial times, gardeners were urged to hedge themselves against a shorter sporadic growing season in North America, a folk practice learned by early Americans who had suffered devastating, long, winter storms.
Having survived the early American winters without any fresh vegetables, when the spring season appeared and wild dandelion was available, PA Dutch people took advantage of its appearance to harvest them to be made into a salad with bacon dressing and hard boiled eggs. It was especially made on “Maunday Thursday” (Green Thursday), before Good Friday, associated with the Easter holiday.
In the frontier days, as soon as the groundhog predicted six more weeks of winter or early spring on Feb. 2, PA Dutch natives sought this edible form of vegetation to enhance their diet, until their gardens could provide a balanced diet. Therefore, our eager ancestors could not wait to begin their gardens, a major source of food from which there families could survive. But if one started his garden, and winter was not over, harsh frosts in North America were devastating to young plants.
So the question was, “How soon does one begin to plant his garden?” According to PA Deitsch experience or religious faith in Catholic Saints, our 300 year old American culture had established the folkway of beginning your garden on Saint Patrick’s Day, March the 17th in southeastern Pennsylvania, were better veteran farmers begin by planting onions, but the planting of sweet peas is up to climatic change of one’s immediate area.
But since they were few Irish immigrants in Pennsylvania prior to 1728, it is likely that the tradition of starting ones garden on St. Patrick’s Day, may have been the influence of Father Theodore Schneider, founder of the German Roman Catholic Church of the Blessed Sacrament in 1741 at Bally, Berks County, who had a major influence on our Palatine Rhineland Dialect speaking natives. Jonas Day known as “Uni” by his Rockland Township neighbors in Oley Hills, whose family wove split oak baskets and taught my uncle Freddie Bieber, how to make them; they were ideal for harvesting vegetables and potatoes, at Ruppert’s Eck (or corner) in Rockland Township.
I remember how serious Jonas Day, the Irishman nicknamed “Uni” was about his large garden, and I knew he learned about herbal healing from his mother, a traditional herbologist like Mountain Mary (Maria Young). There were rugged frontier people who knew, “God helps those who work hard themselves!” People with green thumbs like our older PA Dutch farm people who appreciate a successful family garden, deserve the fruits of their labor, if they have the patience to weather all storms, God willing. Certainly, the Pilgrims who came to America had no idea how bad North American winters would be.
One might think that the local clergy had something to do with shaming lazy individuals if they did not get a headstart on the family gardens by Saint Patty’s Day. These family gardens were the difference between survival in the North American wilderness and happy home life. Any snow which fell to the ground after the onions were planted on Saint Patrick’s Day was called an “Onion snow” by the natives of the PA Dutch Country, and did little to harm this crop is planted deep enough.
Professor Dr. Lee Graver, of Kutztown University, an avid gardener, said that the inborn urge for PA Dutch people to garden came from their 300 year old culture to work the land, having immigrated here as farmers. Ironically, my wife and I named our son, Erin, in honor of Saint Patrick. The Days and my Bieber family are still long time friends living in the Oley Hills.
Richard H. Shaner is director of the American Folklife Institute of Kutztown.