Mrs. Sernowski's Potatoes

One Year, early in April, Ted and I were out in the field. We’d had a very warm spring, and it looked as if we would be able to begin planting soon.

Along the riverbank where we live, the land is divided into long, narrow strips, so our neighbours are actually quite close. I noticed Mrs. Sernowski  out in her field. I could clearly see what she was doing, although I couldn’t quite believe my eyes.

“Ted,” I said, “Mrs. Sernowski is over there planting potatoes.”

“She’s making a big mistake,” he replied. “It’s way too early. They’ll freeze for sure.”

“Ted, she’s been in the business for 25 years. Maybe she knows something we don’t know.”

“Nope,” said Ted, “they’re going to freeze. Mark my words.”

I wasn’t about to give up. “But Ted,” I pointed out, “She’s planting three acres!”

“Well,” he persisted, “She’s going to be sorry.”

Mrs. Sernowski didn’t strike me as the sort of person who would take a foolish risk. Born in Ukraine, she had farmed all her life. She was a short, stocky woman, just over five feet tall, and a hard worker. She always had a friendly smile or a word or two of gardening advice. She also had a natural way with kids. My son Jim would often wander over to her house for a visit, and to this day Bill can ask for a cup of coffee in Ukrainian.

Above all, Mrs. Sernowski was down to earth—literally! She never wore shoes, except on special occasions, and the kids often marvelled at the thick, tough soles of her feet. A woman who had such close, constant contact with the soil would know more about gardening than most people.

Ted and I kept a close eye on Mrs. Sernowski’s potato field that spring. The fine weather continued, and within a few weeks, the potato plants were a foot high. Sure enough, just as Ted predicted, we did get a frost. Down went the potatoes, as black as can be.

Although he hated to see something like that happen to a neighbour, Ted couldn’t help being the tiniest bit smug.

Well, Mrs. Sernowski was no April fool. The next day it rained. Later in the week it got warm—and up came the potatoes once again. She was selling them at the City Market before the end of June.

I’m never too proud to ask advice, and Mrs. Sernowski was more than willing to share her secrets. In addition to planting early, she said to choose an early variety of potato. She told me to leave them whole, so they wouldn’t rot in the cool soil.

She also paid me one of my most cherished compliments. One summer, she brought visitors over to my yard. “I just had to show them your beautiful garden,” she explained.

When I give talks each spring, I always tell my audiences to get those potatoes in early. And every year in June, as I enjoy that glorious first meal of new garden potatoes, I always think of Mrs. Sernowski. 

-Lois Hole I'll Never Marry A Farmer