Rosaly Bass' Peterborough kitchen garden grew to a certified organic 25-acre farm
It starts with a plot of dirt and hope. The hope that somehow, given the right light, the right water and just enough care, the tiny seed plopped into an ocean of earth will turn into something new.
For 77-year-old Rosaly Bass, that hope took her from a quarter-acre kitchen garden to a 25-acre career and two books. Her latest, “Organic!,” which was released earlier this year, is a handbook full of practical advice from a woman who’s spent the better part of her life figuring out the tricks to making any garden grow.
Bass’ own seeds for gardening were sown as a girl. She was born to parents who believed it was good for kids to grow up on a farm. For Bass, this meant helping to take care of the family’s shorthorns and bees as well as tending the garden that fed their brood of seven.
“The whole point of the farm was to feed us, there were five kids,” Bass said. “I grew up during World War II and there were a lot of shortages and we didn’t have shortages, because we were growing our own stuff. So that was sort of my introduction to being organic and growing animals and vegetables for our own use.”
It was also her introduction to organic gardening.
“My mother was an avid gardener and was also very concerned about the environment and against using any kind of pesticide or poison type thing at all for anything,” Bass said. “She thought it was really dangerous to people’s health. I hate to say this, but she was a real health nut. She loved (author and nutritionist) Adelle Davis. She was really, really into it. That was my introduction.”
But Bass left gardening behind when she went away to Wells College to study philosophy and English literature. She eventually married and had two boys, leaving little time for much else.
But then in the late 1960s, she divorced, and moved with her children to New York.
“I wanted to do something really different,” she said. “So, I ended up teaching in Harlem for five years and living in New York, and my kids loved it. They were really into the whole thing.”
Bass earned her master’s degree at Columbia University and landed a job teaching a fifth-grade class.
“They had taken every bad kid out of the other fifth-grade classes and put them into one class, and gave it to me,” she said. “They had gone through 13 teachers before I got them. And I survived.”
More than that, the parents were so grateful to her for sticking with the class she had her choice of classes for the next four years. She chose a third grade.
To New Hampshire
By then she had met Perkins Bass, the former congressman whom she would later marry. The two, along with his five kids, wound up moving to his farm in Peterborough in 1973, and Rosaly Bass immediately got to work.
“Even before I married Perkins, I started growing a garden on his land,” she said. “Just sort of things for people’s kitchens, lettuce and spinach and berries, just sort of stuff that a home gardener would grow.
“I was very excited about not having to work and being able to write, that was my plan. But I also started this pretty big garden... And it just grew and grew. I just really enjoyed growing food for other people.”
She started out giving away the extra to the Bass side of the family, which is considerable. But there was still more. So she started selling that extra to, among others, the Folkway Restaurant. And, yet, there was still more.
By 1989, when it was certified organic, her kitchen garden had grown to 25 acres. By 1990, the Basses opened Rosaly’s Farmstand.
From there she started working with the University of New Hampshire and its Cooperative Extension conducting experiments to discover not only new foods that could grow in New Hampshire, but the best ways to grow them.
“We’ve learned a tremendous amount and we’re still learning,” she said. “We’re still taking on new projects and trying to make them work. And sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t.
“One of the experiments we’ve tried is growing our own mushrooms…Another experiment we’ve gotten involved in is growing ginger. We started doing that last year and it was very successful. People just loved having fresh ginger. So this year we have a bigger crop.”
A growing book
Bass wrote her first book roughly 25 years ago, which was a compilation of articles she had written about gardening for the Monadnock Ledger.
“And then I started to revise the book, because I needed more copies to sell, really looking seriously what I had written 25 years ago,” Bass said. “We had changed our practices dramatically and what is allowed if you’re certified organic has changed, I mean everything has changed.
“So then I realized I was writing a whole new book.”
That book was “Organic!” Bass said the book is filled with,” tricks that we’ve learned to grow them better, and tricks we’ve learned to deal with pests and disease and other stuff that happens when you grow things.”
While the book is comprehensive, she said, it’s not exhaustive or exhausting for the reader and that was by design. She said she wanted to make sure that anyone from the beginner to the avid gardener could benefit from the tips, tricks, recipes and food prep ideas she’s cultivated for the past 41 years.
“For me it’s just magic,” she said. “That you can put a little seed in the ground and grow something that you can eat or enjoy, like flowers. To me, the whole process is a joy.”