Madison author Susan Apps-Bodilly draws on her family’s long tradition in gardening in her latest book, “Seeds in Soil, Planting a Garden and Finding Your Roots,” recently published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press.
The book offers readers a glimpse into the history of Wisconsin gardens and the state’s geography; outlines crafts and activities to do with children in the garden; and in general, encourages everyone to get their hands on some seeds and in some soil.
Apps-Bodilly will discuss her book, published in May, at an event at the Madison Children’s Museum later this month.
Q: Start by telling me a little about your background — I know you’re a teacher in addition to an author. What do you teach and is this your first book?
A: I’ve been teaching since 1984, except for three years when I was home with my kids. I teach in Madison at (what was) Falk Elementary, which is now the Milele Chikasa Anana Elementary School. I wrote (“Seeds In Soil”) the summer during COVID and last summer did the edits. This is my third book. My first one was “One Room Schools” about one-room schools and the history of one-room schools in Wisconsin. The second book was a collaboration with my dad (author Jerry Apps). We did a cookbook together called “Old Farm Country Cookbook.” We took my grandma’s recipes card box and I would pull out a recipe that would trigger a story (and) I worked on redoing the recipes. ... She did not have electricity or indoor plumbing in her farm kitchen. She was doing farm-to-table before it was popular. I started writing the gardening book in my head when I was working on (the cookbook).
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Q: It’s clear from the book that gardening has long been important to you and your family — what prompted you to write a book about it?
A: Since I’ve been gardening my whole life that’s definitely part of the inspiration (for the book). This book is a combination of all my favorite things in one book. There are hundreds of gardening books available. I wanted this one to be very different. I wanted it to have an educational component. However, I didn’t want it to be just a gardening book, or just a curriculum book. We have a family garden at our family farm. (Over the years) my family really counted on the produce from that garden. Our farm has really sandy soil and we grow lot of tomatoes, potatoes and cucumbers. I also have a garden on the side of my house (where) my husband built little raised beds for tomatoes and beans. We also have a huge raspberry patch.
Q: How have you incorporated gardening into the classroom?
A: Kids from the city (enjoy) getting involved with nature and seeing a direct connection with what they eat. Some kids do not know where their food comes from. It’s just a really good way to dig in the dirt and ... be connected with nature. I thought it was a really important book to write. Teaching during COVID and having to teach over Zoom just made me more inspired to find avenues to have kids outside and disconnected from the screen. Even when we just plant a seed, they see how it grows and changes. It’s so great. You can grow something in a small space pretty successfully. You don’t have to have a big garden. Start small. The book also includes some crafts. It’s really fun to do some crafts and be creative in the garden.
Q: What do you see as trends in gardening?
A: I do think in recent years I see people upcycling things to use as garden containers that are safe and pretty (for their garden). I think people got more connected with nature because of COVID, because people wanted to be outside in a safe way. (Also), people want to know where their food comes from and want to eat food grown locally.
Q: People don’t often talk about the historical aspect of gardening, but you spend a lot of time on it in your book. Why was it important for you to focus on Wisconsin’s history of gardening?
A: The (Wisconsin) Historical Society was publishing the book, so I wanted to include a historical aspect. Part of the title is “Seeds in Soil ... Finding Your Roots” ... which was connected to how the land we’re gardening is not ours. The reason we have land to garden on is because it was acquired through treaties. It’s interesting in Wisconsin, when people started immigrating to what would become Wisconsin, whether they were trappers or miners, they provided food for themselves and their families (through gardening). The book also has a chapter on the regions of Wisconsin and the kinds of soil as well as a brief history of First Nations gardening. I also include some history stories from my own family.
Q: The book also includes many historical photos — why was that an important element in your book?
A: (It’s important to have) kids look at a picture as a primary source document and learn how to think critically about it. An image can also tell you about our history. Who took the picture and why did they take it? I’m interested in helping kids think critically about the past. I tried to include different primary sources (such as) a piece of music, a postcard or a poem. I wanted to make sure there was some diversity in the book, also. I was specifically looking for diversity in photos. I wanted to be inclusive.
Q: What is your favorite food to grow in your garden?
A: The thing we’ve had the most success with is tomatoes. There are so many things you can do with them — freezer salsa, fresh salsa, soup. We’ve grown gourds by accident. We’re big composters and had mixed compost in the garden. All of a sudden we had this rogue gourd. It vined all over our small space. They’re so easy and fun (to grow).