HARTLAND — Barbara Day, pushing a wheelbarrow surrounded by 32 kindergartners and first-graders, hobbles over wooden planks that cross a low spot in her backyard.
She pulls her stiff right leg from behind her with every step, ignoring offers of assistance. From the wheelbarrow the 64-year-old selects a three-pronged rake she calls her cane and joins the children at the edge of a potato patch.
From her ailing body burst wisdom and enthusiasm.
“Where do you think those potatoes are?” she asks. Arms waggle, but a boy blurts out, “Underneath.”
“Underneath the ground, that’s right,” says Day. In half a minute with the rake she has unearthed a dozen red potatoes. Little hands pluck them up and bag them to take home.
“Now watch me,” says Day. “Am I being all crazy and just clawing away at the dirt?”
“Noooo,” say the kids.
“Am I being gentle and not stabbing into the potatoes?”
Having learned potato picking’s cardinal lesson, the children delve into the raised beds, burrowing for spuds with shovels, hoes, rakes and bare hands. Most of the first-graders remember planting these potatoes — and beans they also harvested Monday morning — last spring as kindergartners. In the past 12 years, trips to Day’s gardens have become a spring and fall tradition for pupils at Hartland Consolidated School.
“I like the kind of potatoes that turn yellow when you cook them,” says 5-year-old Seth Almond.
“The kind that turn yellow?” asks a confused grown-up.
“Yeah,” says Almond, wiping dirty hands on his pants. “The scalloped kind.”
Day’s yard near downtown Hartland gives new meaning to the term “garden variety.” Fourteen types of basil, six strains of thyme and four kinds of sage round out the herb section. There are also most of the common vegetables, plus peanuts, cotton, okra, lemongrass, chickpeas, sugar beets, soybeans, parsnips, peppers and gan-gling pumpkins on a stick grown from Israeli seeds.
But 14 types of basil? Really?
“I like basil,” says Day.
After the kids march back to school, Day goes inside, where she lives with four dogs. She does most of her gardening at the beginning and end of the day to avoid the sun. It aggravates her lupus, which she was diagnosed with as the World Trade Center towers crashed down on Sept. 11, 2001. Two of the four hijacked planes were still in the air when her doctor gave her the news.
“I remember saying to myself, ‘You ain’t got nothing to feel sorry about,’” she said. “I always thought I had it pretty black-and-white. Now I’ve noticed that there’s lots of gray out there.”
Day has lived in the southern Somerset County towns of Pittsfield and Hartland for most of her life. In her early years, Day’s parents owned the High View Farm in Pittsfield, which was among the largest turkey farms in New England before a fire destroyed it in January 1963 when Day was a junior in high school. In October of that year, her mother died in a car accident, a fate that by terrible coincidence also struck her father in 1967. Those tragedies didn’t dampen her spirit, though.
“I think we’re put on this Earth to go through a lot of trials and tribulations,” she said. “Every one of us just has to be at the right place at the right time to make a difference.”
Day was a registered nurse for more than 30 years before her retirement in 2009. Along the way she earned a reputation for volunteering, ranging from the Hartland Budget Committee to her central role in a local Christmas charity that provided free gifts to 322 area children last year. She was Hartland’s volunteer of the year in 2003 and won the Joyce Packard Community Spirit Award in 2005.
Jessica Dyer, a first-grade teacher in Hartland, said the younger kids hear about “Mrs. Day’s gardens” from the older students even before they meet her.
“Field trips are pretty scarce with the budget the way it is,” said Dyer. “Being able to come here is really a gift to our students.”
One of those students told his teacher this year that he didn’t want to move up to second grade because he wouldn’t be able to go to Mrs. Day’s garden.
“I told the teacher to tell him to come on over with his parents anytime,” said Day. “I thought that was the biggest compliment in the whole world.”