(9 PM – promoted by TheMomCat)
Those of you that read this regular series know that I am from Hackett, Arkansas, just a mile of so from the Oklahoma border, and just about 10 miles south of the Arkansas River. It was a redneck sort of place, and just zoom onto my previous posts to understand a bit about it.
Ma always raised a big garden when I was little. Before Dad had the concrete driveway poured, it was south of the fence in the yard and was pretty big. After the new driveway, she had to move it south of there, and it was still big.
Ma was a strong woman. When I was little, she was around 60 years old and was still going strong. She was not that tall, but was very stout. She thought of herself as fat, but she really was not. She was muscular, but at 60 there is always some loss of muscle mass, especially in females. But that is not the reason for the piece.
Ma was a real gardener. She grew things that all of us would eat, and since there was essentially unlimited space, she could grow things like leaf lettuce, turnips (which I still hate), onions, and several other one crop vegetables. With the limited space that I have, I am forced to grow things that bear all season. She did not have that limitation.
We did not have a tiller. Ma would pay Dee Francis to bring his horse and plow to the garden (Dee lived about a mile down the road and walked to town twice a day until he was killed one dusky evening by a car). He would bring the old white horse and plow up the garden every spring. After he plowed it, Ma would take a spading fork and do the hard work of tilling it by hand.
She would also add animal manure at the time (she also kept chickens and we had a cow) as she tilled it by hand. After about a week (it was a BIG garden), it was ready to plant. This was done in February, or even late January if the weather broke a bit. She always said that if you did not start your garden by Valentine’s Day, you were too late to get it going.
First she would plant the turnips. You can not kill a turnip with cold weather! The seeds are cheap, and the flavor of a turnip is, to me at least, pretty bad. On the other hand, I like turnip greens if they are mixed with other, less smelly, ones like poke or mustard greens. She would also plant mustard seeds around the same time. This was in early February. As it started to get warmer, she would plant other things, like leaf lettuce and other cool weather crops, like cabbage. She never planted things like broccoli or Brussels sprouts as those were not really known in southern cuisine.
In early to mid March it was time for the onions, and she always planted two or more rows. She usually pulled them when they were just over what you would call the green onion stage at the supermarket, and the tops went into salads or were put in chili or pinto beans when served. The thumb sized bulbs were used with the green parts, and the ones more the size of walnuts were used pretty much like mature onions. She always let a row grow to maturity, and planted only white Bermuda ones. To her, anything else was a waste of time. Actually, that is not a bad attitude, because a fresh, white Bermuda is almost as sweet as a Vidalia onion, and they are good fresh and cooked, whislt Vidalias are not very good cooked.
She never raised carrots, because the stony soil in Hackett was not good for them. Besides, you could get them for 19 cents a pound at the store at the time, so there was no advantage in growing them. Betwixt March and late April there was not much else to plant, except to replant the leaf lettuce and replace a few onions that had been pulled.
In April, planting came on in earnest. Ma loved green beans, in particular the Kentucky Wonder variety. Dad would help her get the supports up for them, and she would go, as she said, aplantin. Four long rows were normal. She and rest of my family LOVED them, but I never got a taste for them. I could eat them, but they were far from my favorite. About the same time, on similar supports, she would plant purple hull peas (which I still dearly love and raise every year).
She also planted several rows of sweet corn, and it was excellent! Nothing is quite like sweet corn, freshly gathered from the garden, and cooked before it even has a chance to reside in the refrigerator. At about the same time she would plant potatoes, always what she called “Irish” ones, always red skinned, and I think that they were the less mealy variety that we now call “Pontiac”. She HATED russet potatoes, and why I do not know.
Then is was time for the okra and the tomatoes. Both of those are very warm weather items, okra more than tomatoes. She always used the “Clemson Spineless” okra variety, although they are not really spineless. For tomatoes, when I was little, she always used the heirloom red oxheart variety, and those were wonderful! They are really hard to find now.
By now it would be into June, and everything would be growing well. Ma went out every evening when it got a bit cool and hoed the garden. She would spend at least two hours every evening hoeing. I HATE to hoe, so I use black plastic film to avoid that unpleasant chore. But Ma seemed to enjoy it. Please do not ask my why.
She was very particular about her hoe. She hated new ones, because the head was too long. She had her favorite (and I wish that I still had it, but it is lost in the fog of family evolution) hoe that was so worn that the head of it was still about six inches wide, but only about two inches deep. She would get Dad to sharpen it every week on his grinding stone, and it was more like a knife on a handle than a chopping tool. She could cut the toughest Bermuda grass with that sharp hoe with only one stroke! Because it was so slim, she could maneuver it very closely to the growing plants and not injure them.
After cultivation, she would usually water the garden if the weather happened to be dry. That often took an hour as well. She took the hose, with one of those pistol grip sprayers, and go back and forth until the soil was wet enough to suit her. That was done around two or three times a week, not every evening. When is was wetter, she would water less. Using my black plastic film technique, I do not have to water at all, except for when the plants are just germinating.
I have put off her pride and joy until now. Ma had a large strawberry patch, and she loved it like a child! She maintained it for years, and only used Ozark Beauty plants. Those are a wonderful variety, have LOTS of runners, and bear the entire warm season if they have enough water. They are an everbearing variety, that keeps flowering and bearing, as opposed to the so called June bearing varieties that have only one, maybe two big crops. Talk about hoeing! She would put hay over them from time to time, but grass still tried to grow, and her keen little hoe, as she called it, would get rid of the grass!
She would also plant peppers, mostly sweet and hot banana ones and cayenne. At the time jalapeno peppers were not well known. Sometimes she would plant bell peppers, but not very many of them. She would also plant cucumbers, but did not pickle them. She just raised slicing ones. From time to time she would plant pinto beans, but they were so cheap at the store they were not really worth the garden space. However, she liked fresh pintos a few times during the season and so did the rest of us.
She always planted squash, mainly yellow crookneck and zucchini. During the season we ate quite a bit of squash. She never raised winter squash as far as I can remember. At the time, butternut and acorn squash was cheap at the store and once again she hated wasting garden space on something so cheap that was just as good from the store. She did not raise sweet potatoes, because Uncle Guy (from a week or two ago) took care of the whole family with the large crop that he grew. She never planted peanuts, either, because we had a family friend, C. W. Clark, who supplied those on the cheap. C. W. was everyone’s friend, because he was the TeeVee repairman. Do you remember the day when they made housecalls to replace vacuum tubes? I remember when the picture would start rolling and it was time to call C. W.. For watermelon and cantaloupe, George Ledbetter raised lots and sold them to us cheap as well.
Every now and then she would plant something unusual, like eggplant or or somesuch, and every year she tried something new. Sometimes she kept on planting it (like the zucchini, a relative latecomer to her regular garden), and sometimes it was a single year experiment either because it did not make or we did not like it.
She always planted flowers in and around her garden, mostly zinnias. It was really pretty in the summer when the zinnias were blooming, the tomatoes red and ripe, and the peppers turning. She also planted mums along the edges most years.
Well, that is pretty much describes Ma’s garden. All of this took a LOT of work! She would spend a couple of hours every day in the garden, and all my life I remember saying, “If the Lord lets me live, I ain’t agonna ever plant another garden!” But of course she had one the next year, and the next, and the next until she got literally too feeble to garden, around 88 years or so. Dad was retired by then and sort of took over the garden, but I was away and married by then.
Next week I shall describe how we preserved some of her crops. It will not be a dissertation on canning, but will give you sort of the flavor of how families would get together to process garden items.
Doc, aka Dr. David W. Smith