Garden Work through Generations

After working dawn to dusk with her tireless mother during her childhood, Betty swore she didn’t want a garden as an adult. But when you’ve been raised to work, the joys of fresh produce and self-sufficiency are hard to overlook.

| November 2016

  • Caring for a full garden can be repetitive and back-breaking work, but it is the work of a life force.
    Photo by Deirdre A. Scaggs
  • “Row by Row: Talking with Kentucky Gardeners” by Katherine J. Black.
    Cover courtesy Swallow Press

Row by Row: Talking with Kentucky Gardeners (Swallow Press, 2015) by Katherine J. Black takes an intimate look at home vegetable gardeners from across Kentucky. Though they share a state, the gardener's profiled by Black have different stories and different ways of caring for their plots of land. This excerpt comes from the chapter "Raised to Work," which looks into the life and home of Betty Decker.

“I was born in 1948, and there were twelve of us children,” Betty said. “And everybody had a certain job to do. We were told maybe once what to do, but after that we knew what our jobs were, and we just done it. Daddy and Mama always had a large garden, and everybody [had to work in it]. If we ate, we worked, and if we didn’t work and contribute to a meal,” Betty paused but then continued, “I mean, we had to work. And I’m glad. I’m glad that we was raised to work. I remember one time my grandmother came down to visit us, and they were two or three little kids in the house that wasn’t in the garden. And my grandmother said to my mother, ‘Where is the other three?’” Betty’s mother answered, “They’re in the house.” Betty’s grandmother responded, “Go fetch those kids out here. If they’re not big enough to use a hoe, they can drag one.”

The garden of Betty’s girlhood was a typical one for that time and place. She grew up on Rocky Branch in Wayne County, in south-central Kentucky. The garden was large by today’s standards, somewhere between an acre and a half and two acres, and was located just beyond the yard. Using a tractor, her father plowed the garden, then used a disc harrow to further break up the soil to ready it for planting. Afterward, the garden became her mother’s domain, with the children providing additional labor. Her father owned multiple farms, tending several hundred acres of land, in addition to their homeplace. He logged timber and raised cattle, hogs, tobacco, and hay and owned a few horses. Betty said, “Daddy never bought any hay.” Nor did her mother buy any vegetable seeds. She saved her seeds from year to year, carefully drying them on a cloth and putting them in jars that contained “some strong [hot] pepper to keep the bugs out of the seed,” Betty explained. In each jar Betty’s mother placed a slip of paper upon which she had written in pencil the name of the seed. Naturally, the seeds she saved reflected what she grew in her garden: tomatoes, cabbage, lettuces, onions, corn, yellow squash, peppers, cornfield beans, melons, popcorn, peanuts, cucumbers, peas, and, their revered family bean, the “Granny Bell stick bean.”

During the 1950s, Betty’s family practiced subsistence agriculture, an economic and cultural strategy that had been dramatically declining in Kentucky following World War II. Neither of her parents worked for wages at what rural people often called a “public works job.” Instead the family lived by a perfected household economy combined with cash derived from a tobacco crop, small-scale logging, and the sale of cattle and hogs not needed for the family’s use. Betty’s father used much of that money to buy more land and pay property taxes. According to Betty, they were not unusual in their community. “What we done, everybody else done,” she said. Perhaps, though, Betty’s family remained more completely immersed in these older forms of livelihood, because Betty noticed differences between her family and a few of the other children in her one-room school. Some children brought for lunch processed meats or peanut butter, foods that were likely purchased at a store. “One family brought a soda for lunch, and that really looked good to me,” Betty said. Another vivid memory was a “girl [who] had a can of potted meat and crackers for her lunch” and gave Betty a taste of the meat. She remembered it as “the best-tasting stuff ” and in stark contrast to the food she and her siblings took for their lunch: leftovers from breakfast that morning or from supper the night before. There was also one family in their community who “would take their children to school.” Betty said, “I thought they were so lucky.” She continued, “But when I think about it, we were the lucky ones.” To reach school she and her siblings only had to walk across their father’s fields. “I can look back now and it was just a precious thing.”

As is true of many children, even obedient ones, Betty occasionally tried to shirk her work, especially in the garden. When she was four or five, one of her first jobs in her mother’s garden was to plant seeds evenly spaced in a furrow. “We were told and showed how to drop them, how far apart to put the seed and not waste [the seed],” Betty remembered. This is how all the younger children started working in the garden. Betty said that she plotted about what she could do to lessen her load. “I thought, well now, mother will never notice this, and I get so tired of planting. And I’d just put them really thick, [thinking] I’ll be done quicker.” Laughing, Betty admitted that she did get finished sooner but then, she said, “Mama would check and then I’d have to go back and pick all the seed up where it was too thick.” By the time she was a teenager, Betty had learned to hoe, set plants, harvest crops, and assist with canning and freezing.

“I hated it, and at that time I thought I would never, ever have a garden of my own. Hot and sweaty and backbreaking. I mean there was no breaks. You hit the garden at daylight and stayed there till dark, nearly. We done it because we were told to do it. [But] one time I remember me and my mother was working in the garden. Everybody else was off in the fields, in the cornfields or tobacco. We had worked all day. We hadn’t stopped to eat no lunch or nothing, and I’d asked my mother to stop and take a little break. She said, ‘We can’t take a break. We’ve got to get this garden worked.’ So I decided I was going to take a break with or without my mother. I regret that now. It was down in the evening, for the shade was coming over an old corncrib that was up at the barn. And I thought, I’m going up there and sit in the shade of that crib and rest just for a few minutes. Well, when I went up there I started to turn around and sit down, and this big black snake stuck its head out of that crib, and you know the first person I hollered for to come kill that snake? My mother. So Mama come and killed the snake and back to the garden we went.”



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