Garden Work through Generations

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Caring for a full garden can be repetitive and back-breaking work, but it is the work of a life force.
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“Row by Row: Talking with Kentucky Gardeners” by Katherine J. Black.

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.”

This tale with its moral and even biblical overtones is an important marker to Betty. When she told me the story she also said, “But when I got married, I’ve had a garden every year. I just felt like I had to grow a garden in order to have something to eat.” While Betty’s economic health may not depend on her garden in the way her mother’s did, her internal state does. Betty seems to relish doing things the way her mother did. It is important for her to carry on the traditions, the old ways, to hold on when so much around her has changed. “You know, I raised my children a lot like Mother did. I grew a garden like she did, and I just do about everything the same way that my parents did.” Betty has added her own innovations, however. She loves her rototiller, for instance, and believes in mulching. No more hoeing! She starts her plants with a hydroponic system she refers to as “water beds.” She made a raised bed for her strawberries so that she did not have to stoop as much while picking them. And she does not grow peanuts, because “that’s too much work,” but she does grow broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and zucchini — vegetables that were not in her mother’s repertoire.

Deciding what is and what is not too much work can be a question of cultural longing and memory as much as it is one about efficiency and cost-effectiveness. Like her mother, Betty still preserves food by canning. She works in her canning house that sits over her root cellar. Her mother had one, too — a building, separate from the main house, with its own cooking stove and a workspace to clean and prepare the fruits and vegetables. After the jars have sealed and cooled, Betty, just as her mother once did, carries them down the steps to the cellar that will protect them from extremes of hot and cold. Betty’s cellar is orderly and full. There are rows of tomatoes and tomato juice, grape juice, green beans, relishes, and jams. One item that is not on her shelves is her mother’s special “stuffed peppers.” “Mama would take these big bell peppers,” Betty said, “and she would shred up cabbage and corn, just whatever we liked, and [put the mixture inside the peppers, the tops of which had been carefully cut off,] and then take the top of the pepper and sew — actually sew — the top back onto the [stuffed pepper] to keep it together.” Then two or three peppers per quart jar were processed in a hot water bath. Betty makes stuffed peppers, but she stores them in the freezer, which is much easier, not requiring a needle and thread. But when the family kills a hog, Betty still cans some of the homemade sausage even though that is far more time-consuming than throwing it in the freezer. Betty explained, “Mama always canned sausage, and I like to put up some the way she did it.”

In Betty’s mind, her mother’s life and death are forever connected to the garden. She said, “The saddest thing that I can remember now about gardening [is that] I know my mother must have got so tired. And deep down she had to resent that, too. I mean, she was my mother, but she was human, too. She had to resent that and think, ‘Will I ever get all this done?'” Betty continued, clearing her throat, “The last [spring] mother lived, she wanted [her] garden plowed up and turned and she wanted the garden planted. We went ahead and put out a garden that spring, and she wanted that garden taken care of even though I think she knowed that she would never live to be able to eat any of the food that was growed that summer. It was just something that she thought had to be done.” She died in May before the summer garden could reach its fullness.

Betty’s mother had many more mouths to feed than her daughter ever has. A productive garden was a necessity. But if someone had come from a university to interview her about what gardening meant to her, she would have likely expressed some measure of joy and satisfaction about her lifetime of growing food. Her daughter thinks gardening is good exercise, a worthy way to “occupy” the mind and save money. But Betty also knows it has some less-tangible meaning. “Doesn’t it give you a really good feeling, too, when you can stand back and look at all these beautiful plants and say, ‘This is mine and I grew it with my own hands and I’m going to can this for my family’? I just really, really enjoy it,” Betty declared. “I hope I can garden till the very last.” Now in her sixties and taking her mother’s place as an elder, Betty has experienced the gratification that comes from a lifetime of work. Garden work can be tedious, repetitive, and hard. Some years the garden yields are prodigious, but in others the lack of rain and presence of pests and disease cause concern about the winter stores. But no matter what, season after season, year after year, garden after garden, it is the work of a life force.

More from Row by Row:

Gardening Appalachian Style

Excerpt from Row by Row: Talking with Kentucky Gardeners by Katherine J. Black, published 2015 by Swallow Press, an imprint of the Ohio University Press. Photographs reprinted with the permission of Deirdre Skaggs/photographer.