Gardens are a thing in my part of the country. Not pretty suburban-type flowerbeds, those explosions of color that concentrate nature on quarter-acre lots, although I admire both the expertise and dedication required to squeeze so much variety into a small enough space to produce a magazine cover-worthy garden.
No, I'm talking about vegetable gardens. They're part of the culture. Not a phenomenon, not a fad. Before locavorism, before foodies and urban gardens, before the Back To The Land movement of the '70's, before the Victory Garden, around here, there was hunger. Among the locals, the older people--actually, among just about everyone who hasn't moved in from Somewhere Else--when you talk about a garden, you're talking about a vegetable garden.
When visiting, it's considered good manners to compliment the host's garden, even if it's a little bedraggled or weedy. But if a garden is totally out of control--plants buried under mountains of lamb's quarter, pigroot and bindweed, crawling with potato bugs, harlequin beetles and Mexican bean beetle larvae--it's better form to ignore the garden and instead inquire about the health of the family, because surely someone must be sick to have let it run down so. (This is only a slight exaggeration.) Old school men who wouldn't be caught dead admiring a dahlia will wax rhapsodic about the color and size of bush beans, and without risk to their manly reputations. Old school women inspect corn, comparing relative stalk height, ear size, and straightness of rows. (This, too, is only a slight exaggeration.) Both carefully record the date of the first tomato harvested--variety, when planted , and whether the seed was saved or gifted.
I've already indulged in two exaggerations. But no more. And it's no exaggeration to say that we take our gardens seriously, with reason.
When I was a kid, working the garden was punishment, maybe for some infraction you committed, or something you didn't do, or to make up for but whatever you did the time you didn't get caught, or just because the parents were tired of looking at us. "Get out there and weed," or "Go pick beans" was the rallying cry of a frustrated parent, and a condemnation to the Worst of Fates. For my sisters, the style-conscious ones anyway, this was cruel and unusual punishment. It was impossible to maintain dignity, let alone style, in 90-plus degree sun. And, yes, along with my sisters, I hated the garden. I didn't like anything about it, except maybe peeling a fresh-picked cucumber around evening, and watching the sun set while eating slices of sweet wet fruit. Otherwise, no--from first planting to canning the harvest, it was punishment, and it was meant to be punishment.
Something happened, though, in the years after I left home. I began to miss it. Not the vegetables, not with Farmer's Markets and neighbors who left bags of tomatoes on the doorstep. No, it was being in the garden that I missed--I missed the bugs and the sweat, the ritual of checking the peapods, judging when they were Full Enough but not Too Far Gone. And the beans, waiting for that day of critical mass when it was time for the first picking, the way the vine tendrils are lifted out of the way to expose a clump of six or eight long perfectly ripe green beans, the way the hand closes over the clump and pulls them away all at once. It happens only once a year. Successive pickings are inevitably piecemeal; there's nothing like the abandon of that first picking.
Row by row, the vines plundered and left to recover, the buckets filled. Then, in the shade, the companionable job of snitting and snapping, cool drinks and stories, reminiscences, comparisons to gardens past, and maybe a little worry over rust or bean beetles.
And the dirt itself--I missed the dirt. Everything from planting tomatoes to unhilling potatoes, turning the pitchfork and watching golden tubers burst out and lie in the heat and dust of a dry September. The longer I lived in a place without a suitable garden spot, the more I missed it.
When, in a happy intersection of luck and opportunity, we bought a farm complete with a wreck of a house, one of the first jobs of our first spring was laying out the garden. Our dogs Molly and Shadow developed a taste for corn and tomatoes. The day we came home from work to find the corn pulled down and Molly lying in the shade of the tomato vines, eating her fill, we realized we were going to need both a strategy and a fence.
And for fifteen years, every year I get a little better at the garden. Year by year, I seem to be improving my stand against the weeds and the bad bugs; interplanting and pest picking have kept (almost) all the chemicals at bay. Last year a bad case of tomato bacterial rot made copper dust a necessity, and saved a meager crop. Fortunately, the two years before I had bumper crops and lots of canned tomatoes stored up.
Every year I try something different--a different method of pruning, or planting, or pest management, always with a control so I can tell what works and what's wishful thinking. After a couple of years of making pickles that no one ate, and eggplant that my family greeted with barfy noises, and other experiments that Did Not End Well, I settled on planting only what my family will eat--which excludes squash and most root vegetables.
For a while I shared space with my son's Army men, who executed complicated assaults among the potatoes and got lost in squads in the beans. When I was ready to water, my son would dig small trenches and flood his Army bases. The only time we ever really clashed was the day he wanted to use gas instead of water so his green flamethrowers could realistically assault the gray Army fortifications. As Supreme Allied Commander, I vetoed that plan, and some grunt-level grumbling ensued for a respectable length of time.
Even though I lost some space to the Army for a few years, it was a trade I was happy to make. Even today, although my son is an adult, I'll occasionally turn up a little green man (or a gray or blue one). They make me smile. I always put them back so I can find them again next year.
We find other things, too--buttons, arrowheads and flakes, the occasional 19th century penny or half-penny, and more run-of-the-mill discoveries that have washed in on floods over the years. People have lived here for a long time, and once upon that time the garden covered about an acre and spanned the whole side yard.
In the basement we found a room with a heavy door, the interior window fitted with bars. Because the house is antebellum, our first thought was that slaves were imprisoned there. But on a second look we realized that the bars were galvanized, dating from the 1930's. Previous owners told us that the basement room, an interior room with only the one door and window opening into the basement, was called the "sommlier room" and was for food storage. Under an epic coating of mold and fungus that ranged in color from yellow, through purple, to sooty black, shelves had been built and plastered into the walls. That room measured fifteen by twenty feet, sufficient to store a year's worth of food for the family and farm hands. The window bars, and the fact that they were part of the heaviest fortifications in the house, testified to the harshness of the times, and the hunger that drove people to break into other people's homes and ransack them for food.
These are more prosperous days; the garden is much smaller and isn't essential to keep the family fed. But it wasn't always this way. Traditional local recipes feature leather britches beans, pinto beans, country ham that hung in the meat house covered with borax to keep skippers away, and other foods that don't depend on canning techniques, freezing or refrigeration. Potatoes, carrots, onions and other root vegetables that could be kept underground and safe from freezing. Pickles. Sauerkraut.
These days it's tomatoes and peppers, lettuce and that most du jour of vegetables, kale. Kale, which is an ancient green. It's bitter; chopped, you cook the hell out of it and eat it with vinegar. It's local, and it goes way back. Point is, it's nothing that falls under long-term old school storage, but is all eat-on-the-fly, requires refrigeration or canning, etc. Today's garden is a locavore's delight, not a thing that a family in extremis would find satisfactory.
The difference between today and yesterday is often on my mind when I'm in the garden. Recently I've been pondering vegetables, especially root vegetables. Radishes, turnips. And cabbage, hard-rind cold squashes. All those things that your kids won't eat. Truth be told, turnips and liver both fall in the dine-by-coercion category. I wonder how many of these foods we raise because of tradition; surely they're the direct product of hunger--hunger as in "I'll eat anything, including the wallpaper paste" hunger.
Before the Civil War, the Shenandoah Valley was renowned for its farming productivity and the fertility of its land. Four years of war, compounded by Philip Sheridan's famous Raid, left the Valley desolate.
In 1870, five years after the end of hostilities, almost without exception the numbers of various types of livestock on hand and production of major field crops remained far below pre-war levels. Production of corn had fallen fifty-two percent, rye thirty-five percent, and hay eleven percent. The number of horses—the main source of draft power on Valley farms—had decreased fifteen percent; the number of milk cows in the region had fallen six percent and beef cattle twenty-four percent; the numbers of sheep were down thirty percent and swine forty-six percent. Further, in many counties, “the waste of war” resulted in sharply reduced land values as a consequence of formerly improved lands reverting to a “‘wild’” state. In 1870, Valley farms contained 34,000 fewer improved acres than they had in 1860.Shenandoah At War illustrates some measure of the misery. As a historian guide at Belle Grove plantation, in Middleburg, Virginia, explained, between the people who died from starvation, disease or violence and the ones who gave up and moved away, the Valley's population didn't return to pre-Civil War levels until the 1960's. In the early spring of 1865, the Rockingham Register, the twice-weekly regional newspaper, published an editorial in which the author implored local farmers to plant every square foot of arable land in Irish (white) potatoes, because the war had so devastated the economy that people were starving. And that was after army after army had marched through, plundering farms, raiding cellars, and tearing down trees and sheds for firewood. Ads in the Rockingham Register (which, sadly, is not available online and is not complete anywhere), in the year after Appomattox, are remarkable for the number of services and good offered for barter, especially food barter, as well as the stores whose primary selling feature is "Cheap! Cheaper than anyone else! Did we mention that we have the cheapest prices?" The Register itself bartered subscriptions for food and firewood.
The twin traumas of the Civil War era and the Depression mark this land; they have largely faded from the memories of descendants, but the scars are still there. "Your garden looks good," is still a common courtesy. A good garden is a common measure of respectability here, and someone who doesn't keep one is likely to meet a lifted eyebrow and a casual, "So, you ain't from here, are you?" I could, if I had to, plant and maintain a garden that would feed a big family for a year--I know how to do it, even if I don't need to. Gardening is a tradition that gets inside; despite all the objections of the inner teenager, there's still that thrill of dirt under the nails, the sight of the first seedling, the zen pleasure of midseason and the ache of the last weeding. My garden--despite the frou-frou veggies and my occasional resort to my little gas tiller--my garden ties me to the land, and to the past.