Planting By the Signs: Mountain Gardening: The Foxfire Americana Library - Foxfire Students (2011)
All my life I had heard talk of, and even watched my family make, a garden. But because I was younger and the grocery store was just down the road, I never felt that I should go out in the hot sun and hoe the garden. Suddenly last year the fact that I was going to have to plant a garden dawned on me. The first thing that came to my mind was, “I don’t know anything about a garden.” That’s when I started working on this article.
My first question was why did they plant a garden? Esco Pitts, one of our contacts, said, “Then you couldn’t just go to the store and buy much stuff, ’cause they wasn’t much stuff to buy. And the people just made their living, just got the practice of making their living at home.”
And that’s just what they did. The women would take care of the vegetable garden. Mr. Pitts recalled, “My mother would always put one row of flowers in the middle of the garden. She took care of them just like she did the vegetables.”
What did the men do? They took care of the field crops—things like two acres of corn or wheat. The corn was saved to take to the mill for their cornmeal and the wheat was made into flour. Sometimes they grew cane for cane syrup, which could be used in the place of sugar.
Yes! People really did get out and work in the field. And if you got sick and couldn’t work, you didn’t worry about it much because some of the folks that lived near would come over and help. Aunt Arie said, “People wasn’t a’scared of each other, like they are now.” All the people far and near would gather at one house. They would have a barnraisin’ or bean-stringin’ or cornshuckin’. The families would all bring food and after the work was done, all would eat and talk. Lawton Brooks said, “We had a many a cornshuckin’ way back yonder, but no more.”
After getting the land ready and planting the seeds came watching it grow and keeping the animals out and the bugs off. Finally came the harvest. That was the time when everybody worked. They worked not only to gather it, but to store it for use during the winter. The mother would can the vegetables and dry the fruit. The father had to bury the things like potatoes and cabbage. He buried them to keep them from freezing. Florence Brooks said, “You could go back in the dead of the winter and dig out a cabbage and it would be just as good as the day you cut it.”
ILLUSTRATION 1 Ednie Buchanan’s vegetable garden.
The people raised their pork and beef, so they didn’t have to buy much. They only bought what they couldn’t grow, going to market about twice a year. A family would raise enough vegetables to have some left to sell after putting up what they needed for the family. Kenny Runion remembered, “We loaded up the wagon and it was so far [to market] that we would have to camp on the way there or back.”
When they sold the vegetables, they would buy their supplies consisting of pepper, salt, some seeds, and coffee beans. Mr. Pitts commented, “I’ve woke up many a’morning to the smell of coffee beans roasting on the fireplace.”
After about ten or fifteen interviews I found that I had not only learned how to plant a garden, but I had gained a small amount of understanding of what life was like thirty or forty years ago.
Interviews and transcriptions by Bit Carver, Mary Chastain, Vicki Chastain, Susie Nichols, Cheryl Stocky, Mary Thomas, and Terese Turpin.
Organization and editing by Mary Thomas and Lynnette Williams. Photography by Brenda Carpenter, Myra Queen, Annette Reems, Barbara Taylor, Mary Thomas, and Lynnette Williams.
CLEARING THE LAND
Families in the mountains generally settled on land that had not been previously homesteaded. They, therefore, had to build their homes and clear their land for farming using only simple tools, manpower, and ox-power. To cut the trees, many of them two and three feet in diameter, they had only large two-man crosscut saws and axes. They chose the levelest, richest-looking land, and cleared that for their crops. This was very important, because those mountaineers were not gardening casually; they were, of necessity, farming for their survival.
R. M. DICKERSON: All this country, this bottom land here where we see it now, in my father’s and mother’s day and my grandfather’s day, was in a swamp. It was growed up in woods. And the first settlers here settled around the foot of the hills above the swamp. The swamp was full of water and you couldn’t do any good down there until it was drained out, so they first settled around the edge of the mountains and up on the mountains. They cleared the land there and got the logs and built log houses; that’s the kind of house I was raised in—a log cabin. They built those log cabins out of logs that they took off the land they was going to cultivate. They took those logs and used this kind of tractor [a horse and sled] and skidded them up to where they was going to build a house.
They [sawed] the trees down on th’place and cut’em up. The ones that they was going to use, they rolled them over to the side. But they rolled the old rough logs and the stuff that was too big for a house log, they rolled that up and built’em a fire and burned’em all up in the brush. Sometimes it would take two or three days to burn all the logs. They’d just keep rollin’ the logs together till they got’em burnt up.
Never thought anything about getting them stumps out. You’d just plow around the stump. In the middle there might be some little stumps or rocks in the way. Come time to take a big stump, they might lay some loose rocks up on it to get them out of the way of the plow or the hoes or maybe a stump that wasn’t burnt up quite in the pile they would lay it up on the stump and let it rot.
MARY CARPENTER: You’ve seen them big bottoms in the valley. That was all in timber once, and that was all cut down. [In order to clear the land], they’d go out with their crosscut saw and an axe, and they’d chop down the trees and they’d work them into logs if they wanted to build a house. If not, they worked them into firewood; saw it and bust it up. Then they take the mattock and the shovel and dig the stumps up. It took a long time to dig a stump up, but that’s [what they had to do]. Sometimes they dig down to a tap root. That was a root that went straight down, [the others spread out] and sometimes they’d be so big that they couldn’t hardly roll the stump out of the hole. So they’d hitch a mule to it with a chain and pull the stump out. Then they’d fill the hole back up.
ILLUSTRATION 2 It took a tremendous amount of work years ago to completely clear this fertile bottomland.
People would sled rocks off a field. Why, we used to have an old mare and we made a sled, and put rocks on it. We’d load that old sled with rocks—every one we could put on it, and Oshie Holt would drive the old mare. She was a big and mean horse, too, if she wanted to be. And we’d take them down in between Grandpa’s place and Bleckley’s and add them to one side of the rock fence. Mr. Bleckley would haul and pack the other side of the rock fence. It was down in the valley, just old loose rock out of the field: we’d just take a sled load, place them in there, and keep filling the wall up. We didn’t need any wooden fence; see, there wasn’t no cattle grazin’ in there then, but it was a line marker between their place and Grandpa’s.
PREPARING THE SOIL
A man couldn’t walk into the general store and buy his fertilizer and lime—no such things existed. The people had to provide for the enrichment of the soil from what was available on their farms. Every scrap of chicken and animal manure that could be collected was put back in the soil. Some folks made compost piles, and many spread ashes on the ground to sweeten and enrich it. They were true organic farmers.
ANNA HOWARD: We’d terrace if we had a really steep place. Sometimes you’d have t’do that. You know, the way they’d do that [was to] make a ridge right through here, an’ they’d put some sage’r’somethin’ through there, and it’d stay there all th’time, an’ th’sage’d hold the edge of the ridge.
LON DOVER: Now that new ground with natural soil that’s not been disturbed maybe for a hundred years or longer, see it’s got everything in there it needs. Until you tended it an’ got nutrients out of the soil, why we didn’t have nothin’t’do but plant it. When we’d grow stuff till the ground wouldn’t make any more, we’d sow grass for th’horses on those bald places.
ILLUSTRATION 3 Belle Dryman’s father built this pen for composting organic matter, and Belle still uses it.
HARRY BROWN: We took the manure out of the barn and put it in a pen as big as this room. We’d clean out the stalls of the mules, cows, hogs, and chickens in the early part of the fall. And then we’d go to the woods and get a load of leaves to throw in there. From time to time during the winter, we’d mix it up and keep addin’ to it till it was time to use it. We had big sacks we made into big aprons, and we’d go to th’pile and somebody would fill up our apron and we’d go scatter it around the gardens.
I was raised at Scaley, back in th’mountains, and you’ll find that nearly ever’body has a different way of farmin’. Our garden, we kep’ it special. We’d clear it in the spring of th’year, cleared off every little briar, an’ took a rake an’ raked it; then broadcast it with stable manure—tried t’broadcast it ever’year. Now farmin’ is different—like a broomsage field, we’d burn that off, where if we’d had somethin’ t’turn it under, see, that’d be just like good fertilizer. We didn’t know that back then. Land was cheap back then and people cleared up new ground nearly ever’year or we’d just leave. ’Course, that’uz hard—plowin’ with those stumps all around. An’ we’d tend that every year till it got where it wouldn’t make nothin’ and then we let it grow up. That’s th’reason s’much of this mountain land washed away.
We’d try t’plow it th’first year—we’d just go along an’ it’d hang up, an’ we’d take it out and go again an’ hang it [the plow] up again—it’uz kinda aggravatin’. Some folks just dug holes and planted in the hills th’first year. Y’know those sprouts an’ briars in that rich dirt’d grow some times six inches in one night. You could buy two, three acres of land back then cheaper than you could buy a two-hundred-pound sack of fertilizer. My daddy bought three hundred acres for less than a dollar an acre!
MARY CARPENTER: We’d cut those weeds and things all down, then we’d rake them to the middle of the garden. Just put them all into rows; one at one end, and one at the other end, and one in the middle, then light a fire to them. We’d light a cornstalk and keep stickin’ it along—it don’t make a big fire. Just let it burn a little at a time. You know, if it had been burning from one end to another it would have made a fairly big fire. It’ll just burn up so high and go out—just stir around with a fork and make certain it’s all out. Then we went to plowing with a horse or a mule.
LAWTON BROOKS: They’d let the old cornstalks and vines and ever’thing rot on the ground, and that fall, they’d plow’em under. They usually plowed in th’fall or through th’winter, because the freezin’an’-thawin’ would break up that dirt an’make it s’fine. Made your ground better. It don’t have clods’r’nothin’ in it. You plow it in th’spring of th’year an’ it happens t’be a little bit damp, you’ll have clods in there all year you couldn’t bust with a durn hoe. I’ve hoed old cloddy ground when you couldn’t do nothin’, only roll the clods. I despise that—just like gettin’ in a rock pile. [They used ashes for fertilizer.] I’ve hauled many a’wheelbarrow load of them. They used’em kinda like they use lime to sweeten th’soil. An’ that’s where they get their potash. They put that mainly in their vegetable garden, not in th’cornfields. Put’em down through th’winter. Every time y’clean out th’fireplace, get your ashes and fill up your wheelbarrow and go spread it on th’garden.
WILLIE UNDERWOOD: Before we planted, we’d have to plow it; back then we’d have to plow it with a mule, ’cause we didn’t have any heavy equipment—like big harrows and things like that. We used a low gopher plow and what we call a single-foot mule and plowed through those things. We didn’t tear it up too much the first year after it was cleared. We worked it then through the summer, and the next year it would be a lot easier, and we could do a lot better job plowing because we could break those roots up; they died out and started to rot out. And that helps your soil, too. When I was growin’ up it didn’t take too many years for the soil to stop producing a good crop; we’d let it grow up in stubble one year and the next year we’d plant it in rye and the next year we’d plant it in corn. We rotated then. Now a lot of times, we run year after year with the same thing. We put a lot more stuff back into the soil than we used to. You grow a lot more in soil if you put back in it. Soil builders, you know. They rot in there and make better soil.
ILLUSTRATION 4 Gay McClain uses an old push plow to lay off his rows for planting.
The tools available for farming in this area fifty to one hundred years ago were relatively simple and non-mechanized, except for the wood-burning, steam powered grain thresher which people hired out on a shares basis to thresh their rye, wheat, and oats. It seems almost every family had a plow, shovels, hoes, spades, rakes, and mattocks; but some families had several kinds of plows, harrows, a corn planter, and a grain cradle. And then some people just made do with what was on hand—Florence Brooks told us that since her father didn’t have a harrow, he took a big old pile of brush and hitched it to the mule and dragged it over the field until it was smooth.
R. M. DICKERSON: Well, people used about the same tools—hoes, rakes, mattocks, and a plow—that’s about it.
My grandfather used to have a braid hoe. When they come out here to a pretty good-sized sprout or grub that they wanted to dig up, they’d use this hoe as a mattock and dig it up. And as th’sprouts come out on a stump, they could take this old braid hoe and go around th’stump and knock’em off. But these ol’ light hoes we got now, you’d break the handles out of them. This one had a good, big, strong handle in it and it was what people called a grubbin’ hoe. I don’t know how come them to be called “braid” unless [someone named] Braid invented them.
ILLUSTRATION 5 Kenny Runion has used this hoe for over sixty years.
Now you’ve seen these single-foot plow stocks that people would lay off a row at a time with just one mule to it. Now that was the only kind of a plow they had to get the land prepared. After they got the land prepared and the rows laid off, they’d have what they called a double-foot that would have two feet on it—one plow in front of the other. The front plow would be next to the row and a little ahead and this one would come along and go along like that and get some of the dirt to the row sort of, and then they’d turn around and come back down that row and throw the dirt to the other row. Now that’uz what they called a double-foot plow. And that’uz the only kind of a plow that they had to cultivate corn with. They had this single-foot plow that they plowed up the land with and laid off the furrows, and then they used this double-foot to cultivate the corn with and to plow up the weeds. Then along behind that the children would hoe. Lots of times one of those harrows would belong to three or four families. Every family didn’t have one—couldn’t afford it. So they’d work together and when they got the land ready, they’d go somewhere to a good neighbor’s over there and they’d get his harrow maybe and they’d go in together and all [work together].
ILLUSTRATION 6 A homemade drag harrow with wooden teeth. Drawn behind a horse, this harrow would break up clumps of earth in a garden before planting.
HARRY BROWN: We didn’t have nothin’ but a little bull-tongue or single-foot plow t’plow it with—didn’t have tenners back then. They call’em single-foots now, but back sixty years ago they called’em a bull-tongue, because most everybody plowed with a steer. I can remember seein’ one fellow plowin’ with a plow he made out of a locust tree—just a stick hangin’ down t’dig up th’ground.
For a long time, hand wooden plows were all we had. Then people began t’learn how t’work with iron; they made the plow-shoe out of that. Later they had turnin’ plows, an’ shover or [a] lay-off plow for layin’ off rows, an’ twister plows for hilling your dirt.
MARY CARPENTER: They had a drag harrow that was a big old iron thing with bars across it and sharp teeth. They’d put a big rock on there and a log and sometimes they’d stand on it, when they’d get in a place that was pretty clotty, you know. That’d help to mash it down. And you could harrow it when the ground was damp. Why, it’d be as smooth as a lettuce bed.
ILLUSTRATION 7 Robbie Letson holds another homemade drag harrow, this one with metal spikes for teeth.
FAYE LONG: Well, they used a horse in those days. We didn’t have a tractor and we hoed the corn. We planted big fields of corn, and we plowed the corn about three or four times. Every time we plowed, we had to hoe it, but now we just spray the corn instead of having to hoe it. That was a lot of work, having to hoe the corn every time it was plowed. But you had to keep the weeds down. We used a single-foot to lay off with, and a cultivator to plow with. We used one horse, and hooked it to the cultivator. That turned the soil real good and if you could plow it, if your corn was big enough, you plowed close to it, throw the fresh dirt from the far side of the row over to the next. That would cover up a lot of the little weeds that were coming, but you still had to cut the big weeds that were in there, and if it was a dry season that would kill’em. But if it was rainy, they’d grow right back.
ILLUSTRATION 8 Horse- (or mule-) drawn cultivators such as this one are still in use.
Everyone saved almost all of their seed, but many people did buy some; lettuce and cabbage seed, for example. Gathering and storing seed for next year’s crops was serious business. A supply of healthy seed assured a family that, barring great misfortune, they would be able to make it through the next year as they had made it through the last. Precautions were taken to insure that the seed would remain safe and dry, as next year’s food supply depended on that.
ESCO PITTS: I don’t reckon there’s not much of anything a fellow can plant but what he can save th’seed off of. Let’em get ripe on th’stalk or vine, get’em up, shell’em out, dry’em, save’em in little pokes or jars. Pepper seed, tomato seed, cucumber seed, all kind of bean seeds, all kinds of seeds. People used t’never buy seeds. An’ people used t’save their onion seeds, too. Had th’multiplyin’ onions—red button onions—that’d run up an’ make their buttons on th’stalk. Save th’buttons. We never did save no cabbage seed, but you could save your cabbage through the winter, and then set’em out in th’spring of th’year. And they’ll make you cabbage seed. Beets, the same way—save them through the winter, put them out in a row in th’spring of th’year, and they’ll run up an’ make seed. If you leave’em in th’ground, they’ll make seed th’next spring. [My daddy] picked him out some purty potatoes, and he’d take some hay or somethin’, maybe leaves, put that in a hole in the ground and put his potatoes on that and put hay over them. And rake dirt over it and put a piece of tin over that to keep the water out. That was the seed. Now sweet potatoes he couldn’t save. He just had to buy them.
LON DOVER: You get your seeds from pretty ripe vegetables, put them on something and let them dry. Then you take them up and put’em in jars. They have to be dried, or you can’t keep them through the winter. We’d put th’seeds in a jar or a tin can back then. When th’bugs got t’gettin’ in, people would store their bean seed in a snuff can an’ kept enough snuff in there t’cover’em up. For tomato seeds, you’d just squeeze the seeds out on a cloth, then lay them down somewhere to dry. Then put the cloth up somewhere to save for the next year. The seeds stuck to the cloth. You do the same thing for cucumbers, squash, and pumpkin, but you had to let the seeds dry before you packed them away. People were more anxious in savin’ seeds then than we are now, freezing things. That was a big thing.
MARY CARPENTER: There was nowhere to buy seeds, so we saved them. Once we got’em, we kept’em. We’d leave a row of beans in the garden to seed for next year, then we’d shell them out when they dried up, and put them in a can and put a spoonful of soda in’em and shake it real good. And that’s your seed for next year. It’s the same way with peas.
For corn, when we were shucking it out after it was dried on the ear, whenever we found a big pretty ear, we’d throw it in a separate pile to save for seed. Even mustard—we’d let one or two grow up and make seed, and they’d leave one cabbage stalk to grow up and make seeds. Same way with spinach. The pea and bean seeds are the only ones I put soda in—the rest I’d just put them up in a cloth bag in a dry place and hang it on a nail somewhere.
ILLUSTRATION 9 Belle Dryman hung these bean plants in her barn to dry in the fall, and will use the seed next spring.
BELLE DRYMAN: We growed our own seed. For sweet potatoes, we’d save some from the last year and, in the spring, bed them down. Fix up a seed bed, ever how big y’want, and put manure in it. Cover that with dirt—don’t mix it in, then put your potatoes pretty close together on top of that, and cover’em up with some more dirt. When they start t’sprout, watch’em and let those slips get six, eight inches tall, and pull’em off and plant’em where y’want your sweet’taters.
It appears that many more people used to plant by the signs of the moon than do now. Some may call this practice silly or superstitious, but many swear by it. They would no more plant corn under the wrong sign than farmers now would plan to cut hay during a rainy spell. We don’t know if any carefully controlled scientific experiments have been done on planting by the signs, but several people have told us that they have conducted their own simple experiments and found that the seed planted under the proper sign did much, much better than the same kind of seed planted under the wrong sign.
LON DOVER: I wouldn’t plant nothin’ only by th’signs. Now they’s lots of people that don’t believe in that, but I do. I’uz raised that way, and I go by it yet. Don’t you plant anything till th’moon gets full. Don’t plant nothin’ on th’new moon for it’ll grow up high and it won’t make nearly as much t’eat. Now roastin’ ears planted on th’new moon grow small ears right up at th’top of th’stalk. An’ planted on th’old moon, it makes a bigger ear an’ kinda falls over. I plant by th’signs or I won’t plant at all. Irish potatoes, plant them on th’new moon and they’ll grow that [three feet] high and they won’t make a total failure, but they won’t make half as many. The old moon [is] any time from the time the moon fulls till it gets its smallest. You can plant all the way to the new moon. Plant everything on th’old moon. Now mustard or greens, if you plant on the new moon, they’ll run way up an’ won’t have much leaves on’em an’ they’ll go to seed.
I don’t know what causes the signs to do what they do. I just plant mine like I told you, and I don’t know much about how it works. I plant by th’signs an’ gather when it gets ripe. I learned it from the old folks. If you want to make a good yield, you better go by th’signs, I’ll tell you that now.
The dark nights is when th’moon is going down, last quarter before it news, there’s three dark nights before the new moon. My daddy [planted by the moon]. I don’t know what the signs were, but it was th’moon, a certain time he planted his corn, a certain time he planted his watermelon patch. Whenever th’signs are in th’arms is the best time t’plant your beans. An’ you shouldn’t plant corn when th’signs is in the heart—y’get black spots in your grain. There’s certain times as th’moon goes down that I won’t plant. Sometimes as they go down, they’ll be maybe in th’bowels an’ get in th’legs an’ feet is a real good time to plant. An old friend of mine—the best potato raiser I ever saw—said t’plant your taters when th’signs is in the feet even if it’s on the new moon. The best time in the world t’make Irish potatoes is when th’signs are in the feet. The signs are good from the head down to th’heart, then from just below th’bowels on down to th’feet. The signs get t’every part of th’body ever’month. They go from the feet back to th’head all over again.
HARRIET ECHOLS: [There are certain signs to plant under], and that is on the new of the moon when you have dark nights. When you plant your cabbage, plant when the signs are in the head. Now the dark nights is for onions and potatoes. The new moon, I believe, is for corn where it won’t grow so tall—if it’s planted on a full moon, see, it grows straight up. You sow your plants at different signs, and when you plant your beans the best time is to plant’em in the arms. When you set out plants, start with the signs in the thighs and you’ll have good luck. That’s the old-time rule, now, and we still go by it. ’Course, I’m old timey myself, you know. My parents went by this and I found [usually] the old timer’s go by the zodiac signs. When the sign is in the bowels, you don’t plant because your seed rots.
ETHEL CORN: An’ if you plant beans on th’new of the moon, if y’ever like t’raise any, they’ll rot an’ speck. They’ll make good vines, but they’ll rot and speck. I didn’t b’lieve that at one time—then I tried it once.
PAULINE HENSON: If you want a lot of cucumbers, plant [the seeds] when the signs are in the twins.
R. M. DICKERSON: Well, some people’d plant by the signs, ‘specially beans, but we never did take much stock in plantin’ by the signs. A lot of people believed in’em and sometimes it worked out and it’d look like they’s right; then again maybe it won’t. But what most ever’body had to do back then when they got their land ready and the time come, they’d plant signs or no signs. It’s kinda’ like Uncle Bob, that lived in this two-story house over here. Somebody was asking him one day about plantin’ by the moon. He said he always planted his down here ’cause it was so far to go to the moon to work it that he’d never get it worked.
LIZZIE LOVIN: Mamma planted beans when the signs was in the arms. They’d never plant corn when the signs was on the new of the moon; it would grow so high you couldn’t reach the ears. They planted corn on the full moon, and it’d grow short and the ears would be full. And potatoes the same way—if you plant them on the new of the moon, they’d make all vines and no potatoes. So we’d plant potatoes on dark nights in March or April. My mamma used to say the moon was just like a man. It changes every eight days. She’d plant things that grow leafy on the new of the moon.
ESCO PITTS: You want’a put onions out in March. You can put them out earlier, but they do better to put them out on a dark moon, for they make under the ground.
The different kinds of vegetables grown here years ago are still prevalent today, with some variations in particular varieties. The Jerusalem artichoke, which many people used to cultivate, appears to be the main exception, as it isn’t grown very widely here now.
Corn was one of the most important crops—it was a staple for both people and all their animals. They ate it fresh on or off the cob; in fresh corn cornbread; used it dried to make cornmeal, popcorn, parched corn, grits, and hominy; and sprouted it to make moonshine. The fodder (leaves) was used dried to feed the animals, and the shucks were made into mats, scrub brushes, hats, and various other things.
The vegetables are listed in the general order in which people said they planted them, starting with the cool-weather ones in the early spring, and going to the warm-weather ones in late spring and through the summer.
R. M. DICKERSON: Usually the first thing they would plant was Irish potatoes ’cause they’d stand the cold. We used to plant’em back in February. ’Course they never came up maybe until sometime in March. Then you’d have some to eat because more’n’likely you’d eaten up all your potatoes that you’d made last fall by that time.
EDNIE BUCHANAN: We always planted potatoes on a dark moon in April, but some folk’d plant’em in March or even February. We’d cut the potatoes from last year that we saved for seed into a couple pieces each. Had to be sure there was two good eyes in each piece. Well, we’d already have our rows ready and fertilized with manure, and just plant those pieces.
LON DOVER: You can plant potatoes real deep. We used to always take th’turnin’plow an’ lay off for our potatoes an’ then cover’em with a tennin’plow, an’ that’d ridge’em up.
ADA KELLY: After we planted the potatoes, we’d work’em and ridge the soil up some as the vines grew. We found that if we made a small ridge, we’d get big potatoes. We always put ashes on our potatoes, and it made them grow really well. We’d dig new potatoes around the time the vines were blooming, but wouldn’t dig the whole patch until all the vines had died down. We’d plow them out—that plow’d run along under the potatoes and run’em out on top of the ground. But I guess some people would dig them out.
LAWTON BROOKS: [To store] potatoes, we’d dig out a round hole, not too far. Then we’d take us a big sack of leaves, put right in th’bottom of that hole, pile th’potatoes up. You can pile them up over the level of th’ground, then you put some leaves over th’top of them, or straw, an’ cover that with dirt. You end up with a sort of mound, then when you want some potatoes, scratch you out a little hole right down at th’bottom an’ them potatoes keep a’walkin’ right to you. You can do apples th’same way.
AUNT ARIE CARPENTER: [The onions were] planted early. We put them out in March if it got dry enough. The earlier you get them out, the better they do. We always bought onion buttons, and Mommy had some of those multiplying onions. A big onion made little onions and a little onion made a big one. And we had these little white shallots, as they call’em. Set out one and they’d just make a whole big bunch.
ILLUSTRATION 10 Aunt Arie Carpenter getting some help digging her potatoes from Foxfire students.
LON DOVER: If I don’t get onions out in March, I might just as well not plant. Seems like they never would do no good [if they were put out any later]. They do best in a pretty loose, rich dirt, and they need lots of sunshine. Sometime along in August when the tops dies down, we’ll pick’em and spread’em out till th’dirt gets dried off, and they get cured good. You can’t store them till they’ve dried and cured. Then we’d put’em in a box’r’somethin’ and not let’em freeze. Lots of people’ud tie’em in bunches an’ hang’em up in a dry, cool place.
BELLE DRYMAN: We always raised our own onions. We had what they called th’multiplyin’ onion back then. [They were biennial because] the first year, a little onion would grow into a big onion. Save that big onion till next spring, plant it, an’ it’d grow into a whole bunch of little onions [each of which, when planted next year, would grow into another big onion, and so on]. An’ we had some that made what we called buttons on the top o’th’stalk, where them blooms grow. You save those buttons till next spring and pull’em apart and plant’em. Now if you planted the buttons or the little multiplyin’ onions in the late summer, they wouldn’t make too big of onions, just green onions.
ILLUSTRATION 11 Onions and lettuce may be planted in February or March.
FLORENCE BROOKS: They did have leaf lettuce; you didn’t never see a head lettuce. We planted it early, and when it give up, we planted it late. It needs cooler weather—we didn’t try t’grow it in th’middle of th’summer. Plant it around March if the ground’s dry enough. Our seeds—we bought’em in th’store.
ESCO PITTS: My mother grew it every year. She had two kinds—leaf lettuce and some that made heads. She planted it very early in the spring, even before th’frost quit, because lettuce is a hardy plant. She had a corner of th’garden where it seemed t’grow better than any other place. Then she had lettuce along in her onion rows.
EDNIE BUCHANAN: I just sow my lettuce in sort of a bed. It loves cool weather, and once it gets up some, even a freeze don’t kill it. It does real good where the ground is rich, but now it’s something you have to use when it’s ready, or it will ruin.
R. M. DICKERSON: [Plant] five or six rows of garden peas. You know nothing but a hard freeze’ll hurt garden peas. The frost don’t bother them, and then in May we’ll be gettin’ peas from th’garden.
LON DOVER: You plant a row of peas on th’new moon, an’ cover’em up good with dirt, they’ll just crawl right on top of that dirt. I go by th’calendar; you can see what phase th’moon is in, and where th’signs are. I go by th’moon and th’signs.
We had what we call English peas—that’s all they called’em back then. We’d let th’peas dry an’ save’em for seed from year to year.
HARRIET ECHOLS: We’d plant garden peas, also called them English peas. You have to plant them early, February or March, because they like cool weather. They don’t need a real rich soil like, say, corn does, but a pretty good soil. They do best if you can stake them up, but you don’t have to. They’re harder to pick if you don’t, though.
We also planted crowder peas and black-eyed peas, which are really more like a bean in the way they grow. Now they like the warmer weather, and you can plant’em in your corn, and they’ll climb the corn and you pick’em after they’re mature and all dry.
FLORENCE BROOKS: We raised great big turnips—people don’t raise turnips like they did then. Old people had great large turnips back then, and they had’em all the winter. Lot of times they’d have t’plow those old turnips up and push them aside to plant again in the spring. And my father went to th’field with a big basket [to gather the cast-aside turnips], and we’d put on pots of’em t’cook for the hogs. We used the same turnips for greens that we used for the turnips themselves.
HARRIET ECHOLS: The turnips, you saw them early in the spring, ’bout like peas or lettuce. We usually sowed them in late summer, too, to have the greens through the fall and winter. Turnips’ll grow in a fair soil—now if you want the turnips instead of the greens, you have to thin’em out some so they’ll have room to grow. People used to bury turnips to keep over the winter just like they buried potatoes.
ESCO PITTS: The turnips [we grew] was the purple-topped gold. And I’ve seen them get as big as six inches through.
EDNIE BUCHANAN: I plant carrots just about the same time I do beets, early spring. I dig a little ridge, then sow the seed along in that ridge. They do the best in a loose kind of dirt, but it doesn’t have to be too rich.
HARRIET ECHOLS: Carrots like the cool weather—you can plant’em in early spring and you can plant’em again in the summer for fall carrots. Now y’can’t plant’em too deep, because they’ll not come up too well, and you have t’cover [the seeds] with fine dirt. You have to thin’em good and keep’em weeded, too, in order to get big carrots.
AUNT ARIE: Now I’ll tell you when to plant beets … the twenty-sixth, twenty-seventh, and twenty-eighth of March. If you plant beets on them three days, you’ll sure have beets. But you have to keep right after them. If you let the weeds get a little bit ahead of you, they’re hard to raise.
HARRIET ECHOLS: Beets should be planted in February—if they’re planted later and along comes a dry spell in late spring, they may die if they’re still real small. They like th’cool weather, and want a fairly rich dirt, but nothin’ like corn. Sometimes they’re bad to not germinate, so it’s good to sow’em pretty thick. You have to thin them out if they’re real thick though, or they won’t make much beet. You can store’em, but they taste the sweetest right out of th’garden.
FLORENCE BROOKS: We planted mustard [in March] about the same time as turnip greens. We mixed th’seed together most of th’time. Then we’d plant’em both again along in August an’ have late greens.
ESCO PITTS: You plant your mustard early in th’spring—it can stand frost an’ it’s th’first greens that come in th’spring.
MARINDA BROWN: My mother used to sow mustard from early spring, all through the summer. It likes cool weather, but it did all right through the summer. We’d eat it into the late fall. It likes a good rich garden soil.
LIZZIE LOVIN: My mother always planted her cabbage seeds in between the onions, in certain intervals—she didn’t put’em thick, but she put’em where there’d be skips in the onions or where she’d pulled out the onions to eat. Then she’d have a row of cabbage where the onions was. [Onions, having a strong smell, can help in repelling the cabbage moth, which lays eggs on the leaves, which turn into cabbage worms which eat the leaves—Ed.]
ESCO PITTS: Seems to me we grew a Flat Dutch [cabbage] back then. The head would get as big as a half a bushel. Cabbage likes a pretty rich dirt to grow in, and they need cool weather t’do their best growing—the best times are spring and fall, but here in some of these mountains we can grow them all summer long. We’d usually plant’em in March. Some folks’d plant seeds right in the rows, and some would start’em in a small seed bed and then transplant’em into th’rows when they got up about four to six inches. Now the early cabbage we’d eat or make into kraut, but the late cabbage, we’d dig down a ditch, pull the [mature] cabbage up by the roots, and bury them [head down] in the ditch—instead of putting them straight up and down, they was slanted up at an angle. We’d cover the heads, and leave the roots sticking out. That was the best cabbage you ever eat. Any time of the winter you could go out and dig some out.
LON DOVER: At that time we grew what we called late Flat Dutch [cabbage]. I don’t believe I’ve seen any of that lately; it had a big old head. And another smaller-headed one called Copenhagen Market. We had t’buy our cabbage seed. But if y’take a cabbage that’s been buried all winter, and set it out again in the spring, it’ll put up a stalk and make seed. You’ve got t’go th’second year t’get cabbage seed.
ILLUSTRATION 12 Cabbage just beginning to head.
LIZZIE LOVIN: Back several years ago, people grew yellow prolific and white prolific and Indian corn. The Indian corn, sometimes Dad would take it down yonder to the mill [and have it ground] and us kids wouldn’t eat it because it was too red. We didn’t have any sweet corn back then, though.
Corn likes a really rich soil, and most of the time, people would put it on the newly cleared ground, and plant it there for a couple of years until it didn’t make good corn anymore.
To harvest the corn we just hitched the mules to the sled and went through there and pulled the ears off and leave the stalk standing. But then they’d usually fall over before Dad plowed and he’d plow them under. Then we’d take the corn and put it in the crib.
R. M. DICKERSON: Our old rule for planting corn back then was the last week in April and the first week in May. That was when the ground began to get warm enough for the corn to come up. That was as late as you could plant that old field corn and it mature in the fall.
ILLUSTRATION 13 Margaret and Richard Norton planting corn.
LON DOVER: Up in June, we’d plant a patch of corn, and it’d be in good roastin’ ears till frost. We’d cut th’stalks off before th’first frost, stick’em down in th’ground and shock it. Th’frost wouldn’t hurt it and you could pull roastin’ ears a good while after th’frost. Stick th’stalks down in th’ground, y’know, and just shock it up. Make a big year of corn—y’get it in roastin’ ears what y’want now, but what you don’t use for feed or for bread, you wait till after it comes two’r’three good frosts in th’fall of th’year and then y’gather your corn and put it up. They say [the frost] helps t’dry th’sap out of th’shuck. I plant corn in March and harvest in fall.
In plantin’ corn, you want to cover it, early corn, about that [two inches] deep. But now if th’ground’s gettin’ warm, it’s gettin’ late, you don’t cover it deeper than three-quarters inch an’ it’ll come up quicker. But if you plant it too deep, it won’t come up.
KENNY RUNION: They’ve changed from th’old way, and th’best corn I ever raised was when I planted it in March and it’d get up an’ get frostbit, and then it’d come back out. Of course, if it’s barely picked up out of th’ground, if it bites it down into th’bud, why it won’t come out. As long as it don’t bite it plumb down t’th’ground into that bud, your corn’ll come out. It’ll come out and make th’heavy corn earlier.
ILLUSTRATION 14 This corn has matured and dried and is ready to bring in and store for the winter.
HARRY BROWN: To harvest the corn we were going to keep over the winter, we waited way late, till after several frosts. That’s so the corn would get good and dry. If it didn’t, when you gathered it, it would rot. We’d go in an’ pick the corn and heap it up, and then somebody would come through with a wagon, loading up and carrying it to the barn. Sometimes we’d pile it out in the yard, and have a corn-shuckin’ with twenty-five to thirty men and have a great big dinner.
LAWTON BROOKS: You take y’potatoes for seed, an’ you got to fix you a good bed, an’ keep it where it won’t rain in it—keep it covered—and use good, rich soil. Plant your seed potatoes, lay’em in there whole, bury em side by side till you get your bed full. When they come up, you just slip one [sprout] off, an’ another’ll just come on. Tater’ll just be covered up with slips. Y’start your bed in th’spring, an’ you have t’keep it warm. You plant your slips along in June. We always just grew them in a corner of th’corn patch close to th’house. You want clay land, not rich soil. Them roots have to have hard soil t’push to or they won’t make. They’ll get real long an’ not be any bigger than my thumb. You harvest them long about frost. Sometimes a frost’ll hit’em, an’ you cut your vines off. If it rains on’em after a frost, they claim th’frost goes in’em, an’ causes th’taters t’rot. We plowed’em up—they’re hard t’dig up without you cuttin’ a lot of’em diggin’em.
ESCO PITTS: My father always, when he dug his sweet potatoes, let ’em dry in th’sunshine. Then he’d bring’em in th’kitchen an’ put’em back of th’stove. He’d sort out all th’small, long, stringy potatoes that weren’t big enough to try t’eat, [and he’d save them for seed]. He stored th’sweet potatoes over the winter in the smokehouse. Early in the spring of th’year, he’d take those little ones and make him a cold frame with a cover to start his plants.
HARRY BROWN: To make seed beds for our tomatoes, we’d burn [organic] trash in a pile. Then just took a shovel and hoe, and just turned it all up, and mixed it all in the ground. Then we’d sow the seeds, and when they got up several inches, we’d set’em out in rows.
EDNIE BUCHANAN: I sow the seeds in April and sometimes I sow them the first of March, but you can’t set them out without keeping them covered until the middle of May.
LAWTON BROOKS: People didn’t always stake up their t’maters, but they do just so much better than when they just crawl over th’ground. Now, t’maters is a thing that does best in the new ground—even if you put lots of manure or fertilize to [the old] ground, there’s still somethin’ about th’new ground—they do best in it. The dirt needn’t be too rich, but it can’t be poor neither. And, sun—t’maters need sun or they’ll grow taller and taller lookin’ for light, and not make many t’maters.
ESCO PITTS: I never saw a tomato till I was ten or twelve years old. My daddy wouldn’t hardly go to the table if there was a tomato on there. He said they wasn’t a hog would eat’em and he wasn’t going to eat’em. Tomato was something we never saw in our young days.
ESCO PITTS: Mother used to grow a lot of hot pepper—we didn’t have any bell pepper in those days—none of these big sweet peppers. She sowed th’seeds right in th’garden usually, but sometimes she’d plant’em in a box an’ set’em in th’kitchen, an’ they’d get up an’ then she’d transplant’em. Y’got t’wait till frost is over t’plant or set’em out—latter part of April. It takes quite a while. They don’t start making peppers till July or August. She used pepper in her sausage; rubbed pepper on th’cured meat t’keep th’flies away. She used it in her relishes, too.
FLORENCE BROOKS: [The peppers were] just like they have now—all but th’banana pepper. We had bell pepper and hot pepper. We planted them early, about April, I guess. Planted th’seeds right in th’row—didn’t ever thin’em out because pepper’ll make pretty thick.
ESCO PITTS: We planted okra just as quick as warm weather gets here after th’last frost. It can’t stand cold weather. Mother sowed’em in th’row; then thinned them if they was too thick. She had th’green kind of okra.
FLORENCE BROOKS: You don’t put any in till after frost—I guess May. We always put th’seeds in a cup of warm water one night, let’em sprout, an’ take’em out an’ plant’em th’next day. We always made sure we put chicken manure around—chicken manure will really make okra. Th’okra was just like th’one we have now, an’ we used t’have a white okra—it’s just so pretty and smooth, an’ it was good too. Okra takes a while before it starts bearin’, but once it starts bearin’, it just keeps growin’ taller, and keeps bearin’ till frost. It’s best t’pick it ever’day, when th’pods are around four inches long. It gets tougher the longer it grows.
ESCO PITTS: I don’t remember seeing these yellow crookneck squash when I was a boy. [My mother] planted hubbard and butternut squash, [the kind that can be stored over the winter]. My daddy had a smokehouse where he put his meat, and that’s where he stored the squash. He’d pile them in there and cover them with shucks or sacks to keep them from freezing. Squash likes any good garden soil and pretty much sun. It’s not a hard thing to grow. We’d just plant them in hills, several feet apart, and give them room to crawl.
HARRY BROWN: Old people always—any vine, th’tenth day of May they called Vine Day—that’s when they always planted them—squash, Kershaws, and hubbard. Kershaws are pulp-filled an’ grow great long, an’ they’re white, have a neck to’em kind of like crookneck squash, only great big. They were really good t’fry like sweet potatoes, or slice up an’ put butter an’ sugar on’em, an’ put’em in th’stove an’ bake’em.
ETHEL CORN: You put cucumbers out just as quick as th’danger of frost gets over—frost kills’em—along in May, unless you just put out a few that you can cover from the frost. Plant’em in hills an’ give’em plenty of room to crawl.
EDNIE BUCHANAN: We usually plant cucumbers around the tenth of May, Vine Day. I just plant them in hills, several seeds to a hill, and they just run out on a vine on the ground, and the cucumbers come on the vine. Like most everything else, they like a good soil.
LON DOVER: We’d plant watermelon an’ mushmelon—y’always planted them th’tenth day of May—Vine Day. I’ve known that as far back as I can remember. Poppy always’d step off about a half a acre that we’d put in watermelons.
EDNIE BUCHANAN: We used to grow whole patches of melons, but we didn’t have a certain time to plant them, just early enough in the late spring or early summer so they’d have enough time to grow. We’d have watermelon and cantalopes, and the whole family would come over to eat watermelons. We never did sell them, but I think we sold a few cantalopes. My husband just loved to raise’em, I don’t know why.
MARINDA BROWN: We grew watermelon and mushmelon, which they call cantalope, now. We grew them in the field, in good bottom land, because they like a more sandy soil, not in the garden. We’d plant them in hills, and work’em until [the vines] started to run out, then we couldn’t weed’em any more.
ESCO PITTS: We had pumpkins all in th’cornfield. We’d plant it by hand, and plant a pumpkin hill here, another one there, another one yonder.
FLORENCE BROOKS: We’d put’em in th’corn planter an’ plant it with th’corn. An’ just let them drop out whenever they wanted to. An’ boy, did we have pumpkins! Never did plant’em till ’bout th’time blackberries go t’bloomin’—that’s th’best time. We had a old mule that got scared of a pumpkin vine one time, an’ tore down ’bout half a field of corn! We raised some great big’uns, an’ we ate’em in pies, and cooked and fried in grease.
MARINDA BROWN: Pumpkins like a good rich soil, and they seem to grow best in cornfields, possibly because of the shade the corn gives them. I’ve planted them just out by themselves, and they don’t seem to do as well. My parents used to grow the big field pumpkins—we’d store them in the shuck pen, buried under the shucks to keep them from freezing. We’d also peel, slice, and dry some of them. Those we didn’t eat, we’d feed to the cattle and hogs.
FAYE LONG: We like to plant our first beans on Good Friday, which is just before Easter. Some of the time they’ll get frostbit, and part of the time not. I can keep going with fresh beans all summer, as long as I keep planting them two weeks apart, until I don’t think there’ll be enough time for them to mature by the first frost in the fall.
FLORENCE BROOKS: There’s altogether a difference—people ain’t got none of th’old-fashioned bean seed they used t’have. The beans ain’t near as good as they used t’be. We had what we called greasy-black beans—I’ve not seen any of’em in years—little white beans in a white pole bean. Th’greasy-black bean, you can either eat the green bean or a dried bean. For a dried bean, after they get dry on th’vine, y’pick’em an’ put’em in a sack an’ beat’em out with a stick. The beans fall out of th’pod.
We planted green beans and cornfield beans. We always planted th’cornfield full of them, so we’d have beans that’d dry up an’ we’d have our own soup beans. When they got dried up, we picked’em an’ shelled’em out. They’re th’same as green beans, only we let’em dry.
HARRY BROWN: We didn’t have any half-runners back in those days; we had cornfield beans. We’d pick’em after they got large enough. We’d take’em and break’em like we were going to cook them, and set down with a big needle and string’em on a thread—[called them] leather britches. People didn’t can so much like they do now.
ILLUSTRATION 15 Everyone helps when beans come in.
ESCO PITTS: When I was a boy we didn’t have bunch beans—they’s all cornfield beans or running beans. Around the edge of the garden my mother planted her butterbeans and what we called October beans, those big old red striped beans. And they’d run up those garden palings, and they’d be nothin’ to bother’em and they’d make all kinds of beans. And out in the cornfield we’d plant field beans and they’d run up on the corn and they’d just be bushels and bushels of beans out there. We ate [the cornfield beans] green as long as the season was open, and what we didn’t pick before the frost, we let dry on the vine.
It was a common practice to take advantage of the cooler weather in late summer and fall to grow more cool-weather vegetables. People planted the same kinds of things they planted in the early spring, but not as big a variety. Collards are included only in this section because they really don’t taste good until they’ve been hit by frost, but everything else mentioned here was also grown in the spring.
ESCO PITTS: For a fall crop, we planted turnips in September and cabbage. Sometimes we’d put out late-multiplying onions in the fall [around September] and have onions all winter. We buried th’turnips along with th’cabbage t’keep’em through th’winter. Usually, my mother planted [collards] in th’fall of th’year. Latter part of July, first of August, she’d sow a collard bed an’ when they come up good size t’transplant, she’d have a row in th’garden. Collards are not much good till th’frost bites’em—makes’em better t’eat.
FLORENCE BROOKS: They planted mustard an’ turnip greens; that’s about all except for late cabbage which they planted before August. They’d dig a hole an’ store those cabbage. Didn’t plant late potatoes—they wouldn’t make.
Collards you grow like y’grow late cabbage. They taste th’best if it frosts on’em before you pick’em—they just have a sweeter taste that way. If you grow’em like early cabbage, they don’t taste right. You can sow your seeds [in July] in your rows, or in a bed an’ then transplant’em into rows. Come the first frosts in October, you can start pickin’ the leaves and cookin’ ’em. Y’don’t pull the whole plant up at one time, just keep pickin’ the leaves, and they like cooler weather, so for a time they’ll just keep growin’ more leaves.
HARRY BROWN: My father would take the collards after they got so high, and push them over, and put a piece of pine bark and then dirt over them. That’d protect the collards and keep them through the winter.
Other farm crops
In addition to the garden vegetables mentioned, people grew other things, either for themselves, or for their livestock. These crops occupy a separate section because they are not garden vegetables per se, but were very important to the overall functioning of the farm as a nearly self-contained unit.
Perennials, herbs, and spices
It was common for a corner or edge of the vegetable garden to be set aside for perennials. The herbs and spices (many of which are perennials) were often dug from fallow or wooded areas and transplanted into the garden so they’d be close at hand. Plants such as Jerusalem artichokes and rhubarb were commonly grown (as vegetables) with the herbs and spices. The Jerusalem artichokes form edible tubers under the ground, and if a few are left each year, they will sprout and grow up again in the spring. Rhubarb grows back each year from the same stock. (We have not included another well-known perennial, asparagus, here, because no one we spoke to used to grow it.)
MARINDA BROWN: My mother had her herbs and spices set aside on one edge of the garden. She grew horseradish for putting in pickles, sage for seasoning sausage, garlic for flavoring different things, dill for dill pickles, and peppermint for flavoring tea. None of these things took much pampering—all but the dill would come back from the same roots, and that would self-sow, and they didn’t take a really rich soil. Of course, you had to weed them and keep them from spreading too far, especially the garlic.
She also grew rhubarb and Jerusalem artichokes along the edge of the garden. The rhubarb she got when a neighbor divided hers. They like a rich, well-drained soil, and [the roots] need to be divided every couple of years. The Jerusalem artichokes grew in rich soil, too. We liked to eat them raw.
FLORENCE BROOKS: Oh, we had [Jerusalem] artichokes. I don’t know when they planted’em; they was just there when I was. They kept coming back, an’ we’d just dig’em an’ eat, Lord mercy! They were planted outside of th’fence—it was good rich soil right below th’garden.
Ever’body had rhubarb. We always set it out by th’garden fence an’ let it go. Didn’t dig it up, just let it grow, year after year. It gets in big bunches. Set’em inside th’garden.
ESCO PITTS: My mother had all kinds of [herbs]—rhubarb, rue, comfrey, Jerusalem oak, mallards, sage, parsley, and catnip. She had in one corner of her garden all her medicinal plants, and that corner never was plowed up—she was very careful of that. They’d just come up ever’spring. The rue she made tea of, and I ain’t seen a stock of rue in many a day. She used Jerusalem oak to make candy out of for worm medicine. And th’mallard leaf was to put on a burn—wilt it in front of th’fire an’ slap it on a burn an’ it would draw th’fire out. The comfrey she used for poultices for sores.
ADA KELLY: My mother [had a corner of the garden] where she grew dill and sage, catnip, ground ivy—the babies had to have that for tea. And she grew tansy and peppermint. Most of them came back year after year, but a few, like dill, she had to plant from seed.
Many people cultivated fruit in the mountains years ago, with apples, peaches, and grapes being the most common. But it appears to us that people relied very heavily on the wild fruit which grew in abundance. Some examples are blackberries, strawberries, huckleberries, persimmons, cherries, mulberries, mayapples, and elderberries.
KENNY RUNION: People grew apples, peaches, grapes, plums, and pears. And they were delicious. At that time there was no such thing as sprayin’. The people in my young life pruned their trees and grape vines in February, and that was all that was done. And it was delicious fruit. You don’t get fruit now’days that tastes like that fruit. Now some people had a cellar t’put stuff in, but most people just dug holes in th’ground.
MARINDA BROWN: While I was growing up on Middle Creek, my father had all kinds of fruit, and there was no problem with bugs. There were several apple trees all around the house and barnyard. He always fertilized them with stable manure every year. The kinds I can remember that he grew were Shockley, Ben Davis, and Limbertwig. I guess he pruned them, but I really can’t remember.
He also set out some cherry trees around, but as far as I can recall he never pampered them. They just bore every year. There were also some currant and some gooseberry bushes that were on the place when Dad bought it. He never did anything with them, either. They just bore fruit.
There was a man who used some of our land to start seedlings [to sell] on—all kinds of fruit trees. Many of those seeds were carried around by the birds, I guess, and we also had self-sowed plum and peach trees all around from that. And no one ever took care of them—all we did was pick the fruit.
ADA KELLY: We had a nice apple orchard and a peach orchard. We called’em Indian peaches, and they were small and about as red as a pickled beet. And then we had a small peach we called an openstone, because the peach didn’t cling to the seed. We had to take care of the orchard—mainly, we pruned and fertilized them during the cold months. We’d store the apples in a hole dug in the ground. First, we’d put in some hay or straw or dry leaves, and pour the apples in. Then, we covered it over with more hay or leaves, then heavy soil. They kept all winter.
LON DOVER: We grew grapes and had wild grapes, too. Grapes don’t take a whole lot of work, and they’ll grow in a lot o’different places. We always gave them a trellis t’grow on, and we’d prune them and put stable manure on them every fall or winter. Nothin’ much used to bother’em, but the Japanese beetles [we have now] are bad to eat the leaves. I’ve heard old folks say about pruning, that if you saw an apple tree limb off on the new moon it’s guaranteed t’heal—just grows over like skin grows back. If y’saw a limb off on th’old moon, th’wood’ll generally rot. So, if I have any prunin’ to do, I’ll do it on th’new moon if I can.
LON DOVER: Many people grew cane. Y’sow your cane and when it grows up, it’s like corn. When th’seed turns brown, it’s ripe. Some people cut their cane green an’ make syrup from green cane. If it’s not good an’ sweet, it’ll have a kind of bitter whang. But you let the seeds get good an’ ripe on your cane, cut it down, strip th’fodder off it and bring it to a cane mill t’make syrup. That’s what old people baked their sweet bread out of. Th’people who grew it sold it t’people who didn’t have it. They wasn’t too many people had mills. They’d take it t’other people’s mills an’ make it. Sorghum makes an awful black syrup. We thought it was good then. Black soil like we had won’t make clear syrup—you have t’have a red clay t’make clear syrup.
BURNETT BROOKS: There’s not a whole lot to growing cane. The work starts when it ripens. You just plant it and forget about it for sixty to sixty-five days. You don’t even put much fertilizer on it. It’s really an easy crop grown. You can plow and hoe it about twice. You don’t have to spray it [for bugs]. Then you take it up about this time of year [the middle of October]. This [year’s crop] wasn’t planted until July fourth because of the weather, but usually we try to get it in around the beginning of June.
LAWTON BROOKS: Cane is something that takes a soil that’s not too rich—a good clay soil’s the best. Sow it in rows so it can be worked a time or two during the summer—it’s best to sow it in early June. It won’t take too much wet weather, ’cause it’s bad to blow over during bad weather, and that ruins it.
You’ve got t’try t’get it stripped, cut down, and made into syrup when it’s ripe; if y’wait too long it could come a frost on it in the field and that ruins the taste of the syrup. If y’think it’s gonna soon come a frost, and it’s still in the field, y’can strip it, cut it down, and stack and cover it for a few days, and the frost won’t hurt it that way, but y’can’t leave it stacked too long because it won’t make as good syrup.
ILLUSTRATION 16 The cane tops Myrtle McMahon is holding are fully ripe.
HARRIET ECHOLS: My father grew cane. All those mountain folk made their own syrup. You plant it in the spring. Syrup was cheap and it was hard work. We couldn’t sell it. I used to sell it for twenty-five cents a gallon. My father just made hundreds and hundreds of gallons. He cooked syrup for all the neighbors. He had his own equipment, his own furnace and cooking vat and everything. Everybody couldn’t own a vat to cook syrup ’cause it was too expensive. One person in the neighborhood like would start the operation. They paid’em so much, I don’t remember the prices now, but we always had a big cane patch. I had to hoe it, and that was a job. Plum up until after I married, we had cane.
HARRIET ECHOLS: You get the seed and prepare your bed. First you put your fertilize or barnyard litter in it. Frame it in with planks and put a screen over it. Dig the dirt up and make it soft. Then, in the early spring, sow the seed, just pat them in. They are little seeds and you don’t want them very deep. When they come up then you put a screen over them; or wire; then a plastic cover. You plant them on the east side so the morning sun will hit them. You let your plants get up six to eight inches high, at least six. Maybe eight. The bigger the better.
Then you set them out in your tobacco patch. You have to work the soil carefully to keep the weeds down. Plow it, but you can’t plow close to the plants; you have to go around and be careful not to bruise them. When it starts to ripen, it goes to seed; it has a bloom and a seed on top. Then you top it. They have little suckers on them, little plants that come out on the stalk at the leaves. You have to pinch those little suckers off to make good tobacco, and all that strength goes to the leaves. Then when it ripens enough all the leaves go together.
They cured the tobacco back then. They didn’t have curing houses just for a small farm. They would just hang it in the barn.
ESCO PITTS: My grandfather grew tobacco for his own use, a patch about as big as this room [12’ × 14’]. When those leaves began to turn—now that was his job, we couldn’t do that—he’d go through the field when those bottom leaves began to turn and very carefully pick one off at a time and put them in a basket. He’d go over his little patch two to three times a week. He’d take those big tobacco leaves, tie a bunch together, take’em and hang’em up in the barn till they got good and dry. He’d put’em where we couldn’t get to it. It was hard to grow; seems like every three to four days checking those leaves, looking for worms. I always wanted to work with him in his tobacco, but no, that was apart.
When he got ready to twist his tobacco, he would make a sweetened water with homemade syrup and he’d put a big wagon sheet down, put his nice leaves down on that sheet, and take that sweetened water and sprinkle it on the tobacco. When it got pretty damp, why, he’d twist it. He’d keep on until he got it done. Some parts he’d have for chewin’, and some for smokin’. I’m pretty sure he saved his seed. Some people had big old tobacco patches. They didn’t sell it. They made their tobacco and they divided it with people who didn’t have any.
ILLUSTRATION 17 When the tobacco is cut, the curing process is begun by tying it in bundles and hanging it in the field.
ILLUSTRATION 18 Tobacco curing in the sun on Conway and Park Hughes’s farm.
LAWTON BROOKS: Lots of people grew hay. They could sow it along in August in their corn. After I laid by my corn, I’d go in th’corn an’ sow it. Then when y’gather your corn, you go back in there, cut th’stalks, rake them off, an’ you’ll have you a clear meadow. An’ then when your hay gets up big enough t’cut, you cut it sometime in th’spring. They’d get an old mule mowing machine [pulled with mules or horses]. Then they had an old rake driven with horses, an’ it’d rake up an’ when it got full, you’d trip it an’ it’d dump th’hay. Then after it cured, y’had t’stack it. Didn’t have no balers then.
You could get three cuttings out of a meadow. You won’t get too much th’third time. It keeps comin’ up by itself each time. Then you could plow it under and put it in something else, like corn.
ILLUSTRATION 19 Belle Dryman and her son Foy put up these haystacks. Her cows have nibbled away some of the hay from the bottom portions.
HARRIET ECHOLS: Hay is a crop raised in most every area now. All the work is done with tractors and big machinery today, but used to be, it was all done by hand. Lot of times people would plant grass on worn out cornfields, where the land wasn’t good enough to grow other crops anymore.
When the hay got up tall enough and there was a good stretch of dry weather, people’d go out with their scythe and cut it. Now some folks had horse-drawn moving machines, but we didn’t. How long it takes to cure depends on the temperature, how long the sun is out, and the humidity. They’d turn it a time or two with rakes while it was curing, till it was ready. Then they’d rake it up and haul it in the wagon where they were going to put their stacks. We didn’t know what a bale of hay was. I didn’t see one until I was full grown, ’cause they didn’t have the machinery to work with like they do now.
BELLE DRYMAN: We stack our hay yet. [My son] Foy bales some, but we don’t have enough cover for it all. We put up a tall pole t’stack the hay around it, then lay some brush on the ground [around the pole] so it doesn’t set on th’ground. Then we just go to stackin’ it around the pole. Y’have t’try t’make the top of the stack bigger than th’bottom, and you have t’lay th’hay on the top so the water’ll run off. It’ll keep right on—just a little on the outside’ll get moldy.
Rye, wheat, and oats
ESCO PITTS: You can plant wheat in December, and harvest it late next spring. Back then people had t’harvest it with a cradle, an’ th’same thing with rye and oats. I’ve followed my father many a time and banded it, picked it up and tied it in bundles, an’ put eight bundles to th’shock. Let that cure, an’ th’thrashing machine’d come around after a while an’ thrash it. You grow all three ’bout th’same way, except y’sow your rye when you lay by your corn in June. We never grew many oats, but I think we sowed them in th’spring. They’d just cut th’oats in th’green stage, and feed it whole to th’animals—grain and hay and all.
LAWTON BROOKS: You can sow rye in August in your corn—it likes cooler weather. I’uz always proud t’see th’old thrasher come in there—pulled by oxen—after we cut it with a old-time cradle. M’daddy’d cradle it an’ me an’ m’brother’d tie it in pretty good-sized bundles. Then we’d go back an’ shock it—several bundles in a shock an’ two bundles spread out on th’top for a kind of roof. Stayed dry till we got ready t’stack it in th’field. We’d stack it when th’old iron thrasher could be brought in by th’oxen. When they got done thrashin’ at my house, he’d go to yours. We had to haul wood for the thrasher—it had a old steam boiler. We’d stack the straw t’use for bed ticks. Ever’year we got new straw for our bed ticks.
We grew our wheat and oats. At harvest time, you cut your wheat and had a thrasher thrash that wheat out, sack it up, take it to the mill and get your flour. The oats was for the animals.
HARRY BROWN: Well, th’way we thrashed th’rye, we laid a bunch of poles over a hole in th’ground, and laid a wagon sheet in th’hole. We laid th’rye on top of th’poles [over the hole] an’ beat it with a pole. You get as much as you would out of a thrashing machine, just took longer. Th’rye falls down into th’wagon sheet—then you take that wagon sheet out, and put it in sacks. Then y’had a lot of chaff in it. Well, on a windy day, you get out and pick up a handful of rye an’ pour it over into another sack, and th’wind blows th’chaff out of it.
ILLUSTRATION 20 Louin Cabe shows us how a grain cradle is used.
HARRIET ECHOLS: Rye, wheat, and oats, it’s all planted the same way. Except rye, they’d plant it earlier in August or September. The rye will make without being plowed. Wheat and oats, they had to prepare the ground. It’s the same way they did hay. They didn’t have to sow the ground as thick as they did hay, because it spreads as it comes up. They planted wheat and oats about the same time. If they had winter oats, they’d plant them in the fall, the spring oats in February or March. The winter oats will stand the hard freezes, but the spring oats they had to put in when the hard freezes were over.
They had to prepare the ground the same way, put in the fertilizer or the barnyard litter, whatever they had. Broadcast it over the land, then plowed it under, then sowed their grain. A lot of people used to sow it in rows. They had this machinery to sow it. One little grain will come up and make dozens of stalks. Then they had to harvest it. They’d cut it with grain cradles, and put it in bundles and shock it. It was hard labor all together. They called it cradling the grain. The grain cradle was as sharp as a razor blade—it had to be to cut the grain. When the shock cured, they’d haul it to the barn where the thrasher could go, and thrash it out. It took four or five to operate the thrasher.
Interestingly enough, all the people we talked to said the insect problem used to be very small. Some felt it had to do with the fact that people often burned off their gardens and fields before planting, and that the mountains were burned over every year. We were assured that there would have been little need for chemical insecticides even if they had already been developed. It must have been quite a blow to people who had for years grown healthy, relatively bug-free vegetables and crops, to witness the ever-growing insect population and watch them lower their gardens’ productivity.
Animals, however, both wild and domestic, presented a greater problem to people’s gardens years ago. For this reason almost everyone fenced their vegetable gardens, and while cattle, etc., were still on open range, most people fenced their fields. Following we present a general quote from Anna Howard about pests; after that we’ll give suggestions on dealing with individual pests, and finally, we’ll present a small piece on fencing.
ANNA HOWARD: [There are so many insects now] ’cause they ain’t no cattle nor hogs nor nothin’ in th’woods is my idea. An’ people don’t burn like they used to—burn off fields and big brush piles, kill all them insects.
I remember we had rats. They’d get in th’garden once in a while and eat a little in the garden. We didn’t do anything about them. Now crows would eat up your corn crop if you didn’t keep them scared out. We’d make scarecrows and put around the edge of th’field—that’d scare’em out. Sometimes they would get so bad, people would get out in th’edge of th’woods and shoot at’em.
Now we had rabbits. They was worse than anything else. We kids would have a couple of rabbit boxes set out in the edge of th’field, and every morning or two, we’d bring in a couple a’rabbits and Mama’d cook’em. Th’rabbits could get through a fence like that, but they had s’much stuff t’eat back then, they didn’t bother gardens like they do now. We had moles, an’ used to, one of us’d sit around through th’day with a hoe t’kill it, but then we got a mole trap. Th’ground squirrels got in a lot and we’d shoot [them] an’ eat’em. See, we kept dogs, and that was our pastime.
Well, now, ’coons, they’d eat corn in th’field after it got hard an’ dried up. But th’rabbits, they’d eat stuff some, but you could put up scare-boogers an’ keep’em out, an’ nearly everybody kept dogs to keep’em run out of their garden. People’ud make scare-boogers t’look like a man an’ put a hat an’ clothes on’em.
· plow the garden up good
· sprinkle fireplace ashes, soot, or snuff over the anthills
· pour hot water over the anthills
· pour gasoline over them and light it
· place cucumber peelings in the garden; the ants will avoid them
· plant marigolds in the beans
· pick them off and put them in kerosene oil
· pour warm water that’s had a red pepper soaked in it over the cabbage
· dust with soot or ashes from the fireplace
· sprinkle dry dirt on the cabbage
· pinch off a leaf from the bottom of the plant, lay it on top of the
· cabbage—in the morning it will be covered with worms
· dig down to them and kill them
· dust them with soot or ashes from the fireplace
· sprinkle plants with sulfur or ashes
· boil tobacco stems in water and sprinkle over the bugs
· plant petunias in the patch
· dust with ashes or soot
· pick them off and kill them
· shoot them
· use a scarecrow
· keep a cat in the garden
· run out to the garden and make a lot of noise
· put up a scarecrow
· shoot them
· hang tin foil or aluminum pie pans in nearby trees and on the plants; they’ll rattle in the wind and reflect the sun intermittently and scare them off
· shoot one crow and hang it up in the garden—it will keep others away
· put an old hat high on a pole
· hang a white sheet up in the garden—it will flap in the wind and scare them
· watch for them to enter the field or garden and shoot them
· put up a tall fence around the garden
· keep a good groundhog dog
· stick a sock soaked in gasoline in his hole
· fill his hole with tin cans
· set a trap in front of his hole
· sit around the garden in a concealed spot and shoot him
ILLUSTRATION 21 Jake Waldroop demonstrates one way of keeping pesky animals out of his garden.
· watch for them from 10:00 A.M. to 11:00 A.M., and dig them out and kill them
· put kitchen matches in the mole run—they will eat the heads and the sulfur will poison them
· set a mole trap in the run
· put mothballs in the run
· stick rose stems in the sides of the runs—they’ll scratch themselves on the thorns and bleed to death
· teach your dogs and cats to kill them
· soak corn in lye or arsenic and put some in the run, and poison them
· put very salty cornmeal dough or biscuit dough in the run—if they eat it, it’ll kill them
· plant mole plants (also called castor beans) around your garden
· put small windmills in the garden—the vibrations will drive the moles off
· whenever you kill a mole, put him in another mole run and his body will scare off other moles
· get a long metal pipe, fill one end with strong tobacco, light it, and force the smoke into the run by blowing on the other end of the pipe
· sprinkle salt in the runs
ILLUSTRATION 22 Esco Pitts has used this mole trap for years and years. He told us it has killed numerous moles.
· set a steel trap baited with a piece of chicken on top of a pole
· get a good rabbit dog
· sit around out of sight and shoot one when you see it and then make rabbit stew
· set up stakes around the garden and run a string about six inches off the ground around the garden—they won’t cross the string
· set out rabbit boxes (traps)
· sow lettuce in your squash—it’ll put the rabbits to sleep
· put up a fence
· plant marigolds in your beans, or petunias in your potatoes—the smell will keep them away
· set an old shoe out in the row
· feed them all they can eat, and they won’t eat up your garden
· set glass jars around in your garden roughly twenty feet apart. The sound of the wind blowing over their tops will scare them away.
· fill a gallon jug with water, add one tablespoon of kerosene, and sprinkle it on and around the plants the rabbits will eat; the smell will keep them away for several days
· take a piece of paper like the Atlanta Constitution, two or three folds of it (it has to be this big because it won’t rattle if you don’t) and fold the paper down over the stake at the top. Tie a string big enough to fit around the stake so the paper won’t blow off. It looks just like somebody’s head and arms flapping. When the wind blows, the paper rattles and flaps and scares them something awful.
· string some aluminum pans on wire. Be sure you string them over whatever the animal is eating. You can tie the wire to two stakes, trees, or anything that’s near around. Don’t put on too many—just enough so when the wind blows, they’ll rattle. And they shine in the dark, so that helps.
· keep a good ’coon dog and hunt raccoons regular during gardening season
· set a trap for them
· set mothballs around where you last saw them
· set a rat trap in a mole run, as rats often use mole runs
· teach your cats to hunt and kill them
· get a squirrel dog
· shoot and eat them
· poison corn with lye or arsenic
The following people contributed information on how to deal with garden pests:
Joe Arrowood, Ednie Buchanan, Mrs. Cecil Cannon, Carl Carpenter, Leana T. Carver, Doc Chastain, Mrs. Norman Coleman, Imogene Dailey, Fred Darnell, Mimmie Dickerson, Barnard Dillard, Bobbie Dills, Harriet Echols, Tom Grist, Lonnie Harkins, Mrs. Earl Holt, Mrs. L. D. Hopper, Mrs. Ray Kelly, Ted Lanich, Aunt Faye Long, Pearl Martin, Jim McCoy, Ulysses McCoy, Belzora Moore, Mrs. George Nix, Mrs. J. D. Quinn, Kenny Runion, Will Seagle, Vina Speed, B. J. Stiles, Lake Stiles, Mrs. Oren Swanson, Gladys Swanson, Gladys Teague, Cal Thomas, Nell Thomas, Mrs. Birdie Mae Vinson, Ralph Vinson, T. F. Vinson. Pearl Watts, Grover Webb, Naomi Whitmire, Mrs. Ben Williams, Mrs. Grace Williams, Lee Williams, Will Zoellner.
Most people put up a paling fence around their vegetable gardens. A paling fence is sort of a rough picket fence made of hand-split boards, pointed on top so the chickens wouldn’t fly up on it and then into the garden. Many people fenced in their farm crops, too, but there they used split rails put together in a zigzag pattern for that. These fences kept out larger domestic and wild animals which would eat the vegetables and/or farm crops.
ESCO PITTS: You had to enclose your garden so my daddy split chestnut palings in those days. Chestnut trees was mostly what he built his house out of. Chestnut trees would be sixty feet to the first limb and long straight trees. And they would split awful easy and he would just split palings about six to eight feet long. They’re thin slats about three quarters of an inch thick, about four to six inches wide, and as long as you want to make them. Then he put his locust posts in every eight feet and made his railings one at the bottom and one at the top to nail his palings to. The palings went up and down; they were sharp on the ends.
ILLUSTRATION 23 This old paling fence surrounds Aunt Arie Carpenter’s vegetable garden.
ILLUSTRATION 24 The rail fence in front of Thomas Stubbs’s cabin is very much like the ones people used to put up around their fields.
R. M. DICKERSON: Ever’body had to fence their own fields. You had fence logs and you were supposed to take care of your own cow yourself. But back when I was out here, they had what y’called an open range and anybody could turn their cattle out, and if you had a cornfield; you had to keep it fenced up to keep the cattle out. But after we voted out the free range and voted in the fencin’, ever’body that had cattle had to put them up and keep’em in their own pasture. After that we didn’t have to fence our cornfields so much.
DIFFERENCES IN THE OLD AND NEW
Many people we spoke to felt that the vegetables they used to grow tasted better than those they grow today. The differences were attributed to the facts that they used to grow non-hybrids, whereas today most seeds are hybrids; that they used to grow vegetables totally organically, but don’t now; and that age may have hindered their sense of taste.
ANNA HOWARD: I think the fertilizers make a difference. I think that makes th’difference in the taste of the plants we eat. You take people that use stable manure for their garden; I think that makes a difference in the flavor of the food—it grows off better. Now I garden with store-bought fertilizer, and I don’t like it either. I can’t get a good pretty garden like I want to. I think about back when I was a kid and my father used t’have those pretty gardens. And now I can’t get one like that, and I’m sure it’s that stable manure. It’s really good for a garden.
ADA KELLY: I really believe that some of them had a richer flavor. They were grown just from the soil with no additions at all, and it just seems that they had a better flavor.
LAWTON BROOKS: They have a lot of difference—in th’beans an’ in th’tomatoes and things like that. Th’beans taste altogether different from th’kind they used to grow then.
HARRIET ECHOLS: There is a difference in the taste of vegetables now and then. I don’t know whether it’s that we people have grown older and our taste buds arc getting away from us, dimming, like our eyes, but it doesn’t seem like the vegetables here taste as good now as they used to. You know, I used to love fruits and I ate them all the time. I still do, but I have to force myself. I don’t care for them like I used to, I don’t know why.