Every March, my grandfather would start to till the ground. There is this saying, “break up the fallow ground.” That’s what we would do every planting season.
The ground had been untouched all winter, recovering from last year’s harvest. Throughout that dead season, he would have dump fertilizer or other natural treatments in preparation for the coming planting season.
As winter inevitably gave way to spring — which in southern Mississippi is similar to an Appalachian summer — out would come the tools and the old Gravely tiller.
I was never convinced the work was actually beneficial; after all, the local grocery chain was only a few miles east up the road.
He had a half-acre garden we would set up, save for the Gravely, by hand. He did his best to convince me the food we grew outpaced in every way the food we could get canned.
He had grown up in the hills of Kentwood, Louisiana, surviving the Great Depression because of the crops the Varnado family grew (and sold) themselves, something he deemed as a better experience than my nearly flawless execution of standing in line holding a few cans of tomatoes and beans.
He has long since passed, and I have long since forgotten any resistance to working hours in the hot sun to plant a garden.
Now, the land isn’t nearly as flat, the sun nearly as hot or the work nearly as tedious. I look forward to it. I relish it, really.
One day in January, as the clouds labored intensely to cloak Charleston with a gray matte, I was quietly planning what vegetable I would put here. It was only January. I couldn’t really plant until — I hope — April.
But the garden calls me.
Why? Some of it is family tradition. I still feel connected to my grandfather, even though we are separated by time, distance and the ethereal plane.
He had heirloom seeds — direct descendants of plants his family had used as they settled just northeast of Kentwood.
Me? I go to the farmers market and pick plants already growing. I talk to those who have planted the seeds themselves. I still treat them with the same care, of course, gently remove the wrapper and place it in to the hole carefully dug.
Like my grandfather, I ask for a divine blessing for the food I am about to grow. That is what, maybe, started all of this religion stuff. After all, there is a deep sense of connectedness with whatever when someone is placing into the ground hope for a winter of food. It is, perhaps, the closest we moderns can come to sheer faith.
He tried to tell me the food was better that came from the work of your own hands. I didn’t listen. I wasted my year with him not listening to what he said.
Thankfully, the teenage heart is something like a sponge. It wasn’t until adulthood, life’s pressures and the modern existence we have labeled a race squeezed me that the wisdom he imparted came washing over me.
During a particularly rough patch in life, I planted a garden. It didn’t immediately bring me ease, but it did give me something to look forward to.
Then, I realized how much better the grown vegetables tasted. Later, after I bought my first home with a bigger plot of dirt, my garden expanded.
Now, I have canned food and a freezer full of squash, tomatoes and other things I grew. And, yes, I now make my children enjoy the tilling, planting, weeding and picking process. We also have learned to safely battle insects and deer without a fence or chemicals.
They like it almost as much as I did.
Gardening is not merely about food. It is a therapy for the mind, body and soul. It unites families — not just parents and children, but generations with former and future generations. It brings together communities at places like farmer co-ops and farmers markets.
Gardening connects people to the ground, to the world truly surrounding them. They learn a dependence on fresh water, on sunlight, on dirt. They also learn to watch the weather.
And maybe, just maybe, they learn to pray a little as they put small seeds into the giant earth, hoping these little seeds will, during the coldest months of the year, provide subsistence.
Joel L. Watts is a local author, a West Virginian by choice and is looking forward to spring.
My grandfather had this huge cast-iron soup pot. Every now and then, he’d make smothered squash. Sometimes, you might hear it referred to as Southern-style.
2 each squash and zucchini, sliced (really, it can be as many as you want, but I like the color variety)
1 green tomato, diced
1 chopped onion
1 stick of real butter
1-2 strips of bacon
seasoning of choice
Fry the bacon until crispy.
Remove the bacon, but leave the grease.
Add the onion.
Add in the sliced squash and zucchini as well as the diced tomato.
Add the butter.
Fill the pot with water to a mark of about 3/4 of the squash/zucchini mound’s size.
Season to taste. Sometimes, I add hot peppers, flakes or the whole thing. But, that’s usually in the dead of winter.
Bring to a boil so the butter is melted.
Reduce to medium heat and cover. Stir occasionally. Some of us like it a little more smothered than others. That’s your choice as to when you consider the dish done.