Gardening and Gathering in the Old South

Gardening and Gathering in the Old South


By Elton Camp


(This is another in the series of true stories about rural life during the early 20th Century in Alabama.  Previous ones are posted on this site.)

            Rural life in north Alabama demanded hard work from all members of the family. Often pregnant, suckling a baby, or both, Miranda did the cooking, kept house, traded with the peddler and tended an extensive garden. She was generally exempt from fieldwork except during the harvest when everyone helped gather crops.

            “Milas, one o’ th’ boys needs t’ break th’ garden spot,” Miranda requested each spring.  

            The fence that enclosed the garden was essential. In the absence of stock laws, animals had free range of the community. A neighbor’s cow could devastate an unprotected garden in a single night.

            “Gee.”  “Haw.” “Git up.”  “Whoa,” commanded the boy assigned the task. After laborious turning and backing, the plowing was complete. 

            The pleasant, earthy smell of newly turned dirt was like no other. Earthworms, abruptly thrown to the surface, wiggled to escape the drying sun. They, along with white grubs, provided unexpected treats for birds.

            Miranda, assisted by her two daughters, seeded and cultivated the plot. Some years were favorable for crops. Corn, butter beans, turnip greens, pole beans, okra, potatoes and tomatoes grew abundantly.

            Care of the garden included chasing out cottontails and sprinkling dry snuff to smother insects. A makeshift scarecrow was constructed from a pole, old hat and discarded shirt. The ruse was only partially successful. Hungry birds sometimes perched atop it before they swooped to carry away stolen morsels.

            Mamie spotted a shiny, black crow that lit in a tree by the garden to eye it hungrily. She chanted the country rhyme, “Caw, caw sed th’ crow. Shore ez I’m born, thar’s a farmer plantin’ corn.”  She smiled in satisfaction at having thought of it.

            “Time t’ hoe th’ garden, girls,” Miranda instructed late in the afternoon. Other chores were done and the approach of evening promised a light breeze and cooler temperatures. “Put on yore bonnets.” 

Each took a hoe and began to chop the offending vegetation. Crab grass, cockleburs and chickweed all fell before the determined onslaught.

            “B’ shore t’ git th’ roots,” Miranda reminded her daughters. “If y’u don’t they’ll come rought back.” 

            With aching arms and sore hands, the trio put away the tools for another day. Fluid-filled blisters weren’t especially painful unless the raised skin was broken. They then became “blood blisters” which would take days to heal. All too soon, the task would have to be repeated.

            Some years, the garden didn’t do well. If the spring had been unusually dry and hot, corn blades twisted to conserve precious moisture. The tomato vines lost their leaves and drooped to the ground. Bean vines turned brown and failed to produce pods. Even the ground suffered as wide cracks opened.

            “Ain’t hit never gonna rain ’gain, maw?” asked a younger child.

            The garden was parched. All knew that meals that year would have smaller portions and less variety.

            Some plants could be foraged from the woods. A favorite was the polkweed, sometimes called “poke salat.” 

            “Hit’s only fit t’ eat ’n th’ sprang when hit fust comes up,” Miranda cautioned her daughters. “Onst hit puts on blooms ’r berries, leave hit ’lone less y’u want t’ git sick.”

            In fact, polkweed is poisonous at every stage, especially when the tempting-looking purple berries appear. Miranda learned from her own mother to boil the young leaves and pour away the water a few times to remove the toxin. Then the leaves could be cooked in some bacon drippings and eaten.

            “Hit’s not very good, maw,” Bertha commented as she tasted a bit of the green concoction. Nevertheless, she continued to eat it.

            “Some like hit ’n’ some don’t. Hit don’t cost nothin’,” was her practical reply. “We got t’ make do.”

            Farm work was difficult and the results unpredictable. Weather could, however, do far more than damage the garden and crops. As we will see, it occasionally became an immediately life-threatening force.

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People ate what they grew or could find.