Spring, time for gardens

Published 8:59 am Monday, April 1, 2013

by James D. Howell

Virtually every household in our neighborhood has a large vegetable garden, and it is common for my parents to comment on the health of so-and-so’s garden when passing by in our truck. It is common to see people bent over in the rows or chopping down weeds and undesired grasses, also. Vegetable gardens are a lot of work; apparently the results are well worth the effort.

Plots are plowed, smoothed, measured and laid out to accommodate several varieties of tomatoes, beans (snap and butter), squash, cucumbers, cabbage, turnips, collards, peas, and some individual choice items that the gardener decided on a whim to plant, just to see how they’d do. Cooler weather greens, carrots, and green (English or garden) peas show up at different times in the neighborhood. Beets, onions, potatoes and turnips, planted at different times, are mainstays. The growing season in Southampton County is fairly long, and the light, sandy soil is suitable for a wide range of vegetables.

In late spring, Butterbean (usually Carolina Sieva or other small, lima type bean) and green bean (variously called runners or snaps) poles with strings wound between them are very visible throughout the area. The support poles are generally set and string run before planting, so as to not damage sprouting or growing plants. Some people have permanent posts set and use the same rows for similar growing plants every year. Before the string arrangement, beanpoles were cut from the woods and reset every year.

My parents have been looking at the Burpee seed catalog during winter days and nights, dreaming of spring planting. There are several catalogs, but Burpee seems to be the most read. Just reading the catalog is entertainment of the highest order on long winter nights.

Descriptions almost promise an abundant harvest. There are wilt-resistant, drought-resistant, blight-resistant, and hot summer sun-resistant varieties. There are bush, runner, hybrid and open-pollinated choices, with pictures to prove the viability of every seed.

Along with seeds are digging, planting and harvesting tools. Interesting garden planters, with large wheels and hoppers for equal distance between seeds, give the impression of effortless planting. I know from experience that gardening takes effort. A lot of effort. I think folks would have to have a very large garden to justify a garden seed planter. We use the “dig a hole or trench with a hoe and cover the seed with your foot” method. It’s worked for a lot of years.

My father usually plants a small plot of field peas alongside other row crops. These can be black-eyed peas, crowder peas, cream peas, or other varieties. Sometimes peas are interplanted with corn in rows. He substitutes field peas for the normal soybeans in the planting hoppers. The term “corn field peas” is a very real description and is used a lot around our house. Like soybeans, field peas fix nitrogen in the soil and help the companion plant (corn). Field peas, also, are a high-protein food source for livestock foraging after normal corn harvest.

Each winter also brings a Stark Bro’s fruit tree catalog, from Louisiana, Missouri. I think it’s interesting to have a state name for your hometown. I peruse the Stark Bro’s catalog for endless hours, dreaming of “guaranteed production of luscious fruit.” Such dreams will only be dreams in our family; we plant, nourish, and harvest row crops and livestock. Mr. White, on Sedley Road has orchards, and we buy fruit from him, or we occasionally stop at a roadside stand on the Holland Road. In season, fruit finds its way to our table and ice cream freezer routinely.

It’s tradition to share much of the products of these gardens with others. It’s not unusual for friends, neighbors, or relatives to arrive with a bushel of green beans or peas. We reciprocate with our garden or field crop. Preservation by canning or freezing for later use is an arduous routine of summer life on the farm. Comforting rows of vegetable filled jars displayed on shelves in our house are the result of hours of intensive labor.

When friends or neighbors come by to visit, it’s customary to invite them to eat with the family if it’s close to mealtime. Guests for a meal sometimes means just opening up one of those jars and adding the contents to whatever is prepared. It’s the way it’s done at our house.

I still notice vegetable gardens in my travels. Outside my urban neighborhood, spring means long rows of green things.

My mind drifts to planting on warm, sunny, spring days. I am home.