Thursday, September 13, 2007

Heirloom Needs

It is hard to look outside and think about landscapes without focusing on the drought North Carolina is in. It has made me wonder how folks may have tended to their gardens and farms a couple of generations ago when the clouds failed to burst for weeks on end. If my great-grandparents were living today, what would they think of the choices I have made for my garden and what advice could they share for coping with tough growing conditions?

First, before sharing anything, they would be shocked at the lack of a premium I put on freshly grown produce from my own yard. The great-grandparents on either side of my family were not occupants of large farmsteads in central or eastern North Carolina, but they certainly grew beans, okra, greens, and tomatoes for their table and from their topsoil every summer. Fig and Pecan trees were not necessarily started because they would be handsome landscape elements some day.

For my parents’ parents, supplementing or supplying your dinners with a garden was mandatory. My father inherited the duties of tending a family vegetable patch in the summers immediately before and during World War II. I would have looked at his “patch” and called it a field. He weeded the plot in the mid-afternoon sun before his parents came home from their mill-work in Thomasville. Dad does not remember too many hours spent hand watering or lots of rows lost to drought. Even though it was a successful source of food, this garden was a still a step down from what his grandfather grew only a couple of decades before when the family lived further out in the countryside.

I have almost bottomed out this downsizing family trend. This summer, on my urban southwest Durham property, I planted two tomato plants, one eggplant, and one pepper plant each in a large pot. Granted, these were the deepest containers I could find, but the watering was still too much for me last month. The sun dried out these vegetables which got no relief from the late afternoon sun. I have sparingly hand watered, but instead of trying to save anything for my plate, I have tried to keep a half dozen other moisture loving plants alive. My ancestors would take one look at my mixed shrub and perennial border and wonder how I hadn’t starved. After an awkward tour, they would undoubtedly take me aside and point out the merits of getting some fall collards started.

This heat may have zapped even my grandparent’s ambitious plot of edibles. The fact that they used composted manure for the soil, mulched generously, watered deeply and infrequently to stimulate root growth, and made good use of the sun and shade, meant their seed starts and transplants stood a fighting chance. They also prayed more.

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