Faith of our fathers

The gardening methods I’m using now are quite different from those I learned as a boy. In fact, the methods I’m using now vary significantly from those I used even a few years ago. I like to flatter myself that my methods are based on solid science, and hence are subject to refinement and change over time. (Did I just use the euphemism for evolution? Oh, dear.) But now that I think about it, I realize what I do at Belly Acre Farm has been shaped, and sometimes constrained, by the way my father and grandfathers gardened.

By the way, when I say garden, I am using the word in the same sense most Southerners, going back at least to Thomas Jefferson, used it; that is, small scale vegetable farming. The land around your house is a yard, regardless of whether you plant grass or roses. Flowers are grown in flower beds, not gardens.

The methods I learned as a boy, and those I still see practiced widely around here, were much more faith-based. They were derived from traditional larger-scale farming.

In fact, one feature of the traditional methods is they assume a lot of land is available. Crops are planted in single rows that are spaced widely. The original purpose was to accommodate plow horses and mules. As power-driven machines came on scene, they were built to the same horse or mule scale. Our gardens did not change in size or design. If anything, our gardens continued to the old scale even when larger-scale farming methods changed. Today, most of the large-scale farmers use some sort of no-till methods. Most gardeners still till their soil heavily and often. They also still plant in widely spaced single rows.

I can remember a time in my childhood when our neighbor, Lee Stroupe, started planting corn much more closely than we did in our garden. He farmed much larger fields, growing feed for his dairy cows. I asked Dad why our corn rows were three or four feet apart, while Mr. Stroupe’s were a foot or so. His explanation was that corn grown for cows could be planted closer. If we tried to plant our corn like that, we wouldn’t get nearly enough production.

It seemed a reasonable answer, though I remember studying the fields of corn and seeing the same tall stalks bearing the same number of ears as I saw in our garden.

Our garden had lots of bare ground showing, as did every other garden in the area, and we spent much of our time working on the wide spaces, chopping weeds or running a cultivator to break up the hard ground.

Faith was a big factor in gardens during my youth. Soil was whatever was there when you started, provided by the Lord for your use. A few of us added cow or horse manure occasionally, when it was available, but for the most part we depended on God’s providence and accepted what He put under our feet. The idea of improving the soil was only vaguely recognized by most gardeners. By the 1960s, most gardeners considered soil just a medium for holding the manufactured fertilizers that had become available. Even Grandpa Charlie Lineberger, who farmed with a horse and as far as I know never bought an internal combustion machine besides his car, told me how important it was to throw some “soda” or “ammonia” (the common names for sodium nitrate and ammonium nitrate fertilizers) on the field before planting.

Commercial fertilizers improve plant growth, but they are one-shot deals. You have to reapply every time you plant; there is no long-term benefit to the soil itself. It would have been almost sacrilegious to suggest that the Lord had not provided adequate soil at Creation.

Water for our gardens also depended on faith. Dad would carry a bucket of water to the field when he set out tomatoes, but otherwise, water was the Lord’s department. Most gardeners I knew were contemptuous of anyone who watered vegetables with anything but the rain the Lord sent.

“Watering the garden makes the plants weak. Once you start putting water on your garden, the plants get used to having water all the time. If you stop hauling water, they’ll die,” was the way Grandpa Nelson Shelton explained it to me.

So our solution to drought, even if our corn turned brown and died, or if our beans and tomatoes stopped producing at the height of the season, was to petition the Lord through prayer. It was a common prayer at church and at family gatherings: “Lord, it’s awful dry here this year, and we ask that, if it be Your will, You send some rain to help our crops.”

Garden pests were another matter, however. The Lord might be in charge of sun and rain, but when it came to bugs, we took over.

“Cotton dust” was the generic name used for one insecticide popularly applied to many gardens. I haven’t been able to find just what that was, although it may have been a blend of arsenic, sulfur, and nicotine.

My family preferred “bean dust,” a commercial preparation of rotenone. Whether they knew its toxicity and environmental impact were lower I never knew. I imagine it was easier and cheaper to buy than cotton dust. I do know that at least one relative used bean dust on his garden and cotton dust around the house to control insect pests, so I doubt there were serious concerns about health or environment. Faith extended to man-made products as well.

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