Tending Our Gardens

Tending Our Gardens

By Tom Hatley

Vol. 6, No. 5, 1984, pp. 18-24


My grandparents grew two kinds of sweet potatoes in back of their farmhouse in central North Carolina. The main staple was the orange-skinned type, so much like the color of the soil that you had to look carefully not to miss them in the field after plowing them out for harvest. These were the potatoes that the neighbors would store over the winter in small mounds built on the edge of their garden out of insulating layers of leaves and clay. This backyard technology dated from the days when the potato was a folk remedy for hunger, with the prescription, “take an old cold tater and wait.” Today the Big Star advertises them every day of the year. The other potato variety was narrower and whiter, more root-like than the orange-skin. This root was tended and planted for the sole purpose of making smooth and reliable potato pies. The orange-skinned was properly a sweet potato, with its roots in the indigenous agriculture of South America; the second variety was a yam, first domesticated a world apart in West Africa or Asia. Both had come to North America a bit earlier than the time that my Pennsylvania Dutch forbearers, pushed out of the Rhineland valleys, were moving onto the promising new ground of Pennsylvania and later North Carolina.

Large scale agribusiness today offers a simpler vision of agriculture in the South. The fields that grow soybeans, cotton and corn are as wide as the genetic base of commercial crop seedstocks is narrow. Yet back of many farmhouses

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and even alongside suburban ranch houses are gardens that still buck the trend toward uniformity. These gardens often exhibit diverse horticultural and ethnic traditions in Southern gardening. One of the most persistent as well as the most hidden of these historical connections has to do with the Afro-Americans and their gardens in the colonial Caribbean and Southeast.

The obscurity of this tradition which is renewed with every spring planting of okra, milo, eggplant, peanuts or yams is partly due to the fact that its earliest practitioners were Caribbean black slaves and native Americans of the same region. The colonial Caribbean was a cultural middleground, and Afro-Americans were among the importers, brokers, and popularizers of new crops from their homelands. Yams and okra as well as other plants with strange-sounding names–tanniers, long collards, benne–all grew on small “provision gardens” which were alternately ignored and encouraged by slave owners. Some plants were carried northward into the fields of the Cherokees and other native American groups as early as the seventeenth century, and were later adopted into the kitchen gardens of German immigrants who had strayed into the South. The openness of colonial farmers to all new crops probably made some of the strange “provision garden” plants seem less unusual than they appear to be today, when matched against the cool-weather- and basic-soil-loving favorites of organic gardening manuals such as Crockett’s Victory Garden.

However, these migrants were also able to move north and become assimilated into the diet and gardens of the English and German settlers of the Southern backcountry because of an ecological compatibility between Africa and the warmer and wetter parts of the American South. The native ground of yams, okra, and the like, is the old and acid-weathered clay of the hotter latitudes. The red clays breaking the surface and raising clouds of dust in schoolyard playing fields are close kin, in soil family relations, to those soils of West Africa and South America. The same closeness extends to plants, and every summer these tropical crops, whether African or new-world analogues of African plants, break through the soil in the American South, retelling in many small harvests the achievements of the AfroAmerican style of gardening.

When the African plants first appeared in the new world, their importers were Afro-American slaves, interested in the reform of plantation agriculture on their own terms. When tall grass with tight clusters of glossy black seeds called “guinea corn” first came to the Caribbean, in the eighteenth century, it quickly became a preferred grain raised in African new world gardens. The species was brought to American ground by African hands, as an early botanist of the region notes: “[the plant] is rarely seen but in the plantations of Negroes who bought it from Guinea, their native country, and are therefore fond of having it.” When, as was more often the case, African plant stocks could not be transported, new world plants cultivated by native Caribbean peoples were at hand. Where enough latitude was allowed them, free blacks and slaves traded back and forth with Amerindians, and experimented with new-world substitutes for the crops left behind. This was only a temporary transaction, however, as even earlier than the advent of the slave trade, native Americans of this region had been disappearing, pushed off their islands forever by enslavement, disease, and psychological shock and depression. African blacks, first transported as replacements, laborers substituted for this dying people, thus became the ironic sharers in a new world planting tradition.

More often, blacks in the Caribbean or the American Southeast were left on their own in finding their way with the plants and animals upon which they were partly forced to rely. Sometimes a kind of botanical dead reckoning guided them, with identifications made on the basis of similarities of leaf shape and flower color. The names of some plants growing in the Southeast today are reminders of their

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accomplishment. The small tree called the paw paw (best known in the refrain, “What are you doing? Picking up paw paws”) gained its name in this fashion. In Amerindian language of the Caribbean, paw-paw specified the papaya, a native tree of the region. The same name was stencilled onto another tree of a different region, apparently because of basic botanical logic: the yellow oval of the ripe papaya fruit corresponded in color and shape with the fall leaves of the paw paw. A colonial botanist recorded the salient facts about the plant in an aside: “All parts of the tree have a rank if not fetid smell; nor is the fruit relished but by a very few, except negroes.” This interest was more than a matter of taste, since the African kin of the paw-paw had important medical uses in the homeland of blacks transported to the new world.

Identifications were not always on first sight, and an older African botanical vocabulary often enabled Africans to read their new world better and thus to estimate the help it would give them in their radically changed lives. Part of this ability to translate between these two worlds, as in the case of soils, stems from the underlying environmental kinship of the Caribbean and the Southeastern Coastal Plain and Piedmont. There are ancestral ties between tropical and subtropical plants which, though distributed from continent to continent, are all similar in appearance. The paw paw patches growing along the rich bottomland of muddy Piedmont creeks are members of the custard apple family which has outliers across the tropics, in Asia as well as in Africa.

Another set of plants provides a silent commentary on this exchange. “Elephant ears” are familiar today as plants lined up along the edge of main street porches along with pots of ferns, their utility as a food crop long forgotten. The term “elephant ears” encompasses, however, several distinct plants, all with starchy, edible roots and all with an origin in tropical America, Africa, or Asia. One of these plants is taro, a crop which came out of southeast Asia, and then made its way under the African alias ‘dasheen.’ Once across the Atlantic, dasheen was probably grown interchangeably with South American root crops such as manioc or cassava, and tanniers. In fact, all of these plants were aroids, resembling each other in flower shape and growth form, even though originating in widely separate but often tropical regions.

The white yam grown in my grandparents’ garden, much like the dasheen, arrived by an earlier and equally confused route from Asia to Africa and, eventually, to America. By the time that this yam variety had been successfully naturalized in Africa and had taken its place as a staple of the peoples who lived in the region bordering the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa, the slave trade was already concentrating in the same area. In the drier savannah lands bordering the north of this region, grains like the millets–guinea corn–mentioned above already had a long history by this time. But in the southern yam zone root crops propagated by rooting cuttings instead of by planting seeds were of preeminent importance. Among the Yoruba, and Fon, “new yam” festivals were key ritual events, and this celebration even marked the beginnning of the calendar year for the Ibo. The spiritual centrality and meaning of the yam and its relatives in Africa must have been remembered by men and women after their enslavement in the new world. In this way, the millets and yams that were carried to the new world and traded within it by Africans were more than a dietary supplement. These crops allowed AfroAmericans to reject their temporal white master’s bread, to grow their own food, in what must have seemed symbolic “victory gardens.”


Not only the plants that grew there, but also the manner of tending the new-world AfroAmerican garden set it apart. To the eye of the former master, the garden of “Daddy Jupiter,” his former slave on the nineteenth-century Sea Island coast of Georgia, looked unruly and unfamiliar. Daddy Jupiter cultivated “…on his own accord a small patch where arrowroot, long collards, sugar cane, tanniers, groundnuts, beene, gourds, and watermelons grew in comingled luxuriance.” This ‘comingled’ style had distinct antecedents in West African gardens, and must have made the ‘middle passage’ as a mental image of how a garden should look and function, no matter where it was rooted. Plots resembling Daddy Jupiter’s nineteenth-century garden, still grow in the American Southeast (although the tradition’ is fading) and flourish farther south, particularly in the Caribbean.

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Anthropologists working on intensive gardening practices today have abstracted the technical reasons for the common success and widespread occurrence of this style of cultivation. The “comingled luxuriance” of Daddy Jupiter’s garden partly owed its productivity to the way in which his selection of crops mimicked both the structure of a natural plant community and its characteristic closely-packed assortment of plant species. Given the mixture of plants in his garden, Daddy Jupiter may have employed a two- or three-tier layering of the plants, as is often practiced today in the Caribbean, where tall crops such as corn, cassava, or sugar cane are commonly grown together with ground-hugging yams. In this way a local, ‘garden climate’ can be fostered to reduce insect populations and shade out weeds. Soil nutrients and water also are conserved and sometimes increased relative to row crop gardening. The intensive garden style thus blends agricultural and ecological logic to achieve its high yield. And the logic of this pattern of food growing is not confined to the garden plot, but will also work on a larger scale. Whether in gardens or in farm fields, tightening the land’s hold on potassium, phosphorus, or nitrogen provides a kind of inexpensive crop insurance for succeeding harvests.

Very often American scientists have probed nutrient and other efficiencies of small-scale agriculture in order to seek food-growing alternatives for supporting the increasing populations of the “developing world.” Ironically, the impetus for their work has often been the failure of the agricultural technology supplied by the “developed world” to provide nations with a dependable food sufficiency. Yet Americans are slow to apply this lesson at home or to direct the same kind of attention to our self-development that we are willing to offer abroad to a “developing world” that always seems outside our borders. An effective effort at agricultural change at home will, however, require remembering the lessons and traditions of the past and applying them to our future.

Just to the south, in the Caribbean, a historical crisis in agriculture occurred many years ago which prefigures some of the change Southern agriculture has faced and may face again. The sugar plantations in the Caribbean pioneered an industrial style of farm management that was modernized and adapted to the north, in our own region. Like many modern farming operations today, the plantation was from the beginning in chronically poor ecological health. Erosion, insect and plant diseases, and soil infertility, once they had taken hold, worked together to cause a constant drain against the land. In later years the economic vigor of these operations lagged as well, in spite of the involuntary subsidy drawn from the labor and farming skills of black slaves.

When the system faltered for the final time, blacks were left to apply their horticultural skills to their own ground, and the intensively cultivated garden plots that resulted became a lasting and reliable survival tool amid the poverty of postcolonial times.

The end of the plantation system in the American South was not succeeded by the integrated world of small farmers that some reformers had envisioned or, as happened in the Caribbean, by a peasant society granted autonomy by poverty, isolation, and resistance. Instead, the scale and manner of cultivation that marked pre-war times in the South carried over into the postwar period, bringing with it many of the problems that still shadow Southern agriculture today.

The major theme of the region’s agriculture continued to be a simple one of dependence on a handful of major cash crops. The amount of land turned over, fresh and damp, for planting each spring in the South, thus depended and has continued to depend on off-farm factors such as export demand end shifting government policies. Over the past 150 years, corn, then cotton, and most recently, soybeans, have played leapfrog for first place in the market. A kind of boom-and-bust cycle has resulted and has left its mark on the Southern countryside. In the down times of the thirties, when small farmers facing price declines, pest losses, and the cost of mechanization, walked away from their land, millions of acres in the South, abandoned and reclaimed by old field-grown pines, slowly pinched down the horizon with green. The remarkable scale of abandonment is reflected by the ninety percent share held by harvested “old field” pine in the Southern softwood market today.

During the boom times that followed World War 11, the cycle reversed itself temporarily, and in order to accommodate a ten-fold increase in Southern soybean acreage by the mid-seventies, new fields were opened in the former

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prairies on the region’s western edge. In other areas, such as the Piedmont, the fast growth of soybeans allowed double cropping, in effect double timing the land to produce two crops per year. Yet there is trouble on the horizon. Already the world markets fueling demand for soybeans are spurring competition for exports. Argentina is planting nearly six million acres of former pampa rangeland in soybeans, today, and is rapidly increasing the acreage devoted to this crop. Other potential commodity competitors, such as Brazilian-produced palm oil, have appeared on the horizon as an effective substitute for soybean oil as well, and the future for the latest Southern staple crop is less than bright.

Whether in Argentina or Missouri, the land itself always pays part of the cost of one- or two-crop dependency in agriculture. The most important damage comes from simple physical phenomena such as erosion. Today forty percent of Southern cropland is undergoing a rate of erosion that federal agencies concerned with the problem consider excessive. The process of erosion is elemental: rainfall on bare, plowed ground, as well as the steady scraping of the wind, removes the best part of the soil, the top soil that is alive with the soil organisms which are the essential agents of soil fertility. In older agricultural areas of the South, generations of erosion have clotted rivers and built deltas out of the subtracted fertility of farmers’ fields. In these sections successive new technologies–the iron and then the steel plow, chemical fertilizers, and herbicides–have masked the loss of soil fertility by raising average yields through the region. Yet lately, small signs are appearing that indicate a limit to the ability of new technologies to make up a cumulative deficit in the land. An indication of things to come may lie in the recently reported decline of Southern soybean yields–sometimes as much as ten bushels per acre–over the past few years. This sudden, small reversal in the upward trend of harvest yields can be explained in more than one way. Weed and nematode problems dampen harvest yields by competing with the growth of soybeans. And in areas of marginal fertility, erosion may be exerting a downward pull on production that will become stronger as soil depth and structure is further damaged. Yet these explanations could be read alternately as symptoms of the same underlying problem, of a Southern agriculture showing signs of nearing the limits of its productivity.

The newest strategy in Southern farming, called no-till or conservation tillage, is working only to hold onto the yield advances in Southern agriculture, instead of dramatically forcing up the yield of crops. Under “no till” a crop is planted in a field in which winter wheat or another crop has just been harvested, and in which weed problems (and a share of erosion damage) have been controlled by herbicides. The adoption of “no till” has been closely linked to the increase in Southern soybean acreage, in part because the method reduces the cost of double cropping, or taking two crops per year off the same piece of land. As we have seen, soybeans are naturally adapted by their fast growth and maturation to this agricultural strategy.

Although “no till” and soybeans (and corn) are natural partners, the “no till” system has also been aggressively marketed from two very different quarters. On the one hand, chemical companies have been in the fore. The “Southeastern No-Tillage Conferences” have been partly funded by chemical companies such as Chevron, which holds the US license to manufacture paraquat, a herbicide applied on approximately five million Southern acres this year. (Chevron has also been in the news recently to insulate itself from personal injury lawsuits stemming from the accidents with its very toxic product.) The second, and more objective voice proposing the expanded use of this new method has come from agronomists and soil scientists, who because of their intense concern about soil erosion put the stress on the term “conservation tillage” rather than “no till.”

In the final analysis, however, “no till” and the pattern of conventional tillage practiced over the past two decades in the South are surprisingly similar: both make use of nearly equivalent amounts of chemical herbicides and fertilizers to sustain high yields, and both are adapted closely to an export-based staple crop style of farming to which small and large producers are increasingly tied.

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The pattern of consolidation and increase in the scale of agriculture today is accompanied by a technology powerful enough to temporarily screen out small but real difficulties that may make the future of agriculture in the South more uncertain than it promises to be today. In Southern agriculture, like Southern forestry, uncertainty will be compounded by a lack of fundamental knowledge about the land and the impact of its cultivation. Some problems are as simple as teaching farmers to prevent spills, runoff from fields and misapplications of agricultural chemicals which can trigger kills of aquatic life in farm ponds and streams. Others promise to be more complex, as in the rapid establishment of weed strains genetically resistant to the chemicals designed to control them (as has happened in Virginia recently, with a paraquat-resistant strain of pigweed). Of course, fine tuning crop and herbicide rotations, responses to weed outbreaks and soil conservation in a well-managed farm is not impossible. But new and more powerful agricultural technologies as well as market demands for farm products will mean that good management will become increasingly difficult, with shorter response times and greater possibility of damage. Both new technologies and new farm programs are tools that foster a kind of optimism that problems can be calculated and managed away. Yet if the agricultural past and present of the South are any guide, the future will be accompanied by a high level of economic and environmental uncertainty.

One trend that adds appreciably to this trend toward instability is the increasing scale and corporate sponsorship of Southern farming. The capitalization of Southern agriculture by banks, insurance companies, and individual investors increases the problem of oversight. This is especially true in light of the willingness of corporations, buoyed by a managerial optimism distant from the traditions of farms and a set of government subsidies, to expand into lands formerly regarded as marginal. The superfarms purchased by Prudential Insurance Company subsidiaries in the sandhills of Nebraska and the peatlands of the North Carolina coast are one of many good examples. I he North Carolina operation, for instance, is centered on the production of staples such as corn and soybeans which are made profitable because of government price supports. This “subsidised” profitability then often depends on a margin of yield that can be achieved by large-scale farmers only through using new mechanical and chemical farming methods such as “no till” cultivation. In this way much of the intensification that is pushing the capacity of the Southern soil to a kind of natural limit may, in fact, be a surplus product.

Southern agriculture today is a game of limits, of shrinking margins of investment and crop yield, of the health of the land and with it the long-term security of food production. The problem down the line is more than one of credit and chemicals. Food crops must be grown in areas like the South, where food can be grown for regions where it cannot, and agricultural chemicals are one of many valuable instruments of cultivation. The problem is therefore one of social goals, of, in Wendell Berry’s phrase, a “culture and agriculture” challenged to break out of a dependent past in order to create a farming economy that can be stable over generations rather than riding the old roller coaster of uncertainty and jeopardy.


Among the lessons that the Southern past offers is that there is time enough for change. The Southern land, which has shown resilience in the face of centuries of damage, allows this time, and remembering the diverse cultural terrain of the South can open up new and needed possibilities for the future. European, Amerindian, and African approaches to growing food in gardens and fields are among the Southern traditions of ethnic cultivation that can teach their own lessons. The Afro-American way of gardening in particular seems to have a special message concerning the value of caution in agriculture.

In contrast to Southern agriculture today, the Afro-American logic of cultivation has been deeply conservative. In the coastal South and Caribbean, long after the business of the plantation was defunct, blacks tilled their gardens and survived. And in this sense the Afro-American gardening style deserves to be called a tradition, since, like all

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traditions, it has an active meaning and application for the present.

The Afro-American cultivation tradition offers a way toward changing Southern agriculture in a practical as well as a philosophical sense. Its ecological logic, tested and sound, can be applied to planting crops in fields as well as gardens. Stressing diversity and sustainablility, both key aspects of the tradition, may open up some acreage now growing soybeans at a loss to crop mixtures designed to allow both farmers and fields to benefit. And though not incompatible with chemicals, machines, and technology, its conservative nature can discipline change in farming in order to avoid stumbling into costly agricultural blind alleys.

Yet the overriding importance of this among other farming traditions in the South is that it was largely built out of a combination of desperately held tradition and improvisation as AfroAmerican slaves faced a new world forced upon them. Thus, it can provide a precedent to guide the personal experiments that many farmers, faced with difficulties, are already making on their own in intercropping crop varieties in a single field, in switching away from dead-end crops such as tobacco, in using new biological techniques to control harmful insects, or in adopting more efficient cultivation and irrigation techniques. Advocates of small farm diversification such as Booker T. Whatley in his Small Farm Technical Newsletter, build on the same tradition in arguing that farms can be managed as profitable market gardens, rather than simply as staple crop productions sites. Tending to the full agricultural past of the region will increase the ability of Southern agriculture to face the coming of a new and restrictive world, something like that encountered by Africans in the Americas. This world will be created partly out of three hundred years of damage to the land, and partly by the jostlings of the world markets for food and wood fiber in which the region continues to play a dependent role. Yet a groundwork for meeting this challenging new world flexibly and positively is already in place. Like the Afro-Americans on Jamaica who “took care to preserve and propagate such vegetables as grew in their own country, to use them as they saw occasion,” we should’ not forget to tend our own past in looking toward our region’s agricultural future.

Tom Hatley lives in Durham, North Carolina. His article “Forestry and Equity” appeared in Southern Changes for July/August, 1983.