In Praise of Ozark Culture: Green Growing Things

On Mother’s Day I planted my grandmother’s tomatoes, along with a couple of pepper plants. Grandma insisted that she didn’t need the help, but she accepted it gladly enough when we refused to give her any choice in the matter. She’s turning 93 this summer, and after much beseeching from her children and grandchildren she decided that this year she would garden in tubs up by her house to save her from walking across the yard to her old garden spot. In the past several years Grandma has fallen and broken enough bones that it’s not crazy to want to set her up so that she can garden from her sidewalk.

Now, some folks may think that at this season in her life maybe Grandma should just give up the garden altogether. What’s the point of risking a fall on the sidewalk just to tend to four tomatoes and two bell pepper plants? She sure doesn’t need to raise her own food anymore, and of course her children and grandchildren could just bring her produce from our gardens if it’s the homegrown flavor that she craves. Those work-arounds to raising her own vegetables miss the whole point of raising a garden, though.

An Old German tomato plant

Here in the Ozarks, we used to garden to live. Back in the day, we were mighty grateful to have a patch of good dirt back behind the house to tend to and fuss over. A garden is what stood between most of us and starvation. Seeds saved from last year, a few chickens, a hog, a little bit of hunting, and a lot of work was what got families by. Back then, folks grew as big a garden as they could on account of they had to.

We don’t garden to stay alive anymore. Nowadays, we garden because we are alive. Ozarkers are the gardeningest people I’ve ever known. When we moved back here after years living outside, one of the first things as I noticed as spring turned to summer was that pretty near every house in town had a little patch in the back that was shaggy with tomatoes, or cucumbers, or corn, or potatoes, or beans, or squash, or watermelons, or something. Meanwhile, outside of town it’s even more than pretty near every house that’s got a garden. When we moved back to the Ozarks we were in a temporary house for the first few months, and by the time we got into our permanent place it was much too late to get a proper garden in that first year back. Still, the green growing things my family and neighbors were growing smothered me with a comforting sense of home. Oh, I’d gardened plenty while I lived elsewhere, but I’d never lived in a place where gardens sprouted everywhere like they do here in the Ozarks.

It was a garden, or more properly the death of a garden, that first made me feel truly homesick for our hills. We weren’t far afield, just in a fancy suburb of Kansas City, but that was distant enough from the culture I was familiar with. It was my first time with a yard of my own situated so that it could grow a proper garden. I plotted and planned over the winter before deciding that I ought to start small. I dug up a patch of grass maybe eight feet on a side in a sunny corner of the yard. I planted a pair of tomatoes and two zucchinis in my little garden. Every evening after work I would hoe weeds and fight back the invading grass. I built a short fence to keep dogs and rabbits out. Everything was going great until the folks next door hired a lawn care company to spray weedkiller and fertilizer on their grass. The overspray and runoff killed my little garden plot dead as a doornail. I was furious, of course, but as I mourned my vegetables I realized that my neighbor wasn’t the problem. Everyone along the street other than us hired a company to do lawn care, and no one else on the street grew vegetables. I was the oddball there. The looks I’d gotten used to receiving while tending my little patch weren’t gazes of admiration, but of approbation. Folks around there didn’t grow vegetables. If they hankered for fresh produce, they went to the grocery store or, if they were feeling particularly close to the earth, the farmers’ market. My garden and I didn’t belong there. I’m happy to now be back someplace where we can grow a proper garden.

In the Ozarks nowadays, we garden because we’re alive. We garden because we’re defiant and stubborn hill folk holding on to the old ways. Modernity has overwhelmed us on most fronts. We shop at big box stores, even if we grumble about it, because they’re full of modern conveniences at prices that are perhaps too cheap. We watch television that’s usually from nowhere in particular and surf an internet chock full of edutainment. But, being the stubborn people that we are, we have to hold on to some of our old ways, and for most of us growing our own gardens is one of the old ways we’re clinging to. Those vegetable gardens full of green growing things are both barricades against the modern world and a bridge to bygone days when food was fresher, tastier, and took more effort than just a trip to the market.

As I write this, my wife and I have most of our garden in. It’s already provided us plenty of greens and radishes, and it promises both more variety in produce and greater abundance of everything as the growing season gets underway in earnest. As for my grandma’s garden, the weather’s been a might cold for the tomatoes and peppers, but it’s doing real well. Her plants may prefer warmer weather, but they seem to be enjoying the lavish care Grandma’s been giving them. Whether it produces or not, the best part about Grandma’s garden is that it’s there at all, defiantly alive and vibrant–just like the old lady tending to it every day.

(Published in print edition of Phelps Country Focus, Rolla, MO, June 2021)

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