On backyard gardening

By Dwayne Walls Jr., Columnist
Posted 7/21/21

Watching our garden grow apace under the blazing summer sun brings me no end of joy.

I married a woman with a green thumb. My Elizabeth is more of an herb and flower kind of gardener than the …

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On backyard gardening

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Posted

Watching our garden grow apace under the blazing summer sun brings me no end of joy.

I married a woman with a green thumb. My Elizabeth is more of an herb and flower kind of gardener than the fruit and vegetable kind, which is fortunate since our home is on a quarter-acre lot. We simply do not have the space for an orchard of peach trees or towering rows of corn or mound after mound of cucumber vines. We content ourselves with growing basil, peppers and parsley alongside the tomatoes in our backyard. Terracotta pots hold chives and lilies and begonias. Our ponytail palms spend their summers on the back deck; we roll them in and out of the house on a furniture dolly with the changing seasons.

For years my meager gardening skills consisted of digging holes where she pointed and pulling up the plants she identified as weeds. For this lack of working knowledge I firmly blame Ransom Crump, the man my grandmother married after my grandfather died. Ranse told me great tall tales and whopping lies, filling my young head with such nonsense about gardening that it has taken decades to correct.

Ranse tilled the deep, narrow lot he owned next to his house in the shadow of the North Carolina mountains, growing cucumbers and corn and squash and beans in the reddest dirt I ever saw. My grandmother pickled and canned what they grew, storing the glass jars in a tidy larder off the kitchen. They were from an older generation that knew poverty not as abstract economic theory, but as raw, ravenous hunger, so they salted their meats and canned their vegetables and preserved their fruits as a matter of life and death during a time when, as the author Harry Crews wrote, “There wasn’t enough cash money in the county to close up a dead man’s eyes.”

“How’s your garden this year?” I asked Ranse after Sunday dinner one summer visit. We were sitting on the porch, him in his rocker and me in the metal glider that fascinated my young mind no end.

“Oh jus’ turrble!” he replied. Ranse and my Mamaw were also folks who said “H’it war” for “it was” and “warsh” instead of “wash.” I looked over at the leafy greenery beside the house and said, “It looks like a jungle to me.”

“That’s just it!” he exclaimed in mock anguish. “My vines grew so fast that they drug ever’thang clean around the garden. They wore ‘em plumb out! Rubbed the bottoms off’n ever’thang!”

For years I thought cucumbers and squash and melons could be dragged around the ground by their stems. Not until I married Elizabeth was I disabused of this delusion; only now, after a decade of tutelage and a bit of osmosis do I think of myself as a backyard gardener. Not that I could compete with Elizabeth, who invariably knows the Latin genus/species of whatever we are planting, but I am proud to write that I can work without adult supervision. Together we put in Golden Cherry tomatoes, Cherokee purples, Better Boys, and a Red Dwarf tomato vine that looks like a bush. We have a composting bin for coffee grinds and corn husks and other household waste, and we buy loads of topsoil for me to work into the Chatham County clay. We also buy mulch for flower beds and for making paths in the back yard.

I still dig the holes for planting, but while my hands might be brown from dirt, my thumb is finally green. Never mind that when I crunch the numbers and tally up the cost, each tomato costs about four bucks a pop; gardening is empowering. It is also powerfully focusing activity: I dare anyone to worry about current events and pull weeds at the same time.

In 305 AD, Diocletian became the first Roman Emperor to voluntarily retire from public to private life. When he was importuned to return and end the civil wars marking the rise of Constantine the Great, he is reported to have said, “If you could show the cabbage I planted with my own hands to your emperor, he definitely would not dare suggest that I relinquish the peace and happiness of this place with the pursuit of power and the storms of a never-satisfied greed.”

I feel as empowered as Caesar himself.

Dwayne Walls Jr. has previously written a story about his late father’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease and a first-person recollection of 9/11 for the newspaper. Walls is the author of the book “Backstage at the Lost Colony.” He and his wife Elizabeth live in Pittsboro.

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