This year marks the 10th year that my mom and I have planted a vegetable garden. What first started out as an ode to our forever first lady Michelle Obama’s White House Garden has turned into an act of preservation.
While I’m able to celebrate my free ancestors who fought for this nation, owned businesses, and earned degrees; I can’t call out the names of my enslaved ancestors who toiled in the cotton and tobacco fields of the southern U.S. Planting and cultivating this garden has allowed me to connect with those nameless ancestors whose legacies weren’t preserved in record books as they were seen as property and not worthy of recognition. I dedicate our garden to them every year. Each year as I break the ground in preparation for that summer’s garden I usually complain about the heat, dirt, and bugs. Those complaints are quickly silenced by the memory of my ancestors who couldn’t complain for fear of violence and weren’t gardening as a hobby. I’m grateful for their silent acts of resistance in order for me to be here today.
What we plant varies from year to year; tomatoes, sweet potatoes, peppers, zucchini, and more! Last year I even planted cotton for my ancestors that picked cotton on southern plantations as slaves and then sharecroppers. A staple of our garden is collard greens as a nod to our roots. It’s great to harvest the collards each year and give them to friends and
family when there’s extra. I enjoy cooking, but I yield the kitchen to my mom whose greens I haven’t quite mastered yet. She cooks them with recipes passed down through generations and now tweaks them to accommodate those with dietary restrictions. The same goes for her sweet potato pies at Thanksgiving with sweet potatoes from the garden.
Gardening has allowed me to preserve the memory of my ancestors and has also provided me with an opportunity for self-preservation. It has provided me with a space to center myself, connect with the earth and with my roots. Absorbing the sun on my skin and putting my hands in the dirt is amazing. Just 15 minutes in the garden can do wonders for mental health. Although the garden isn’t doing well this year, the time I have spent there has done me well. I’ve expanded it this year to include an herb garden and I’m looking for recipes to use the herbs. I will also attempt to can this year- wish me luck!
Although I can’t name my ancestors who worked the fields of plantations in the South, I will take this opportunity to highlight one of my more modern southern relatives. My cousin, Dr. Booker T. Whatley of Alabama was a pioneer in sustainable farming. As noted in his Wikipedia page and this article from Mother Earth News, he popularized the pick your own or u-pick farm industry. The next time you go strawberry or blueberry picking, think of him.
As a future librarian, I’ll end with a few book suggestions on gardening. The first is Michelle Obama’s American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America. In this book Mrs. Obama details the history of the White House Kitchen Garden and shares stories of gardens across the country. The next is a children’s book, In the Garden with Dr. Carver by Susan Grigsby which is about when famous plant scientist Dr. George Washington Carver visits a young girl’s school in rural Alabama in the early 1900s and teaches the children how to plant their own vegetable garden. In addition, this list curated by Brian R. Thompson for the Arboretum Foundation has some great suggestions.