Appalachia had community gardens before community gardens were trendy. Summers growing up in Kentucky meant it was time for a garden. I would watch my dad come home every evening in his coal truck and go straight to the garden to water and tend to whatever needed done. Some years he had a small garden on our property, but the best years were those that him and my Papaw (on my mom’s side) shared a garden. I loved those warm evenings that my cousins and I spent playing outside while my dad and Papaw pulled fresh potatoes from the ground and picked the first patch of green beans to eat with hot cornbread.
In late summer it was time to harvest and preserve. The colors of vegetables being cooked and placed into jars on a shelf make for a nostalgic picture. If the garden did well that meant hours of breaking beans. One year at my Uncle’s trailer the pressure cooker got too hot and the bean filled jars shattered throughout the kitchen and living room. Beans clung to lamp shades and picture frames, while glass lay in tiny pieces forcing us kids out of the house to play hide and seek while our parents frantically tried to clean it out of the carpet and make sure my Uncle had no serious cuts. There was no major damage, but what we were left with was a story that we tell every year when it’s time to break that year’s mess of beans.
When my Papaw passed away I watched as my parents and my mom’s siblings searched his house for the “mixed-pickles” recipe. He had kept his garden until the day he passed away, and they couldn’t imagine not having mixed-pickles that year, but they had never made them without him. When the recipe was found on a torn envelope with faded pencil scribbles everyone was relieved and then laughed at the measurement of using a “wheelbarrow of corn”. It’s been 7 years since he passed away, but every year my mom along with her siblings and cousins gather to make mixed-pickles from their gardens.
In my mid 20’s I moved to East Tennessee, I really only had my sister there with me. She was a single mom and we each lived in a small community of duplex apartments. My sister had inherited a green thumb from my dad and even though neither of us has land for a garden, she adapted and did a container garden on her patio. She couldn’t grow enough to can, but we would spend our year waiting for those warm summer evenings that we could sit on her front porch and eat fresh fried green tomatoes, cucumbers and a bologna sandwich. It was kind of funny, we moved from East Kentucky to Tennessee because we thought that there was so much more there to do, but we longed for those evenings that turned into nights sitting on the front porch eating food from the garden, just like home.
Now I live in Western North Carolina. I haven’t found my community there just yet. I do however love to hear stories from folks in the region about the role growing food plays in their families. A co-worker shared with me that her large extended family meets once a month to celebrate all the birthdays in the family for that month, and when there is extra food from their gardens they bring it and put them on a community table. Creating a system of take what your garden didn’t provide and leave what you have too much of.
The history of gardens in Appalachia sometimes get reduced to this idea of “we had to provide for ourselves” which certainly has a lot of truth behind it, but I think the practice has survived the test of time because of the community that comes along with it. Gardens are a yearlong community event that provides more than food. On Valentine’s Day we plant peas, in the spring we sew seeds, in the summer we weed and tend, in the early fall we can and preserve and in the winter when it’s cold and snowy we mix a pot of homemade soup with vegetables from last year’s garden. And all along the way family and neighbors are part of this. We had community gardens before community gardens had a name.
Willa Johnson serves as an Appalachian Transition Fellow in western North Carolina working with the Carolina Textile District. Originally from McRoberts, Kentucky, Willa has worked as a youth media producer and community organizer over the past several years.