In its summertime glory, a Southern garden is nothing short of an oasis. Between the towering tomato plants and the crookneck squash with vibrant yellow flowering buds, recipes are born and memories are made.
Serving as the backbone of many of our favorite warm-weather dishes, gardens in the South aren’t just a hobby. Like cooking with your grandmother’s cast-iron skillet, gardening is a deeply rooted, generations-old tradition that connects us to days long gone by.
Home gardens were once essential for survival. Without the equivalent of our modern grocery stores, early American colonists relied on their humble gardens to fill their supper tables. Kitchen gardens, as they were called, were small, no-fuss enclosed plots near the home’s back door where nutritional staples like fruits, vegetables, and herbs took center stage.
But as society shifted from villages to city living with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, gardening became less feasible. For some, the practice transformed from a necessity to a hobby. With that came a rise in decorative gardens, where the focus shifted toward appearance.
Yet, throughout the years, hard times brought resurgences in edible gardening. World War I inspired liberty gardens, a way for citizens to contribute to the war effort. The Great Depression brought relief gardens that helped relieve hunger and improve spirits, and World War II encouraged victory gardens to sustain citizens.
Though the necessity of an edible garden dwindled with the end of the second world war, the introduction of pesticides and insecticides had begun to make gardening easier. And in 1970, Earth Day was introduced, shedding new light on the benefits of growing one’s own food. Since then, interest in organic gardening has risen, and so has the desire for fresh, local produce. Consumers want to know where their food is from and how it’s grown, and many restaurants have enacted farm-to-table concepts to showcase exactly that.
“IT’S MY HOPE THAT MORE PEOPLE WILL WANT TO GROW THEIR OWN FOOD.” – Lois Chaplin
From container gardens on rooftop terraces to pots on windowsills, edible gardens have been resurrected to their yesteryear splendor, but often on a smaller scale. “Gardens are a lot smaller today than they were 40, 50, or 60 years ago,” explains former director of marketing at Bonnie Plants and lifelong gardener Lois Chaplin. “But we have better technology [soil mixes] to allow us to grow things in containers.”
While today’s edible gardening is heavily focused on nutrition and sustainability, for those who grew up on farms or were raised helping their parents, grandparents, or even great-grandparents maintain their garden beds, the practice remains more—it’s part of their heritage.
“I started gardening when I was in the first grade,” Lois recalls. “That was in 1960. At that time, we [society at large] were very focused on using nitrogen fertilizers and using insecticides to kill pests. But my family didn’t garden that way. My father gardened in the 1910s. His whole family had a farm, and they did what we would probably call organic today. That’s how I garden because that’s what I learned from my dad.”
Though gardening has certainly changed throughout the centuries, many growers rely on the skills they learned years ago to best care for their plants. And while not all were lucky enough to learn from a gardening grandmother, there are tricks of the trade that can make starting and maintaining a home garden an easy process.
Before starting a garden, it’s important to examine your environment. There’s a common misconception that growing a garden demands a large area of open land, but that’s far from true. Thanks to pots and containers, gardens can require only minimal space, plus container gardens often make for an easier start thanks to soil control. “If your soil is healthy, then your plants will be healthy, and in turn, you will be healthy,” Lois says.
“We’re learning that the soil is alive. It’s full of microbes and fungi that work in symbioses with the plant roots. It can get very scientific, but for beginners it doesn’t have to be.” If your soil is rocky or made up of thick clay, a raised bed or container garden filled with compost and good quality soil from your local nursery is an excellent option.
When it comes to deciding what to plant, consider your space, climate, and the amount of time you’re able to spend caring for your plants. “Tomatoes are probably one of the most complicated summer plants to grow, but every beginner gardener wants to grow them because they’re delicious,” explains Lois.
Not only are tomatoes disease-prone, they’re moisture sensitive, so watering often is necessary. Lois suggests beginning with hot peppers and okra for an easy-to-manage and fruitful summertime garden, while perennial herbs like rosemary and thyme are also great options. For the first-time gardener, Lois also recommends starting from a potted plant rather than seed. “For beginners, it’s a lot easier to start from a plant, and it’s not much more expensive. By the time you’ve bought seed and seed-starting supplies, you’re going to spend just as much, if not more.”
WHILE TODAY’S EDIBLE GARDENING IS HEAVILY FOCUSED ON NUTRITION AND SUSTAINABILITY, FOR THOSE WHO GREW UP ON FARMS OR WERE RAISED HELPING THEIR PARENTS, GRANDPARENTS, OR EVEN GREAT-GRANDPARENTS MAINTAIN THEIR GARDEN BEDS, THE PRACTICE REMAINS MORE—IT’S PART OF THEIR HERITAGE.
Once your garden has begun flourishing, it’s important to keep your plants watered. Try testing the garden’s need for water by sticking your finger into the soil near the plant’s base. If the soil is dry it’s time to water. Fertilizing with compost is also key to healthy produce. “Anything like coffee grounds or vegetable scraps from your kitchen will work, but leaves are the most obvious choice,” Lois points out. “Run over them with your lawn mower to chop them up, then add them to your gardening beds. As they decompose, they’ll make your soil richer.”
While growing your own food is highly beneficial to the palate and pocketbook, there are still ways to get fresh, local produce on your supper table without managing your own garden. “It’s my hope that more people will want to grow their own food, but if they can’t, I hope they will link up with a good farmer,” Lois says.
It just doesn’t make sense to not grow some of your own food. She suggests visiting a nearby farmers’ market and getting to know the growers. “You have to know whose farm it is coming from,” she says. “Go find your local farmers’ market, and find out more about the farmer. Don’t just assume the produce you’re buying is grown by them. Ask questions-most of the time the farmers are even happy to have you come out and visit their farm.”
A reflection of the South’s hospitable spirit, gardening is about more than just growing food. It’s about sharing the love of the land. “Southern gardeners, we all share,” Lois says. “The garden calls you to share—you always have more than you need.” And bound within the roots of our garden’s bounty is a passion that will continue to be shared for generations to come.
Put your garden-fresh produce to delicious use with the recipes in our “Farmers’ Market Bounty” feature.
TAKE AWAY TIPS
Before you dive deep into your backyard’s soil, test your green thumb with a few potted plants. This will allow the first-time gardener to become used to gardening as well as help determine what plants will grow best in your environment.
Consider both your climate and seasonality when choosing what plants to grow. Turn to the Old Farmer’s Almanac online guide at almanac.com for an easy-to-follow planting guide specific to your area. It’s also important to decide whether you want to grow perennials that come back year after year, or annuals that typically only survive one growing season.
Growing a successful garden takes patience. While it’s important to keep your beginner plants watered and fertilized, be careful not to overdo it. If you aren’t seeing quick results, give your plants the time they need to flourish.