‘Tis frigid outside and the wind cuts through all but the thickest coat. I walk down the hill (it’s a long hill) to collect mail from my rural delivery, muttering a little exercise is better than none, albeit cold.
Today’s walk rewards me with a seed catalogue. Winter, a resting and recovering time from harvest and holidays. With the winter solstice a month behind me, I find myself beginning to plan a garden. My spring and summer garden. Vegetables and flowers. I’m also thinking (again!!) about having chickens and bees. Well, maybe one or the other, not both. More on that later.
I page through the catalogue pondering over new seed varieties, old standards, and bare root berry bushes. Nut tree starts and flowering bushes, pictured full grown, dazzle me. Cold weather onions, carrots, and lettuces to be planted March stare at me from the pages next to June’s tomatoes, peppers, and okra. Editable vegetables. The kind found in slave gardens, aka home gardens.
Calvin and Mary Terrell, Black farmers in my novel, If You Walk Long Enough, live on a small plot of land with their son Joe. While they are independent farmers, they are nonetheless at the mercy of white store owners and bankers. They decline to raise anything but food crops—it’s a practical matter and a nod to their African heritage.
An often-overlooked fact in slave chronicles is that of gardens. Most slave days were spent working the fields for a white master growing tobacco, cotton, sugar cane, rice, or indigo—money crops. Planters, be they Southerners or not, invested in things that could be sold and thus increase their wealth.
Sundays, an exception to the endless toil, were a day of rest for the white owners and slaves. Often allowed a small patch of ground near their row housing, non-free persons were granted permission to use this patch as they chose. Most planted edible plants which nourished the body and fed the soul simultaneously.
Seeds from African foods brought by slaves or indentured servants during the 1600s included lima beans, yams, okra, and black-eyed peas. Over time watermelons, coffee (from Ethiopia), rice and the custom of deep-frying of foods became common in the South.
The plantation owner’s reason for such benevolence was not a matter of kindness but of self-interest. Overall owner food costs were reduced when slaves were allowed to grow and consume their meager produce thus making them more self-sufficient. Extra produce could be sold, the money pocketed by the slave; or shared with the owner.
Second, gardens gave slaves a modicum of incentive to stay on the plantations. Even a small bit of their own property was deeply valued as was the addition to their diet.