It’s been years now since I’ve planted a large garden. Oh, I still have a garden but it’s smaller now, a couple of raised beds… some tomatoes, a few peppers, lettuce, radishes, some herbs, not much really but enough to keep me busy and still provide some good home grown vegetables. There was a day, though, when it was quite a garden, tomatoes, squash, zucchini, broccoli, peas, cantaloupe, the works. Not just a few tomatoes either, eight plants or more. It was a substantial garden. We would can twenty or thirty quarts of tomatoes. And put up beets and peas in the freezer. We would also hang herbs up to dry and we saved seed to use next year. I have a lot of great memories from those gardens.
My earliest memory of a vegetable garden is with my grandfather. Grandpa Claybourne, my maternal grandfather was just a wisp of a man, five feet six or seven inches and probably a hundred thirty five pounds. Grandpa and grandma had seen some rough times as young people having gone through the depression. Grandpa had at one time been a share cropper in middle Tennessee during some really hard times. They had done anything they could to make enough to keep their four girls fed and provide a home for their family. By the time I was born, grandpa was working as a boilermaker in a ship building company. He was also quite the gardener. I remember the day as clearly as if it were yesterday, when, at six years old, grandpa took me out in his huge back yard garden and introduced me to all kinds of wonderful things he had grown. There were watermelons, collard greens, onions and broccoli plants that were chest high to me. Grandpa took the old Case knife out of his pocket, you know, the one that had been sharpened so many times that the blade was about half as wide as it had been when it was new. Yes, this is the same knife that he cleaned his fingernails and whittled toothpicks with. Of course he always sanitized the old knife by wiping the opened blade on his overalls before he cut anything that was going to be eaten. Any way, took the old knife and pared off a broccoli floweret and gave it to me to eat. “it’s raw grandpa” “go ahead and try it Billy” he said “I think you’ll like it.” With a bit of hesitation tempered with a bit of trust, I put the odd piece of greenery in my mouth and much to my surprise, I liked it, I loved it. I think about that experience almost every time I eat raw broccoli.
It was old Dabney Robertson, though, who got me started gardening for myself. Dabney was probably in his late seventies when I met him . He was a member of the church we attended, kind of a back row sort of fellow. Didn’t really say much, sort of kept to himself. Dabney and Miss Lilly May had been married for fifty years or more. Lilly May always reminded me of Olive Oil from the cartoon Popeye, she was thin and frail maybe a hundred pounds soaking wet but she had spunk. The story goes that Dabney and Lilly May had been seeing each other for eight or ten years. One day Dabney knocked on Lilly May’s front door. When she opened the door he said. “Miss Lilly, I reckon we ought to get married” and without missing a beat, Lilly replied, “let me get my hat” and the two of them got in Dabney’s pick up truck, drove down to the office of the justice of peace and that’s how the two of them began their long life together.
Dabney had been gardening organically for many years before he and I actually met. He had been involved in an industrial accident as a young man and had been doused with some kind of toxic chemical which caused all kinds of health problems. He did everything he could to protect the fragile health he had been saddled with. He was convinced that, having already absorbed more than a lifetimes worth of toxins, organically grown vegetables were the best for him considering all of his health issues.
It was sort of a chance meeting that brought Dabney and me together. He had called and asked if my two teenage sons could come over and give him a hand with something in his yard. I drove over with the boys and was immediately awe stricken by the sumptuous garden the old man had cultivated. While the boys were working, Dabney began to show me around. There were two sheds out back that housed all of his tools and his seed starting frames. Each tool was sharpened, well taken care of and in its place. Each place had a label for the tool that was supposed to be there; he was very meticulous about that sort of thing. There were old fashioned gasoline cans there, each one with a label denoting what that fuel was for… Gas for Tiller… Gas/oil mix for blower… and so forth. As we walked around the garden and through the sheds Dabney told me how he would start the seedlings and then temper them in preparation for planting out doors I told Dabney that I had been thinking about putting in a garden myself. Before I knew it a plan was set in motion for my first big garden.
Dabney arrived just after lunch one day with his Troy-Built Horse in the back of his pick up. We unloaded the monster of a machine and he began to run the tiller and give me instructions on its use. By sundown, we had a huge plot of finely tilled soil almost ready for planting. We decided where the compost pile was going to be located. We laid out string lines to denote the rows for the various vegetables that would be planted and over the next few days seeds were put in the ground and the anticipation of crops was set in motion.
The old man taught me just about everything I know about organic gardening, from creating my own compost, to using natural pest controls and making my own organic fertilizers. He was a wealth of knowledge. A few years after Miss Lilly May passed away, Dabney moved to another town to live with his son, an only child. The old man, I’m sure has passed on by now but the things he taught me have stayed with me and brought me a tremendous amount of pleasure over the years.