Welcome to my zone 9a habitat garden near Houston, Texas.

Friday, June 22, 2012

This week in the garden - #19

This might be more honestly titled "The week in the garden that wasn't" because the truth is I've hardly been in the garden this week. The day that we got home from our week-long road trip, I was laid low by a nasty respiratory infection and it has lingered throughout the week, keeping me mostly indoors. I've only done a few walk-throughs of the garden where the rambunctious weeds shake their leaves and taunt me. "Nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah! Can't touch me!" But you see, I'm just allowing my weakened state to lull them into a false sense of security. I shall have my revenge! And soon, I hope.

What I have done this week is read. A lot. One of the things that I read was a very interesting article in The New York Times Home and Garden section about African-American heritage gardening.  The article was timed to connect with the Juneteenth (June 19) holiday which is celebrated in Texas and in 40 other states. The first sentence of the article, "Enslaved Africans did not win their freedom in order to starve," states the theme of the piece which is about the foods that these freed slaves raised and foraged in order to feed themselves in the desperate years after the Civil War. Many of those foods had their origins, like the freed slaves, in Africa.

Reading the article was like reading a history of my own family's gardening. We were not African-American but we were Southerners and Southern gardeners are deeply indebted to Africa and African-Americans for the food crops that we grow. Things like cowpeas, okra, dipper gourds, white cushaws, burr gherkins, and several varieties of pepper were first brought to this country on the slave ships from Africa and they have become staples of gardeners, not only in the South but all over the country.

After the Civil War and the emancipation of the slaves, the only way many of those people had of feeding themselves was foraging on the land for things like muscadines, blackberries, and various wild-growing nuts and growing what they could in their own little gardens. Thus, countless African-Americans gardened because they had to and because they could. The same might be said of my people, farmers all, who grew most of what their families ate on those farms.

Beyond the African-American crops that we grew, our other main crops were ones that we learned about from Native Americans. Squash, beans, and corn, the famous "Three Sisters" of Native American gardens were staples of ours, too. And, of course, there were members of the nightshade family - potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants - that were native to the Americas.  

European immigrants to this country, of course, brought their own garden seeds and tried to grow them here, and some did well. But often those crops were not able to thrive in the soils and climate of this continent. Gardeners are nothing if not practical people and they soon adopted what would work here, even if it at first seemed alien to them. So, today all American gardeners who grow their own foods are benefiting from a long and rich and complicated tradition, one that has roots in Africa and Europe - and, for that matter, Asia, also - as well as the native soil of the continent. 

The kitchen gardens of this country are an amalgam of what is best from many continents. Just like the people of the country.

The flowers of Jerusalem artichoke, another plant used for food by Native Americans and still grown in gardens like mine today.


  1. Sounds like a fascinating article. I did a sister garden with my JMG kids. We grew Jerusalem artichoke at an education garden where I teach school groups. They do have beautiful blooms and your photo captures them well!

    1. I actually grow them more for their flowers than for their roots, Karin, but I understand they can be a quite tasty substitute for potatoes.