Skip to content

old gardening wisdom

At some point in history, probably not too far back, people didn’t have the ridiculous range of choices from all kinds of nurseries in terms of ready-to-plant flowers and vegetables. They started it all on their own. My grandmother loved bulbs of all kinds, and she always had a massive carpet of wildly arranged snapdragons underneath her grand oak trees all summer long. I’m sure she planted those snapdragons herself from seed. She didn’t have some big set-up. She might have had a little glasshouse, but no lights and expensive seedstarting flats. No exact recipe to her soil. No polymers or seaweed sprays. Most probably were sown outside right in the ground.

For an urban person like myself, starting from scratch is a little intimidating at first. I didn’t learn anything about planting or gardening from my mother. I know she gardened, because she was always canning stuff every fall… peas, corn, tomatoes. But I don’t ever remember digging anything as a child. I remember the rows of corn on my grandfather’s farm but I don’t ever remember being told how they got there.

Such is the case with a lot of people, especially urbanites, of my generation. So much of the tradition of passed-on wisdom of farming and gardening has disappeared. After my grandfather’s generation, most people no longer had to farm out of necessity. My husband’s grandparents worked in tobacco and cotton fields. In our generation gardening is now mostly just a pleasure or leisure activity and not a profession–and just like many of the things our grandmother’s did–sewing, gardening, house-building–we are having to learn all the basics on our own.

And one of the things you find out real quick is that there are a lot of experts offering gardening information, but most of the experts didn’t become that way from traditional know-how, in having grown up on a farm. My friend in North Carolina grew up on a farm and tends his 5-acre country land with all kinds of vegetables, flowers and herbs. He has a lot of that kind of know-how, rare for our generation, but he’d never put it in a book (or read it in a book). From his experience, one just learns by doing it.

He once told me he thought “organic gardening” was a funny idea to him. All the things that are being “invented” as best gardening practices are old techniques he did every day as a kid, that all the country people just knew. He laughed in his North Carolina drawl, “They put all these fancy names on it like ‘organic’, but people, it’s called FARMING!”

My grandfather’s farm had so many barns with stuff… manure, grain, one barn filled to the top with hay that he baled himself for horses. I’m sure he had all kinds of compost too–it wasn’t a science to him and he didn’t read a book about it. And I’m also sure he never used chemicals. He was descended from Appalachian country people. All you needed was your John Deere and a big old tiller trailing behind it.

My friend is right. The popularity of organic farming, do-it-yourself composting, ‘heirloom’ seed collecting, native-plant gardening and old tricks like growing onions to fend off bad bugs are not new things. Once people had no choice but to do these things, but now they have been re-framed by a whole generation that is nostalgic for something they never learned. Along with that also comes a little bit of idealism and a lot of seriousness about one’s expertise (especially when they had to learn it on their own).

I learned this the hard way when I posted a question about fertilizers and lawns on a popular organic farming discussion group. The responses I got back were so overwhelmingly presumptuous about my lack of knowledge and also a bit punishing about the things I did ‘wrong’. I vowed never again to ask questions on the internet (as I find the internet encourages all these little dispersed dominions of emphatic, personal authority).

I am not an authority, but I relish old gardening wisdom when I find it. Now and then someone shares something with you that is a little secret nugget of gardening wisdom. This person knows things, but they do not pronounce that they know them. Usually they are much older people, and they have a lot less to prove. But you have to ask for it.