After several requests for more information about gardening, we’ve put together a special bonus episode on traditional heirloom gardening practices, straight from the Foxfire archives.

Esco Pitts and one of his handmade spinning wheels.



Esco Pitts

EP: How old people used to garden. Well I can tell you, my daddy came from South Carolina in the eighteen-hundred and seventies. And he lived right over there, about a mile, and he worked for Old Man Moore–Nelson Moore. A lot of this bottomland over in here, but it was all covered in maple trees, and they had to cut the trees and clear it. They couldn’t hardly plow it. So they planted it, took locust stakes, punched holes down in there and planted the corn in amongst the roots. And that ground was very fertile, and it produced fine corn.

EP: After he got his house built, he had to build a barn, and he built it out of the logs he cut down. Built his barn and his crib and then he had to build him a garden. And they had chickens and ducks and geese, adn you have to enclose, put a fence around your garden. So he split palings. In those days chestnut trees–well that’s mostly what you built your house out of–chestnut trees would b sixty feet to the first limb. Long, straight trees, and they’d split awful easy then. And they’d split palings about eight-foot long. About six or eight feet. 

FF: Are palings posts or rails or?

EP: Hmm?

FF: What are palings? Are they like posts or like rails?

EP: No, they’re thin slats, about ¾ of an inch thick and as long as you want to make ‘em. And about four to six inches wide. And then he put his locust posts in every eight feet and nailed his railings,one to the bottom and one to the top and put his palings to it.

FF: Palings went up and down.

EP: Palings went up and down. And sharp on the top end.

FF: Like a picket fence.

EP: Picket fence, yeah. 

FF: Did he put any fertilizer in the rows?

EP: Well all the fertilizer they had was barnyard manure, or the stock stables. That’s all the fertilizer they had. And they’d use that. Either put it in the row, or just scatter it about the ground. The ground in those days would produce without any kind of fertilizer. It won’t do it today.

FF: Did he age the manure or just take it fresh?

EP: Just take it right out of the barn and scatter it out there.

FF: In the spring or in the fall?

EP: Well usually early in the spring. 

FF: Because the animals were in the barn in the winter and not so much in the summer. Right, I see.

EP: Yeah they were in the barn during the winter. And they had a pretty well built up supply of manure in the spring. And when he cleaned his stalls out early in the spring, he put it on his garden and his pastures if he had more than the garden needed. 

EP: Well the first thing she planted in the spring, she put out her onion buds. 

FF: March maybe? Was that around March?

EP: Well yeah, February and March. You can plant ‘em in February. And she grew her own buttons–they didn’t have any store to buy ‘em.

FF: How did she do that?

EP: Well, she planted those multiplyin’ onions–those big ol’ multiplyin’ onions. And they had these buttons on top of the onions. They’d grow way up there and have a stem up there and have a dozen buttons on the top. She gather ‘em when they got ripe and save ‘em over to next spring, and then she’d plant those tubers or buttons. And they’d make onions and then grow on up there and make more buttons. That’s the way they did it. They didn’t go to the store and buy buttons in them days. In other words, they had to make a living at home. You couldn’t go to the store and buy much stuff, ‘cause there wasn’t much stuff to buy. And people just got to makin’ their living, just practiced making their living at home. That’s the first things she put out, was the onions in the spring of the year. And after the onions got up a little ways, she always planted her cabbage seed in between her onions, at certain intervals. She put ‘em where there’d be skips or where she’d pull out onions to take in to eat. She’d put a cabbage seed there. And by the time the onions got ripe, she’d take them off, and she’d have her cabbage right where the onions were.

FF: How did you get cabbage seed?

EP: Well she’d leave a few stalks in the garden to go to seed. 

FF: When do they go to seed, after they head up?

EP: After they head up, they burst out.

FF: Oh they burst out after they head up?

EP: Yeah they just burst wide open, and then the stalk comes runnin’ up there and make seed.

FF: And she would save it in the fall?

EP: Save it in the fall of the year and have seed for the next spring. That’s the way they do. Yeah, a cabbage stalk, if you just let it grow, it’ll just burst out and it’ll come right out in the center and make seed. 

FF: What was the next thing that was planted in the spring?

EP: Well, she planted her–they didn’t have bush beans in those days. It was all cornfield beans, or runnin’ beans. And around the edge of this garden, she’d plant butter beans and what you called October–them big ol’ red, striped October beans. And they’d run up on that garden palings, you know, and be around there and there wasn’t no insects to bother ‘em and they’d just make oodlin’s of beans. And then she’d–in the corn, out in the cornfield, they’d plant cornfield beans and they’d run up on the corn and there’d just be bushels and bushels of cornfield beans out there. 

FF: Are the cornfield beans the kind of beans you eat dry or green?

EP: Well, we ate ‘em green as long as the season was in. And then what we didn’t pick before frost, why then they’d dry. After the frost hit ‘em, of course, they dried up. And you gathered them for your soup beans during the winter. Bring ‘em in by the sackful, is what we did. And she’d, we’d thresh ‘em out, put ‘em in sacks, and have soup beans for all the winter. 

FF: Were those beans–those cornfield beans–kind of like pole beans? Long thin green beans?

EP: That’s what they were. They were pole beans. I grew ‘em this year. I had a patch of corn down there and planted cornfield beans this year. And that’s most of the beans we had. My half-runners and bucks beans didn’t do any good, but I had plenty of cornfield beans.

FF: Well, where was your daddy’s cornfield? It wasn’t in the quarter-acre plot was it?

EP: No, he had a little patch here and there, everywhere he cleared up. He just started clearin’ up around. There’s pretty good boundary, pretty smooth land all around. And he just begin clearin’ up, and by spring, he had a great big field cleared up. And he just went in there and planted his corn. And he had a patch pretty close to the barn where he planted his syrup cane. He always made some syrup, because we, the kids liked syrup. And we had it, every year, we’d have syrup cane. Had to haul it about four miles to get it made up. 

FF: Okay, well what came after–you were goin’ through the order in which things were planted, I kind of forget where we were. 

EP: Well now, we got through the onions and the cabbage. 

FF: Right.

EP: Then she’d had her sweet potatoes in the garden. And the way they planted those sweet potatoes, they didn’t plant ‘em in ridges like we do now. They raked up individual hills, just rake up a hill of dirt, make it about 12 inches high. It’ll be about 24 inches in diameter down at the bottom. And she’d make a row plumb across the garden and take the potatoes that grew the year before, and they’d cut ‘em in pieces and put down in that hill. A piece of a potato down in each hill. And they would sprout and come up and make potatoes. They didn’t have–or I never saw–a potato plant, or a slip, as they call it in those days. They just planted the potato down in the hill and it’d come up and make potatoes. And they always saved some over to the next spring to plant. 

FF: You had to cut them with the little eye, so there’s a little eye on each?

EP: Yes, you cut ‘em with two eyes in ‘em. And she had in one corner of her garden, she had her medicinal plants. She had her rue, she had her mallards, she had her comfrey roots, she had her Jerusalem oak, and all that stuff was in one corner of the garden and it never was plowed up. She was very careful to keep from plowin’ it up. And it was a perennial plant, come every spring. 

EP: My mother took care of the garden with the kids.

FF: And your daddy took care of the corn?

EP: He took care of the farm. He planted pumpkins and his Irish potatoes–he’d plant them out in the cornfield. Didn’t plant ‘em in the garden. Didn’t plant Irish potatoes in the garden ‘cause we had to have all that space in there for things that we used all summer long. Her greens–mustard greens and her turnips greens, and her onions and cabbage, and her potatoes. She generally had it full–but she had flowers in every garden. And those flowers, I can remember they were poppies with heads that big and princess feathers, I never seen none as big and pretty as the ones she had in her garden. She had the old, in there mixed, poppies, princess feathers, zinnias, marigolds, and things like that, she had ‘em in the garden. 

FF: Did you have squash?

EP: Yeah, we had squash and cucumbers. Now cucumbers, she planted them in the garden.

FF: Well when did–kind of going back a little–you mentioned mustard and turnip greens. Now when did she plant those? What time of year?

EP: Well, in September. Now she planted mustards, she had mustards early in the spring. But her turnips, she planted them in September so that she could have turnips all winter. 

FF: Did they have any different varieties of say beans or corn or anything?

EP: They had about three varieties of beans. They had what they called the Octobers, they had the old black and white speckled butter beans, and then they had their white cornfield beans. They had three different types of beans.

FF: How about corn?

EP: Well, he didn’t have but one kind of corn that I remember, as long as I stayed at home. And everybody knew his kind of corn. It had just a little bit of yellow catched in it. And it was dense. A dense corn is hard and it made awful good bread.

FF: Was it good for eatin’ too–just boilin’ or whatever you do?

EP: Well, we never grew any sweet corn and I never heard tell of sweet corn in those days. 

FF: Oh really?

EP: No.

FF: Was it the white corn then?

EP: Just white corn that we planted in the field, and they’d go out in the field and bring in corn for roasting ears.

FF: Roasting ears? How do you eat them?

EP: Well, she cut off the cob and fried it or boiled it or what have you.

FF: But you did used to eat the white corn anyway?

EP: Yeah, we ate it, yeah that was all we knew anything about. And we’d eat it as long as it wasn’t hard. 

FF: And then your daddy would take–how long would he let it stay out in the field before he took it to the mill to be ground up.

EP: Well, it had to, he generally had old corn, from the year before to take to mill, ‘til it matured away in the winter. After cold weather, it’d get dried out enough to where he could take it to mill and make new grain.

FF: Oh, it doesn’t rot just sittin’ out there?

EP: It didn’t in those days. Didn’t anything bother it. You see, there wasn’t any insects in those days to hurt things, to bother things. Even apples–nothin’. 

EP: His corn, he generally planted his corn startin’ on my birthday, and my birthday is the 12th day of April. That was his day to start plantin’ corn, if the weather was where he could. And then in June, he planted his cane. And of course he saved his seed. And when he planted his cane, he saved every blade for fodder, ‘cause that’s what the sheep had to have for the winter. Sheep do well on cane fodder–they like it. And he had sheep out in the woods, and they’d come in in the winter and we’d have to feed ‘em. 

EP: He generally tied up his seed, and hung it up overhead in the smokehouse where the rats couldn’t get to it. ‘Cause they’d eat up your cane seed sure if you didn’t put it where they couldn’t get to it. 

Harriet Echols

Harriet Echols 

FF: We wanted to ask you about how you first started gardening, and how you cleaned it off and all that.

HE: Well, most usually, when a couple married, they settled at an old place or if they didn’t settle near where they could garden on the old home farm, they cleared up the new ground, they grubbed up the stumps, cut the big trees, and all the small things they took up by the roots, see? And they worked the garden up. Back then, now when my mother and father was raisin’ us–and I’ve been gardenin’ and followin’ my mama since I was four years old–and she’d let me plant beans and everything. And they cleared their garden, of course, and everything before I was born. But they settled and built the log house. Well my uncle had built the house and my dad lived on his farm. Part of the land belonged to my dad. And that was at Murphy, down Hiawassee River–Murphy, North Carolina. And so, they cleared the garden. And then, back then, they had the garden–it was square, you know, a big square–and they divided it in four sections, and planted the corn in one section and the vegetables and the potaters and other things in the other sections. And between these sections, they ridged up rows. And they’d walk those rows, and let us children play in that walkway. And we didn’t get in the garden when we slipped. And they planted beets, carrots, and parsnips, and all these root vegetables on those–and radishes, you know, like that–on those ridges around those squares in the garden. 

FF: About what time of the year did you do your first plowing? 

HE: Well, just about like we do now. They usually started planting about Easter up in the high areas, you know, like up in here. ‘Course now, they more or less plant potaters and onions and radishes and the greens—whatever kind you want to plant—in February. The last of February or the first of March—just whenever the weather is suitable to plant.

 And back then, we didn’t know anything about commercial fertilizer. And my father, I don’t know whether everybody did or not because it’s been too far back for me to remember, but they always hauled leaves and pine straw and, of course, there wasn’t too many pines where we could get the straw up here in the mountains. They would haul in the leaves and rake up all the leaves around the trees and in the yard and all the flowers you know that had died down. They cleaned up around the house. And my dad started just like you build a pen for something, you know. Four or five logs high. And he put a load or several loads of leaves—or they usually pulled ‘em up with a sled then, you know, pack ‘em in, had a little frame just like a wagon did, you know. Then put the leaves in and haul the barnyard litter, and my father always had a horse, but it was just for ridin’ purposes and things like that, but he kept oxens to plow it, and he would put the leaves and get a load of the barnyard litter and they kept that cleared up and put leaves in the stalls where the cows and the horses stayed, you know. And every so often, they’d take that out, and throw it in this pen. And by springtime, all that was deteriorated, mushed together, you know. And that’s what we’d fertilize the gardens with. And the ashes from the fireplaces.

My mother always had flowers. And I’ve always loved flowers, little girl. And we’d go along and look at the flowers, and then when we wanted flowers up at the house, she’d let us cut them. And the same way by the vegetables. She taught us how to gather vegetables, and when they was ready to get. So, that’s how we fertilized. And people lived at home then. And they had everything on the farm, and just the flour, and most everybody used to raise wheat seed and make their homegrown bread. But dad, I don’t remember him havin’ too much wheat while we lived and after I grew up.

FF: Could you give the order, kind of like in order, what you planted first down to what you planted last?

HE: Well, they planted the potaters—the Irish potaters—and onions, and the mustard greens or the turnip greens, you know, like you’d have like we do now. And then, a little later then, they planted corn and the beans. And then in the field, they planted the whole field with corn. See, people, they don’t raise cotton up here like they do further on down in Georgia. But mother had a little cotton patch, but it just began to open about the time frost hit. But she’d always plant a few rows of cotton. And then, in the winter, we’d pick the seed out and she’d card and spin her cotton. And then she’d, they’d plant the beans and peas. Of course, they had—like we have, the little English peas, or early garden peas—but they were a different pea. They were what they called a salad pea. We still have ‘em. Agnes plants ‘em occasionally but I don’t care too much for ‘em. But I do have other peas now. And then all through the summer, you know, farther on up, you can’t plant as late as we do down here. And she would plant beans to have plumb on ‘til frost in the field where they had corn. And we had peas and soup beans—we raised soup beans she’d have to have for the winter’s supply. And then at the old place, there was all kind of fruits. I mean, apples for different seasons—there was more apples—and plums and a few peaches, but not many. And she dried apples then to go with the garden vegetables. And then as the fashion began to get ready to can—we didn’t know what canning was then—she’d, mother had barrels that you pickle beans and make the kraut, you know like they do now. I guess you all know how to make kraut? And we had, then they’d gather up the Irish potaters—‘course they had sweet potaters too—and they didn’t plant the sweet potaters in rows like we plant ‘em now. They took this homemade fertilize and they dug a hole down and filled it full of this fertilize, then made a big hill—just a mound. And planted the sweet potater in there. And that’s how we had our sweet potaters. 

FF: How did you start savin’ the vegetables and stuff durin’ the winter months?

HE: Well, when they got, they had to start with, to have the potatoes, you know, just for the home use. And then mother would have another patch of beans, but when the cornfield beans come, she started in on the cabbage patch. She made kraut. And they’d pickle corn and beans and made kraut and then they gathered their parsnips and their carrots and turnips. And both the sweet potaters and Irish potaters.

FF: Did you bury the potatoes?

HE: Put ‘em in the cellar.

FF: How do you know when to pick the potatoes?

HE: Well, you know, down in Georgia now, people have to gather the potatoes early because the sun is so hot and soon as they mature, they plow ‘em up and store ‘em in a dark shed or somethin’ and sprinkle lime over them to keep them through the summer and then to have them for winter. But up here, the potatoes don’t mature until later in the summer, you see. And we don’t have to get ‘em until the fall up here—usually October or first of November is when we dig ‘em here.

FF: Do you remember how they saved all their seeds?

HE: They let it dry. They strung it on a string—you seen the leather britches beans? Well, my mother dried leather britches beans and then she dried all of her peppers on a string—they’d just have ‘em all up across the porch, you know, fixed to where she could hang it on sticks and dry it. And then they had their seed. And we saved all of our seed beans and everything. They didn’t have to buy garden seeds. Didn’t buy any seeds at all. And if one of us had a different kind of bean or corn or something, or got a new strand of something to plant, why they didn’t sell it, they shared it.

FF: Do you think there’s a difference between the old types of vegetables than the ones now? The hybrids?

HE: Yes there is. And I don’t know whether it’s, when people grow older and our tastebuds are gettin’ away from us—dimming, like our eyes—I don’t know. But doesn’t seem like the vegetables here taste as good now as they used to. And you know, I don’t, I used to love fruits and I ate fruit all the time—and I still do—but I just have to force myself ‘cause I don’t care for it like I used to. 

FF: Did you have any trouble with insects?

HE: Yes we do now, but we didn’t then. We didn’t know what these beetles and bugs—oh there’s always been little worms and things like that on vegetables, but you didn’t see these big ol’ terrapin bugs on the collards and cabbage and the greens.