The Ancestors Would Be Proud: My Urban Garden Oasis in East Nashville

It is late winter and spring is in the air. I’m peeling back my tarp and turning over the top layer of my garden. The smell of fresh earth begins to trigger memories of days of tilling the soil with my Dad. “You want to be able to run your fingers through it (the soil) like hair.” As he passed down ancestral techniques given to him from his Dad, such as how fine to make the ground texture for planting, he was also full of funny family stories, and informative tidbits like “Ya Granddaddy was a sharecropper. Do you know what a sharecropper is?” As my Dad began to share personal stories of his Father and Grandfather’s triumphs and failures I couldn’t help but notice the perspective was told from a point of view of heaviness, heartache, and anguish. It is a story that is bittersweet passed down from the days of forced labor.

35 years after the Emancipation Proclamation my Grandad was born (b. 1900), within another 10 years, Black people, who were once possessions themselves now, were in possession of 16 million acres of land, mostly in the South. W. E. B. Du Bois called it “land hunger” amongst freedmen, when Black people with much thrift, grit, and grace saved money to go after every available plot of land; No matter how hopeless or marginal it looked, it was theirs. This sentiment of seizing land at all cost was to be echoed by the great Booker T. Washington,

“It has been necessary for the Negro to learn the difference between being worked and working.”

“To learn that being worked meant degradation while working means civilization. That all forms of labor are honorable and all forms of idleness are disgraceful. It has been necessary for him to learn that all races that have got upon their feet have done so largely by laying an economic foundation, and in general, by beginning in proper cultivation and ownership of the soil.” That is just what my grandparents did. As my dad and I drove through the countrysides of Tennessee on the weekends, we would visit family with what appeared to me to be a large amount of land. As I got older I learned that what looked vast to me was only a fraction of what was once owned by the family. According to the USDA Agriculture Census, since 1920, it’s been a steady decline of 30,000 acres a year of Black-owned land. What is interesting is that between 1910 – 1920, at the beginning of the Great Migration (when an estimated 6 million Black people left the South), infamous methods like Jim Crow laws, poor economic wages, voter discrimination, white-capping (running all the Black people from town), and even premeditated murder known as lynching. This is when Black People started exhibiting the makings of full citizenship through land expansion, successful business dealings, progressive block voting, growing bank accounts, and paying taxes. However, jealousy was stoked to the point of rage when a mob of angry white men could rob, steal, burn down, kill, and in the aftermath begin to occupy the land, homes, and businesses of the expelled residents. These practices along with a long list of others put a bad taste in Black People’s minds towards anything agricultural because we saw drudgery with no return.

It was once 3.4 million Black farmers in America and now it is 45,000.

In recent years the importance of gardening has become a hot topic of discussion. The detrimental factors of fast food, virus outbreaks, and food shortages give people a sense of vulnerability that makes them want to have more control of their food sources. Having a fully stocked grocery store is wonderful in these modern times but this last year has definitely taught us that those food systems are just as vulnerable as we are. That’s why going to farmer’s markets is an excellent way to obtain higher quality food but you also get the opportunity to meet the food producer (gardener/farmer). The next and most effective way to gain, as my GrandPa used to say “Fo’ surety!” of what is going into you and your family’s body is to grow it yourself. This brings us back to the garden skills passed down three generations to me about how to start the season. I’m going to pass a few gardening tips given to me directly from my Pops so within the next 30 -45 days you can harvest your own fresh veggies and skills.

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Thaxton’s First Time Grower’s Guide

The first thing we want to look for is location. Vegetables need 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight per day. 4 minimum at least.

Second, decide what do you have enough space for? There are many different ways of gardening but some of the most common are in-ground garden (which tends to be more intensive but most common), raised bed garden (which are excellent for the elderly, disabled, or physically challenged), or containers (for apartments or other limited homes).

Third, the soil needs to be nutrient-rich. If you choose to garden in the ground, Dad taught that the ground needs to be tilled fine enough to loosely run your fingers through 8 – 12 inches deep. Spread compost (decomposing plant matter, which can be purchased or made) into the soil. Raised bed and container gardens can both have a good mixture of topsoil and compost.

Now that we have our good sunlight, location (ground, bed, or container), and we have our soil prepared, here are 3 veggie varieties to get you started that’ll make your Grandmama proud.

Greens (Collards, Turnips, Spinach, Lettuce, Kale)

There is nothing that I love more than walking into the backyard to pick fresh greens for dinner. Sow these tiny seeds liberally, greens love growing close together. As the plant grows after 3 – 4 weeks only harvest the leave needed for dinner. Let the plant continue to grow until the hot weather makes them go to seed.

Peas

Growing peas I think about my Grandma and how she used to have huge bags of peas that she sat and used to shell while she watched T.V. and although they tasted wonderful they always used to end up in the oddest dishes. Peapods with their crunchy sweetness bring life to salads, pasta, or they can stand alone. They are ready to harvest from seed in 45 days and the unique quality about peas is the entire plant is edible from the tendrils, leaves, and flowers. They are pretty much foolproof to grow. Sow them 1” to 2” apart and after 2 – 3 weeks of growth, they will need a support stick or trellis fence because they are climbers.

Radish

Radishes are so easy to grow and their red pops of color, tasty pungent bite, and abundant green foliage make them a gardener’s go-to. You will be able to harvest the greens 3 weeks after planting and the radish roots within 6 – 8 weeks.

I’m hoping with these 3 starters that after the experience of planting, watering, watching, growing, and eating, that it will reinvigorate an ancestral pride in us that will expand our communities into more gardening. After I was all grown up, one thing my Dad told me as I began my own plot, “Start small, and grow only what you and your family can eat. It’s better to be proud of a small garden than be frustrated and discouraged by a big one.” Agriculture began thousands of years ago its time to reclaim our birthright.

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