I couldn’t have been more than 7 years old when I noticed that spring season that my parents had a few seeds left over from their garden-planting that April. I asked if I could have the spare seeds, and they were glad to oblige, I’m sure, wondering what a 7-year-old would ever want with seeds for squash, cucumber, purple hull peas, and lettuce. Heck, at that age, I didn’t even really like any of those things.
But there was something already speaking to me at that early age about who I was at the very core - a child of the Delta dirt. There is no escaping it. I need to get my hands in the dirt, and honestly, ranked right up there with writing, I believe it’s what brings me most alive.
Clearing a small briar patch between two wild pecan trees near our home, I planted those seeds and raised my first garden. There are few years since when I’ve not repeated the practice with garden plots in the city, country, and everywhere in between, wherever I lived at the time.
Going from -3 degrees to 72 degrees in the span of a few days will set a gardener’s heart on fire. In late February and early March you know full well there is still cold weather to come, but the warm sunshine on your skin says put seeds in the ground.
It won’t be long though, before the cool-weather season varieties are ready to plant. All potato varieties, spinach, lettuce, radishes, broccoli, carrots, all the big leaf crops will soon be good to go. I especially like the variety of bulk seeds offered at North Arkansas Farm Supply. There’s a great selection of starter plants, and I’ll be investing in more fruit trees there this year.
Getting your hands dirty in our Round Bottom valley is a pleasure. Over the centuries as the White River deposited silt and sediment ashore, it left behind some of the most beautiful dirt I’ve seen. Nothing stone-line about this small part of the county. We were growing a garden at our Tranquility Base site long before the first footings were poured, and I’ve bought a tractor, PTO-driven tiller, and tripled the size of that garden from last year. Throw in a couple of bee hives and it’s truly a gardener’s paradise where several five-gallon buckets get filled daily over almost two solid months.
While it’s still too early for outside garden work (though it won’t be long if the 60s and 70s stick around) it’s definitely not too soon to plant your own seeds in starter cups for transplanting after last frost. For the first time ever, I have six tomato varieties and some kale in the dirt.
And here’s a tip I learned just recently for getting your starter plants going. The containers that are used for rotisserie baked chickens in local stores make great incubators to get your plants going. The black bottoms and clear tops maximize the temperature and light, creating a terrarium-line environment that will give young plants a head start.
New to the garden this year will be a nice patch of corn. Would it even be the 4th of July if you weren’t sitting around shucking corn and shelling purple hull peas that would go just right with some fried okra and cornbread? I swear, if my own father had ever been put in jail and given a choice for his last meal, it would have been fried okra with purple hull peas.
One thing I’ve learned recently in some discussions with the folks at Meadow Creek in the Fox community is that you can’t necessarily save garden seed from the previous year for planting in the following year.
It was a common practice for many years, but today’s seeds are so genetically engineered, they are not designed for reproduction year after year. Many will produce a plant, but just won’t bear fruit.
In the meantime, I’ve been stocking up on jars and sealing bands and spices of all kinds for pickling and canning. I discovered a variety of spice packets last year, a brand called Mrs. Wages, that offers a nice diversity in flavors for pickles and other vegetables.
See you in next week’s newspaper.
(Steve Watkins is a reporter and columnist for the Stone County Leader.)