Column – Gardening has evolved from necessity to leisurely pursuit

Published 5:05 pm Tuesday, September 19, 2023

A town resident attended a church meeting a few weeks ago with bags of tomatoes. He begged anyone who could use them to take some home.

It’s that time of year when gardeners find they planted and are harvesting far more of some vegetables than they could possibly use, but just hate to see them go to waste. So, excess tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers and more end up in what has become a relatively new and enjoyable phenomenon — vegetable gifting and swapping.

The late Mac and Edna Cofer were among the better gardeners in the community. Mac was raised on his family farm just outside of Dendron and learned the art of gardening from his parents. He and Edna planted a large garden next to their Pagan Pines home and, assuming it rained on that sandy soil, it was invariably bountiful.

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Mac would show up at the Twins, and in later years, Main Street, with extra this or that and from their garden, happily giving them to anyone who was interested.

The statement that vegetable gifting is “relatively new” comes from a personal perspective that may not be held by everyone. It’s based on farm life 60-70 years ago. Vegetable gardening back then was anything but a hobby. It was a major source of food for farm families year-round. Thus, gardens were a large and valued part of any farm operation and tending them was serious business. 

One of the earliest field chores my sister and I were given was removing beetles from potatoes and other garden plants. We were each given a pint mason jar to which was added a small amount of kerosene. Using the jar lid as a scraper, we would walk along potato or butterbean rows and scrape June Bugs into the jar. The kerosene did the rest. We repeated the process daily whenever there was a bug infestation. 

We also learned early how to determine what was ripe for picking or digging. As we grew, my sister helped with the canning while I worked in the fields and tended hogs. Regardless of age, though, gardening remained high on the list of chores.

Farm gardens produced much of what would be eaten during the coming months. Large patches of white and sweet potatoes could provide a valued protein source through the winter if the potatoes were properly cured and tended. Tomatoes were grown in abundance so that they could be cooked and canned, again for use during the winter and spring. Canning ended when we ran out of jars or vegetables, whichever happened first.

If the family’s preservation needs had been met and there were excess vegetables, they were taken to town, where they were sold at wholesale prices to locally owned grocery stores. We dealt with Leon Chapman’s Independent Market and took bushels of surplus potatoes and other vegetables there.

We also grew a large variety of squash for a specific market. Mrs. Annie Sykes, who owned Sykes Inn for decades, served squash pies to guests. In late summer, we would harvest squash and sell them to her. Her pies were a favored dessert at the Inn and my mother used her recipe to make squash pies, which we preferred over pumpkin. 

We also tried, on occasion, to make a few dollars from a watermelon patch, but marketing watermelons even back then was governed by large-scale operations, and small-patch gardeners generally couldn’t compete. We children were given watermelons to sell in a makeshift roadside stand on Route 10, which back then was two-lane with few vehicles. We sold a few, but I can’t recall making enough money to have ever thought it worthwhile.

Such large-scale farm gardening was hard work and not eagerly anticipated, but as people moved from farms where they had spent their childhood to subdivision homes, gardening became a nostalgic undertaking, a way to remember a life to which they would never return. 

Today, gardening guarantees fresh vegetables for the table, is a good way to get the whole family involved in a wholesome activity and reminds aging gardeners of earlier times.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is