Every year, in the depths of winter, I make myself the same promise. 

“This year, I’m going to plant that garden!” 

Yes! There will be bok choy! There will be arugula! There will be chard! 

I refuse feeling discouraged just because May looms, and the soil lays unturned.

A Heritage as Rich as the Soil 

DebbieMiller and I come from a long line of gardeners. Deb’s mom’s side of the family grew tomatoes, pole beans, cucumbers and squash on small plots of land meticulously groomed through hot, sunny summers. 

Mama Gus and Papa, my mom’s folks in Chesterfield, Tennessee, maintained a garden that seemed huge to me. I never knew the exact size, but it measured big enough that Mama Gus and Papa accomplished the initial plowing with a diminutive, barn-red Farmall Cub. From it arose a bounty of vegetables that appeared on our plates mere hours ― sometimes minutes ― from the vine. 

My dad and I especially prized the turnip greens. Just in time for Thanksgiving, with its last gasp of fecundity, the garden yielded up post-frost leaves with a magnificently rich, almost meaty flavor. Ancient, secret techniques enhanced their dark, bitter edge with trace ingredients never revealed to anyone outside the Chesterfield Kitchen Cabal.  

In Memoriam

The summer after my mom died, the Lord put upon my heart the importance of preparing Chesterfield-style turnip greens for my dad at Thanksgiving. This particular bee flew into my bonnet in mid-July, but by the end of the month, I established rows in the front yard with my brand-new MANTIS electric tiller and planted seeds optimized for turnip greens — not the turnips themselves, which I loathe. 

When our first Thanksgiving without Mom rolled around, I served Dad my own homegrown greens. Proper applications of salt, fat and dill pickle juice rendered them only marginally distinguishable from the genuine article. Closing my eyes and sampling, I felt around me the propane warmth of Mama Gus and Papa’s kitchen. 

Such moments of wonder stoke my enthusiasm for returning to the sod, though in the intervening 10 years I find my agrarian urges suppressed by ― well ― pretty much everything else. 

The fact is, the thin, rocky soil and scarce sunlight here on the nascent slope of Alabama’s Monte Sano mountain fail at lending themselves to agriculture. Birds help themselves to seeds and ‘possums go for the sprouts. 

Also, though illustrations depict amateur farmers merrily tending their crops like nothing on Earth gives them more pleasure than thwarting cutworms, bringing in a Victory Garden — something taking off right now during these COVID times — takes a lot of hard work. And it’s humid out there. 

For these reasons — and many more — a quantum leap in vegetable husbandry beckons this year: straw bale gardening! 

That Ain’t Hay!

Note well that word — straw. Kerry Michaels of The Spruce sets us on the straight path.  

“Don’t make a hay bale garden,” she wrote. “Use straw. Make sure you get straw bales, not hay bales. This is key because hay bales will have even more weeds than straw bales.” 

Having secured the proper bales (Straw! Not hay! Do you hear me? No hay!), 10 or so days of fertilizing, watering and adding soil creates a rich environment for plants, elevating them above weeds and a fair number of other pests. 

It sounds good. Maybe I’ll do it. Even with mediocre sun, leaf and root vegetables perform fairly well around here. Radishes are my favorites ― one good radish with its greens makes a nice light lunch. 

On Earth As It Is…. 

If we plant a garden, though, the Seven Top Turnip gets priority, which “does not develop an edible root and instead puts all its energy into its lush leaves.” 

At 88, this Thanksgiving may well prove my dad’s last on this Earth. I won’t send him up to Mom without his favorite Mama Gus-style turnip greens. 

Jeepers. Even without “World War C,” this Victory Gardening is an emotional battlefield.