My introduction to Appalachia came when my young, adventurous mom and dad decided to pull up roots and leave New Jersey to pursue a different life in the south, riding an optimistic wave of post–World War II prosperity and relatively new automobile-enabled mobility. They surely shocked their more homebound relatives.
I was three when we loaded up the Buick and hit US Route 1. Eventually my father got a job selling insurance in Chattanooga, Tennessee. For reasons that I can’t fathom now, we ended up not in the city of Chattanooga where he worked but out in the country. Our home was a cramped, sunless apartment in a clumsily subdivided farmhouse outside the tiny town of Signal Mountain, high up on the Walden Ridge.
Walden Ridge is on the edge of Appalachia, a geographical area surrounding the Appalachian mountain range and extending from southern New York state down to the northern tips of Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. Appalachia is known for its rugged natural beauty and the fierce independence of its residents, some of whom live in the poorest counties in the United States. To attend second grade in a small county school, I rode a ramshackle yellow bus past tiny log cabins, many surrounded by pens of livestock and corn stalks.
The craggy hills and valleys of this region contributed to the isolation of its people, many of Scotch-Irish heritage, who settled there and had to coax a living out of a fertile but difficult landscape. Even today, when Appalachia has its share of modern cultural artifacts—Walmart stores, fast food, and supermarkets—many gardeners continue to raise edible plants, herbs, and their favorite flowers in time-honored ways.
Some of those old Appalachian methods can come in very handy for the modern gardener. Here are 10 ideas to steal.
Grow pole beans.
For her recent book of interviews with Kentuckians, Row by Row: Talking With Kentucky Gardeners, author Katherine J. Black spoke with a number of people from the eastern part of the state in Appalachia. Black states unequivocally that growing green beans is the “Holy Grail” of local Kentucky gardening, describing the crop as the “cornerstone” vegetable. Individuals take great pride in and carefully perpetuate their favorite varieties of beans such as the “little creamy bean,” the “long greasy bean,” and the “greasy green hull bean.” Seeds are carefully gathered and dried for next year’s crop with extras often shared with friends and neighbors. For a dazzling selection of heirloom beans, consult Appalachian Heirloom Bean Seeds on Wright’s Daylily.
Plant beans with corn.
One traditional method of growing beans is to interplant them with corn, another omnipresent vegetable in Appalachian gardens. As the corn stalks grow tall, the bean vines twine around them saving space, looking beautiful and eliminating the need for poles or other supports.
Create a low-tech root cellar.
Katherine Black refers to the seemingly obligatory local vegetable garden combination of corn, beans, and potatoes as the “Kentucky Trinity.” In the past, when electric freezers were not to be had, it was necessary to extend the usable life of the vegetable garden’s bounty as long as possible. Mae Raney Sons, a nonagenarian subject of Black’s book, explained some of the methods used to keep produce fresh through long mountain winters. For instance, Mrs. Sons described preserving potatoes by “holing them up” (placing them in a deep, dry hole which was lined with hay). The hole was then covered with more hay or straw and dirt. A tepee of dried cornstalks, called a “fodder shock,” was placed on top to shed rain and snow. With luck the potatoes would stay dry and edible all winter in their natural storage bin.
Grow heirloom tomatoes.
Besides the passion for preserving rare strains of green beans, gardeners in Appalachia are particularly concerned with antique varieties of tomatoes and are careful to save and share their favorite seeds. Some local heirloom varieties that have been handed down include Barnes Mountain Orange, Blue Ridge Mountain, Cherokee Purple, and German Johnson. Find these and many others in the online catalog of Appalachian Seeds which is based in Asheville, North Carolina.
Start seeds in cold frames
Another method in Black’s book, also from Mae Raney Sons, extended the growing season by allowing gardeners to start cool-season crops such as lettuce way before the ground was warm enough for seeds to be planted out in the garden bed. In this “pit method,” a hole the size of an old window frame was dug out and lined with chicken manure. Lettuce seeds were planted in the manure and the hole was covered with the window which kept in the warmth generated by the manure while allowing sunlight in. Young sweet potato plants, called “slips,” also frequently got an early start this way.
See more cold frames at 10 Easy Pieces: Cold Frame Greenhouses.
Embrace double cropping.
Tom Collins, another of Black’s interviewees, grew up poor in a family of 14 children. To get the maximum production out of her garden, Collins’s mother managed to extend the growing season to as long as eight months a year. She accomplished that by planting cool-season crops such as Black Seeded Simpson lettuce, mustard greens, and sweet peas as soon as the ground could be worked. When these crops were ready for harvest, Collins’s mother immediately replaced them with Irish Cobbler and Kennebec potatoes. As soon as the potatoes were ready, they, in turn, were replaced with seeds for mustard greens and turnips—cold weather crops that would keep growing even when snow was on the ground.
Another way to increase the output of the garden was through the use of perennial onions that naturalize underground and form clusters from one single bulb. Heirloom varieties of multiplier or “walking” onions are available at a number of suppliers, including The Territorial Seed Company.
The hilly terrain and fertile soil of Appalachia were well suited for small stands of fruit trees such as apples, peaches, pears, and apricots. In the past, orchards were started first by clearing some land on a hillside, which was then sown with corn. The following year, young fruit trees would be brought in and planted in the now cleared area. The trees were frequently purchased by mail order through Stark Brothers Nursery in Louisiana, Missouri, which opened in 1816 and is still in business. Fruit was used fresh for pies and cobblers with the rest of the crop preserved through drying or canning. Katherine Black, who has a cherry tree in her own garden, says most of the gardeners she knows no longer grow fruit trees but many cultivate berries and grapes. The tradition of foraging for wild blackberries is also alive and well.
Share the bounty.
A long-standing tradition in the hills of Appalachia is to share with friends and neighbors any harvest that cannot be used by the gardener’s family. Fruits and vegetables, as well as plants and seeds, are freely shared in the community, particularly with those less economically well off. While Appalachian gardens are primarily food producers, many people in the area love and grow flowers as well. Gigantic, brilliantly colored dinner plate dahlias are a favorite plant, and pieces of the dried tubers are often passed from gardener to gardener.
Split rails for fences.
The split-rail fence was commonly used by residents of Appalachia where the rocky soil made digging posts for more conventional fences almost impossible. These “zigzag” fences can be put together with few tools, are built without nails, and are easy to disassemble and move. Today they are often constructed of cedar, Appalachian poplar, or yellow or red pine. In use since the time of early settlers, split-rail fences provided firewood for soldiers during the Civil War.
Are you planting an edible garden this year? For ideas and tips, see our guide to Edible Gardens 101, with growing tips for edibles including Tomatoes, Blueberries, Black-Eyed Peas, and Pole Beans. See more of our favorite southern gardens: