Blackberry Farm

Friends of the Farm

A Giving Garden

Towards the end of summer we see the payoff after months of plowing, spreading compost, seeding and weeding. Harvest begins in earnest and will continue beyond frost time later in the fall. Picking along the rows, it is easy to focus on the garden staples – beans, tomatoes, squash and the like. But the crops we grow primarily for food are quite exotic to our area. The garden is a true collision of cultures that reflects the human makeup of southern Appalachia. The beloved okra, field peas and benne (a relative of sesame) are all African in origin, and came to this region during the cruel days of slavery. Patriotic favorites tomatoes, beans, peanuts and corn claim Central and South America as their genetic homelands. And our wheat and carrots are far from their birthplaces in Turkey and Afghanistan, respectively. It seems the best things to eat from the garden have more passport stamps than a foreign diplomat.

But if we look between the rows, and at the margins of the forest, we can easily find a wide menu of food that time and nature planted, rather than men and tools. In August, when little but the native sourwood trees bloom, bees swarm the blossoms to put up a store of honey before cold weather. The honey we draw at the end of the month has a complex and dark flavor, and is the clear favorite of locals here in the foothills. Each beekeeper brags about the strength of his sourwood honey. Smooth and staghorn sumac are now resplendent in their crimson candles of lemony-flavored berries. The acidic husks of the berries were used by the native peoples to season river trout and once-ubiquitous bison, and to make a refreshing late summer tea. Elderberries are now in their awkward teenage years, past blooming, but not yet mature. The green berries are preserved in a salty brine, in order to temper their youthful toxicity, and to make a caper-like pickle with a slightly floral flavor.

It is easy to forget that the bounty we grow has only existed here for a short time. Before Spaniards came in the sixteenth century, and Africans and Scots-Irish in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the native Cherokee, Creeks and others existed solely by hunting and gathering. The forest was a table laid wide, and in a prosperous season, its people and animals ate well. In the shrinking world of today, of course, if the weather will bear it, plants from all parts of the world can be grown most everywhere. With many visitors to the garden from all reaches of the planet, and rows of vegetables and herbs relatively new to this ancient soil beneath our feet, we have only to look outside the confines of the garden to remember where we are.

Jeff Ross, Garden Manager