In the Spring when I was younger I would spend the afternoons on the tractor with Pop tilling up the top ten acres or sitting in the mulberry tree eating berries til I was full and bored. Then I’d climb down and help him plant or help pull irrigation pipe over and connect it to drip irrigate the rows. I learned a lot about traditional row farming/gardening this way-when to time the crops, how to spot sickness in plants, when to re-plant, when to cut your losses and let it go.
My Pop’s family were farmers and ranchers. He followed the rules as taught by his father who had been a very successful large scale farmer and shipped many tons of produce out of several central Florida packing houses prior to and during the Great Depression.
Pop followed the ways he was taught and planted by the moon,and tended his crops every day after he came home from work and we never went hungry. He was a tiller of the earth and an excellent Cattleman.His people truly helped tame the Florida wilds and I don’t say that lightly.
Then came Fall. It was a different world. Summer produce was picked and put up, corn stalks were dried and bundled and set out for decoration and the hunting gear was brought out. We still planted a few fall greens and such but the gardens were smaller because we spent more time in the woods hunting. It was a less controlled time, a lot more freedom.
We headed out to live in the woods for hunting season. We sat by fires and stared at the stars and heard all manner of animal just outside the camp. We didn’t worry too much about home. Too busy hunting. Still hunting on a deer stand or dog hunting, or just hopping on horseback and heading out to the hammock and seeing what we might scare up. We were seldom disappointed.
I searched out acorns, lobbed many a pinecone at my brother (ouch) cut down palmetto fronds with my little pocket knife and chewed on the end of said palmetto til it was tough and didn’t taste good anymore then made bows and arrows to torment the squirrels. Most of my early childhood pictures are me in front of a gutted hog or deer. I thought nothing of that anymore than I would worry about yanking a turnip out of the ground. Just the way we lived and ate.
Early in the morning we’d get up, cook bacon, eggs and sausage over the fire and fill the thermos with boiling coffee and wrap up the remnants of breakfast with oranges and pecans and those horrid little tins of ‘VI-Ena’ sausages to snack on.
We’d take the dogs out and get them interested in a fresh track (my uncle would find the track and decide if it was a doe or buck and if it was fresh enough to set the dogs on) They’d let the hounds go, listen for a few…then they’d start bellowing ‘He’s jumped it!” someone would holler-and everyone would load up and head in whatever direction they figured they needed to go. My grandmother and I would jump in the jeep and head out.
We’d race down the grade and she’d take a sharp left or right and we’d wind up deep in the woods to ‘listen for the dogs’ but really she would show me wild persimmons, the occasional sourwood orange, wild berries, plants you don’t touch and plants that ‘her daddy said you could rub together and stop stinging nettle’.
She was the wild woodsman. She was brought up that way as her mother was half Creek Native and her father was someone who, while profoundly educated, would rather spend his days deep in the woods among wildlife. He ran cattle up into Payne’s Prairie to North Florida back when it was wild, just as his own father had done for the Confederacy to feed the Troops not terribly long before. My grandmother’s Uncle spent many days deep in the Everglades hunting in order to feed the Seminoles on the Tamiami Trail when they were not allowed to hunt for themselves. She learned from her family how to navigate a less hospitable, wild Florida, and how to do what you must for those you love, to survive. She’d tell me these stories and I would forget all about hunting. I’d be lost in the Everglades swamp with her Uncle or with her Father along the Prairie cooking sourdough biscuits on the trail in a dutch oven while eating Poke Salet. I learned from those stories just as much as I learned how to farm from Pop.
Then the dogs would go to baying again interrupting my grandmother’s talk and she would tell me to hop in the jeep and we would ‘head the dogs off at the airstrip’ but mainly she’d wind up going deeper in the woods the other way to a mud hole and sure enough we’d get hung up on a log with water pouring in the floorboard and watch water moccasins slither by. She’d holler on the cb till somebody came and pulled us out. In the meantime she’d point out holly trees or hickory and talk about eating out of the woods if you are starving.
Ironically for all her meandering she always shot more deer than any of the mighty hunters. More hogs too.
What’s my danged point?
You gotta know all this stuff, both aspects, the tame and the wild-cause oftentimes the garden won’t grow as it should, and the game won’t cooperate with the bullet.
With this in mind I do more than just teach my kids gardening. I show them what weeds to avoid, and what weeds you can eat in an emergency, and how to prepare them. I teach them about hunting and they also help with the farm animals. I let them learn from my mistakes and I talk, tell the stories of my family because oftentimes that is the easiest way to impart knowledge, through stories.
How does this affect my approach to gardening?
This need to combine a controlled situation with uncontrolled? I plant perennials as well as annuals.Tree Collards, egyptian walking onions. Ever heard of those? You should research them. Perpetual collards and perpetual onions year round without having to constantly stress and replant? Absolutely. That can make the beans and rice a might healthier, my friend. Downright medicinal if you know what you are doing.
If you know how to butcher and pluck and cook a chicken that’s well and good but do you know how to skin a squirrel and make tasty squirrel and white rice? I am here to tell you Mr. Gentleman, it is a fine dish when you are hungry.
I may know some wild ways but I also plant my annuals and raise my ducks and chickens in pens. (except for when they get out)
I plant trees and know where to find wild berry bushes. I double tier my efforts as I have learned the necessity of this the hard way. I plant my garden beds and I also container garden in case one of them fails or performs poorly. I am here to tell you that you can do everything right in a garden and it can fail for seemingly no reason at all so be prepared.
I experiment. I plant a little earlier or a little later-I also constantly try to learn more about wild edibles. As much as I go on about how I was raised half wild-I don’t know it all and it’s good to double check information you take for granted as truth.
So yeah, hop on the tractor or grab the hoe and get to work and while the seeds are growing or the harvest is put by, head out to the back yard or the woods and get to know the wild things growing there. Practice, prepare, don’t just think you will be able to play catch up the day the lights go out or the storm hits…get comfortable with the tame and the wild right now.