Appalachia Gardening

Burning the Garden in Spring of the Year

Burning the garden in spring of the year in appalachia

Thoughts of burning off the garden brings back memories for me that are so sharp and real that I swear I can smell the smoke and hear the fire crackle as it catches and takes off across the field. I can feel the heat as my cousins and I run laughing pretending the fire is chasing us all the while being comforted by the sound of the grownups talking around the edges of the garden.

My Mamaw, Pap’s Mother, died when I was in 5th grade. In the years before her death, Pap and Granny had a garden at our house, but also went in with Mamaw, Papaw, and my uncles to make a much larger garden. The shared garden was usually a potato patch a cornfield or both.

In the spring of the year, they’d burn off the gardens in anticipation of planting time. It would be one of those warm March or April days when the mid-day sun teases you of summer to come, but the cool night air that comes rushing down through the holler once the sun sets makes you realize old man winter isn’t quite done yet.

Pap tells me when he was a boy, folks burned the woods surrounding their homes in addition to burning the garden in preparation for growing crops. I found this quote by Lillie Nix in the Foxfire 11 book:

“In the spring of the year, about March, the men of the community would go out and burn the woods. It didn’t kill the timber because the sap wasn’t up, but it caused the grass to come up tender, and the cattle could feed on that.”

Pap said they burned the fields and the woods to kill off insects and disease, to keep the undergrowth of the forests down, and to make the grass grow better for the animals.

Burning the garden beds aided in killing weed seeds and added potash to the soil. Pap especially remembers his family burning the tobacco, tomato, and cabbage beds. After the area was burned, the seeds would be sowed directly into the warm ground. A sheet or old piece of cloth would be tented to cover the whole bed. My recent guest post author, Granny Sue, and her husband burn their lettuce bed each year in the same manner.

The Deer Hunter and I don’t burn our gardens off in the spring. But sometimes I wish I could go back just one time too being the little girl with a ponytail standing at the edge of the big garden where I felt the warmth of the fire on a chilly spring evening and felt the safety and love of the circle of grown ups who taught me to be who I am today.

Tipper

 

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23 Comments

  • Reply
    Paulette Tonielli
    March 20, 2017 at 10:30 pm

    When I was a kid in the Midwest, we didn’t burn the garden, but we burned the fence rows and ditches. It got rid of the weeds. My mother and middle brother stayed inside with the house closed up because they were allergic to the smoke from the poison ivy. and would be covered with the rash if they went outside.

    • Reply
      Roger Brothers
      March 23, 2018 at 8:45 am

      Yes of course! I burn a large part of my forest land every year too.

      And yes the practice has become ingrained in us. We picked it up from our Native American neighbors and kin from the very earliest days in this land. They had been doing it every year for 10,000 years so it’s no wonder it is in us.

      One of my earliest memories is sitting on our front porch on a early spring evenin with my Daddy watching the fire creep down the side of the mountain. It was a beautiful and wonderous sight to a little 5 year old redneck boy.

      The story was told too, about the old lady in Blount county that was on her death bed. Her son came to her with tears in his eyes and said “Momma is thar any thang I kin do fer ye” The old lady opened her eyes and smiled at her loving son and said “ yes son, I jes want ta smell the woods aburnin one more time!”

  • Reply
    Rev. Rose Marie "RB" Redmond
    March 20, 2016 at 7:14 pm

    We don’t burn our garden fields off. Can’t remember that our parents or grandparents did either. It makes sense as it adds potash to the soil that way, but I guess we were always afraid it would take off and get away from us.
    Can’t say any of the farmers around us do either. I wonder if that’s because it’s generally too windy here in the NC sandhills.
    Prayers everyone has a safe blessed week ahead.
    God bless.
    RB
    <><

  • Reply
    Ethelene Dyer Jones
    March 19, 2016 at 10:37 pm

    I’m familiar with the “burning” procedure for gardens and patches. We followed that practice in Choestoe, Union County, GA.
    Tipper, you did an outstanding job writing today’s post! Literary, indeed; thank you!
    And, reading later at night than I usually do tonight, I especially enjoyed reading every entry, too!
    I’ve not been “burning” here in Milledgeville, but the pollen is heavier than I’ve ever seen it. I wish there were a way to “burn it off” so we wouldn’t get allergies from it!

  • Reply
    Cheryl Soehl
    March 19, 2016 at 9:07 pm

    I would be terrified of a fire getting out of control! Never saw a garden burned off, but I have seen folks’ yards that appeared to have been burned off. Guess for the same reasons — kills the weeds and lets the grass grow without interference.
    I have read that not burning off brush or hindering the natural fires that come in forested areas makes it more likely that fires will get completely out of control when they ignite. All seems to remind us that we are in a precarious relationship with the nature around us. Sometimes we feel we must interfere with it to live our lives, but find that the tinkering we do has consequences. Here in Columbia, SC we learned the hard way that damming up our creeks and watersheds will create difficulty for nature to handle the water when the 1,000 year rainfall comes. Lives were lost, homes were destroyed, and farmers will have to plow under their crops. We are all here on sufferance, folks.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    March 19, 2016 at 3:46 pm

    I have a little different take on Don and b.Ruth’s comments. It’s not criticism! It’s just what popped in my head. If it popped in my head it could have a brain aneurysm too. Who knows? Anyway!
    I used to stroll through old graveyards, back when I could stroll. In all those times I never met a person I didn’t like. Even those still above the ground have a reverent attitude. Those beneath the sod all remain quiet and calm but still had much to say, when I stopped and listened.
    Though their souls may have soared to heights unknown or sunk to the lowest hell, their dust will remain here at peace. Side by side they lay, friends and foes the same. No more harsh words spoken. No more evil deeds planned. No bullets or blows. No more pain caused nor suffered!
    Their markers may proclaim their worth or say nothing at all, but six feet down beneath the ground they are all the same. The earth has reclaimed them and they are again what they always were.
    When leaders gather to discuss their plans for peace, they need not meet in great marble halls. They should meet in some lonely graveyard where everyone is the same. Death is the Great Equalizer.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    March 19, 2016 at 2:02 pm

    When I was growing up, sometimes we burned off the garden and sometimes not. Daddy liked to plow in the fall and sow winter rye grass. He called it “green manure”. In the spring, before it went to seed, he would plow it under. When he didn’t get the rye sowed we would burn off the garden in the spring. He would plow a few furrows around the perimeter as a firebreak.
    I didn’t like to be around when the burning was going on because the wind always blew the smoke toward me. Have you ever heard “smoke follows beauty”? I am the antithesis of that.
    Actually I do like to burn off my little garden patch. I haven’t done so this year because I have had a long bout with the creeping crud. I am starting to get over it but I’m afraid I’d get a backset if I breath too much smoke.

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    March 19, 2016 at 1:43 pm

    Tipper,
    I can relate to everything you said. I imagine our families were quite alike here in the same county. But I just love reading your
    take on family life growing up.
    We burned off our big garden too. Every year kinfolks would come and help with the burning. Daddy would always start the fire at the upper end (nearest the woods) and let it burn backwards, so it didn’t catch the woods on fire…Ken

  • Reply
    Tamela
    March 19, 2016 at 1:19 pm

    – – so beautifully written!

  • Reply
    Barbara Gantt
    March 19, 2016 at 1:11 pm

    We dont burn every year, more like every other. My Daddy would burn the garden near the house. His big garden didnt have any water source near it so he didnt burn that one. I think he was afraid that it would get out of control . He wanted a hose near to use if necessary. Now, we have to get a burn permit and have someone near it. Fire has to out by sunset. Lots more officials to stick their nose in the process. I do think that burning helps our crops grow better. Barbara

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    March 19, 2016 at 12:56 pm

    Tipper,
    and Don…..I’m about to “split a gut”, (old sayin’) laughing so hard at your ash…..! ha
    I don’t think I’d want some of the ones a’restin’ in our graveyard in my garden either! Just too funny!
    Thanks Tipper,
    PS and oh by the way….checked the migration hummingbird map…I am rushing to make nectar for my feeders today…Hummingbirds have been spotted in Chattanooga 91.7 miles from here the way the (crow) hummingbird flies!…and it is supposed to turn cold so if they get here tomorrow or if one is hanging around on this sunny day…they will need the nourishment. Of course they can shut there body temperature down and hang upside down like a bat and reserve some energy but not for long periods…Just sayin’….

  • Reply
    George Pettie
    March 19, 2016 at 11:44 am

    We didn’t, but some did. People also burned the “paster fields.”

  • Reply
    PinnacleCreek
    March 19, 2016 at 11:01 am

    I had never seen this done, but an old burn barrel or brush pile is still commonly used to burn small limbs and garden debris. It seems such a great idea that would be good for a lettuce bed. So many regulations anymore that one would really have to check local and state laws. I had to call Miss Utility before having my garden plowed first time.
    After getting the go ahead from utility companies, I have turned a lackluster back yard into a paradise of fruit trees, rhubarb, ramps garlic, winter onions, and a good sized summer garden. There is also a canopy of limbs under a maple tree which makes a cool get-a-way on the hottest day.
    Tipper, I can relate to your missing those long ago memories of a circle of love and safety around you at the edge of a garden. Those days were very unique, and my own memories are filled with dropping potatoes in holes ad setting out a kazillion tomato plants. Some friends and family remember it as child labor and have vowed to never clutch a hoe in hand again.
    I am so thankful that I can see a small seed and see the miracle of life inside. Somehow it seems so much more beneficial to work in a garden instead of driving to a gym to waste valuable energy. I have a clutter of plants and lights in a south facing window, and I cannot wait. It will be so great to share the bounty with neighbors and kin.

  • Reply
    Don Casada
    March 19, 2016 at 10:23 am

    I mulch up leaves and then till them into the garden in the fall, so no burning off around here. But last fall I did load several truckloads of limbs and sticks picked up at the Bryson City Cemetery, brought them to the house and burned them in the garden.
    Guess I have ashes of forebears in the soil. I was selective about which trees the fallen branches came from; there are a few folks I’d just as soon keep out of the garden;-)

  • Reply
    Dee Parks
    March 19, 2016 at 9:52 am

    I don’t remember the burning of the garden but I know when my parents retired and moved back South my father would burn off his front yard in early spring. He had put in some type of hybrid grass and it was like a carpet. It certainly benefited from being burned off because it would come back the most beautiful green thick grass.

  • Reply
    Shirl
    March 19, 2016 at 9:40 am

    My brother-in-law is talking about burning the big garden where I had Zinnias last year. The flowers were beautiful but soon became crowded with Johnson Grass. He thinks the burning will kill out some of the weeds. I remember dad used a flammable liquid sprinkled around to start the fire. I may be wrong. Seems that would be bad for any new vegetation.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    March 19, 2016 at 8:23 am

    When I was a boy we burned off the garden a few times but generally there was not enough fuel to carry. I do recall it was a spring ritual and to smell the smoke was to be reminded that if we hadn’t started gardening we’d better.
    In my working life, we burned tomber sale units in preparation for planting. For many years, we’d sow wheat on the burned areas in the fall. The turkeys absolutely loved it and ate the wheat down until it looked like it had been mowed.
    I have thought I’d burn the leaves from the yard on my garden spot but it would be especially hard to get the leaves through the gates. As you mention, the ashes are fertilize. We tend to take fertilize for granted but it wasn’t so very long ago that people did not buy it and had to use natural sources such as manures and ashes. We burned coal for heat when I was growing up and the ashes were spread on the garden. I did the same with ashes from my wood stove.

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    March 19, 2016 at 7:50 am

    Tipper,
    Yes, we burned off the big garden years ago. Of course, we don’t burn off our raised beds…
    My Dad used to tell of burning off an area where the tobacco beds where made and then planting the seeds. Then they covered the whole long enclosed bed with a “tobacco cloth” like cheese-cloth but stronger. I remember seeing it folded up in the barn after the tobacco was set, evidently it was reused for several years. Sure wish I had a big swatch of that vintage cloth now to cover my lettuce, spinach…it helps keep it clean when there is a big downpour as well…
    There have been a few wild fires this week in E. Tennessee. I wonder how many were garden burn-offs that got out of hand. They have been warning folks to be sure and get a burning permit. In Tennessee a permit is required until May. One year right after we moved here, we were so excited to get a big garden started. Large brush was cleared and piled in the middle of the area and we had our rakes ready to pull back any stray embers that were creeping towards the woods. Back then we didn’t have a permit, my husband said we didn’t need it just to burn off a garden patch! ha
    Soon we heard a siren, it kept getting closer. Wonder what’s on fire, I thought to my self…Soon it was obvious, the grind of the truck let us know the fire truck was on its way (siren blasting) up our hilly driveway. Our neighbor two pastures over had called the volunteer fire department, thinking the woods were on fire. Not knowing we had bought the place and was starting a garden plot.
    The volunteers were glad the place wasn’t on fire, but aggravated that the said neighbor panicked before checking over the pasture, evidently he told us he just saw smoke and where there is smoke….in his mind the whole mountain was about to burn…ha
    Thanks Tipper,
    No rain here so far, but turning colder again by Monday…Red Bud winter with Dogwood and Whip-poor-will to go…..

  • Reply
    Mary Shipman
    March 19, 2016 at 7:38 am

    yes, Hubby and grandson did just that this week. We will be planting soon. Have some hard frost and possible snow this weekend. Of course no one told the blooming peaches and plums that was going to happen!

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    March 19, 2016 at 7:22 am

    While I have never heard of burning the garden (other than sugar cane) I remember the spring burning of the front yard.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    March 19, 2016 at 7:22 am

    While I have never heard of burning the garden (other than sugar cane) I remember the spring burning of the front yard.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    March 19, 2016 at 7:22 am

    While I have never heard of burning the garden (other than sugar cane) I remember the spring burning of the front yard.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    March 19, 2016 at 7:22 am

    While I have never heard of burning the garden (other than sugar cane) I remember the spring burning of the front yard.

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