Gardening Heritage

Burning The Garden

Burning the garden in spring of the year in appalachia

Ever heard of burning the garden? A recent post by Granny Sue brought back a memory so sharp and real that I could smell the smoke, hear the fire crackle as it caught and took off across the field, feel the heat as my cousins and me ran laughing pretending it was chasing us all the while being comforted by the sound of the grownups talking knowing they wouldn’t let any of us get close enough to be burned-maybe close enough to teach us a lesson, but never close enough to be hurt badly.

My Mamaw, Pap’s Mother, died when I was in 5th grade. In the years before her death, my family would have a garden of our own at home, but also go in with Mamaw, Papaw, and my Uncles to make a larger one. Usually the one together would be a huge potato patch, a big corn field, or maybe both.

In the Spring of the year, they’d burn off the gardens. Seems it would be one of those warm March or April days when the heat of the day teases you of the summer to come, but as soon as the sun goes down you realize Old Man Winter isn’t completely ready to let go yet.

Pap tells me when he was a boy, folks would not only burn off their gardens each spring they would also burn off the woods surrounding their homes. I found this quote by Lillie Nix in my 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/disease, to keep the undergrowth of the forests down, and to make the grass grow better.

Burning the garden beds aided in killing disease as well as weed seeds and added potash to the soil. Pap especially remembers them burning the tobacco, tomato, and cabbage beds. After they were burned, the seeds would be sowed directly in the warm ground, and a sheet or old piece of cloth would be tented to cover the whole bed much the same as Granny Sue and Larry did their lettuce bed.

Pap said once the Forest Service was established, they stopped the annual burning of the woods. According to Pap, in the beginning they couldn’t keep up with everyone but as time went on they got better at finding the folks who were burning and each year it seemed there was less folks who grew a garden or kept animals anyway.

Pap believes the annual burning of the woods kept them purified, he thinks all the diseased timber we have now (pine beetles, wooly adelgid, oak decline, etc.) is a direct result of the ban put on burning. Does make you wonder, of course there are  far too many houses for burning the woods now. We don’t burn our gardens anymore I could say mine is too small and laid out in different parts of the yard, but truth is I guess we’re lazy and guilty of letting another part of our heritage fall by the way.

After getting my memory jolted by Granny Sue, I haven’t been able to shake the feeling of it. Makes me wish I could go back just one more time too being the little girl with a ponytail standing at the edge of the big garden, go back to feel the safety and love of the circle of grown ups who not only watched out for me but taught me the things I know—taught me who I am.

The Deer Hunter and I are following in Pap and Granny’s footsteps. We have our own garden at home and then a bigger one with Granny, Pap, and my brothers. Chitter and Chatter are making their own memories, working in Pap’s big garden along side their cousins just like I did once upon a time.

Do you burn your garden? Did your parents or grandparents?

Tipper

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33 Comments

  • Reply
    Texas Gardener
    March 29, 2017 at 3:08 pm

    I planted in the burn pile last year and had my largest yield. I was thinking about this and decided to Google -burn garden and this great article popped up. I’m just working with a 10×20 garden but it sure does make the process easy and must provide some great nutrients because my dirt looks great. So happy to see this post! It works. -texas gardener

  • Reply
    carynverell
    March 12, 2012 at 3:25 pm

    here in northeast mississippi we still burn our fields and gardens as well as the wooded areas on our property at least every two to three years..it all depends upon the weather, and whether there is a no-burn announcement throughout our county. when i was a kid growing up in indiana, illinois, and missouri i can remember burning being done every year. seems to me that burning the garden and the fields is a good thing and i wish that we could do it every year.

  • Reply
    B f
    January 17, 2012 at 8:03 am

    oh yes, how well do i remember the garden being burned off and how scared i was that it would burn everything up , but come early spring my d/h would pile up all the dead stuff around the garden and yard and start a BIG fire in the middle of the garden , now you cant do much with all the controls we have , besides heaven forbid a fire got to someones property , well we dont have the same country we did back when , do we?

  • Reply
    Jen
    March 31, 2010 at 6:31 pm

    I grew up in WV & I don’t remember anyone burning or talking about it from the past. I’m in Arkansas now & we’ve burned for the past 20 yrs. We burn our garden, flowerbeds & woods. The garden & beds get burned yearly & we burn sections of the woods every 3 yrs. We have to report that we’re dong a controlled burn & they give us permission if there’s no burn bans on because of dry weather.
    In southern AR they burn the rice fields in the winter & have always I guess. They’ve started doing more controlled burns here in the state forests. We also have native tall grass parries they burn to keep our modern invasives & help the natives grow strong.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    March 31, 2010 at 11:43 am

    We used to burn our front yard when I was a kid. I am a 5th generation Floridian, so the old ways were a part of my life.

  • Reply
    Chef E
    March 21, 2010 at 1:18 pm

    Now you touched on something I have no clue. I would have to ask cousin John Ed if his mother burned off the fields. My aunt did tell me that my granddad left the family farm to move his wife to the city and wanted nothing to do with the farm life. He wanted fame and fortune, but never found it through his building glider planes.
    I wrote something over at my http://tmi-chef.blogspot.com/ -In Remembrance about how my family came to Texas from the mountains.

  • Reply
    MissFiFi
    March 17, 2010 at 9:22 pm

    Our friends who have a farm in Pennsylvania burn the weeds down. Nothing more fun than taking a blow torch to the weeds!

  • Reply
    Becky
    March 17, 2010 at 3:37 pm

    No, I’ve not burned the garden. But this post makes me wonder if I should after all those bugs I had to deal with last year.
    I don’t remember my grandparents burning theirs either.

  • Reply
    Elizabeth Thomas
    March 16, 2010 at 10:05 pm

    I never knew anyone who had a garden while I was growing up. Here in south Louisiana they burn the sugar-cane fields after harvest, but I never knew why. When I lived in FL one year they burned a field under the pine trees to get rid of the pine straw, a controled burn was better than a forest fire.

  • Reply
    Glenda Beall
    March 16, 2010 at 9:48 pm

    Growing up on the farm in SW GA, my father and my brothers burned off the pastures, the woods and I imagine the garden, but I was not allowed to be around the fires when I was a kid. Later in life, I was scared to death that our house or something was going to burn that wasn’t supposed to burn.
    Once my house which was in the woods almost burned down because a neighbor had set a fire and gone off and left it. If I had not come right when I did, my house would have been gone. (It was a redwood house and would have gone up in a minute)

  • Reply
    Dee from Tennessee
    March 16, 2010 at 9:05 pm

    We didn’t, but our neighbors(cousin at that) did and caught the whole hillside on fire. Every neighbor rushed to help “fight the fire.” That was the last time! Many a year ago…

  • Reply
    Farmchick
    March 16, 2010 at 6:10 pm

    I have never heard my grandparents talk of burning their gardens here in Kentucky. I will have to ask my Mama about this when I see her.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    March 16, 2010 at 4:13 pm

    I didn’t grow up with a garden to burn but I remember the burning. Folks burned gardens they always burned in the fall. Leaves were never raked up and carried off like they are now they were raked up and burned along with all the other loose limbs and sticks.
    I didn’t realize that it helped with diseases and bugs but it certainly makes sense.
    Another of the old ways gone by the wayside.

  • Reply
    Lanny
    March 16, 2010 at 10:57 am

    We burn around the pond each year, it is actually hard to keep the fire moving. But it looks nice when the green grass isn’t all entwined with the tall brown stuff. In the fall I love the brown in its clusters and walls around the quiet pond. I even like it when the pond is frozen and the snow gives the tall brown women a lovely lace shawl. But now in the spring the brown begins to look out of place in my head.

  • Reply
    Fishing Guy
    March 16, 2010 at 10:18 am

    Tipper: I used to do the burning, I think I had a little kleptomania in my heart. I enjoyed it too much. That was until I caught the whole hillside on fire and thought I was going to burn down the neighbors house. That was the end of that game. I know the ash was very good in the garden.

  • Reply
    alady'slife
    March 15, 2010 at 4:15 pm

    my gramma used to burn her back yard. It saved on cutting the grass and it always grew back as green as ever.
    My Dad used to collect all the leaves in the fall He’d burn some and throw the ash back into the soil and the other leaves he would just turn in the soil.He always had a great garden and everything grew big.
    I can’t see why people need to recycle their clippings when they could use it in their yard and keep things where they belong.
    Good one.:)

  • Reply
    Shirley
    March 15, 2010 at 3:00 pm

    We always burned our garden before getting started in the Spring. I always thought it was to get rid of the stalks and things from the year before. But when I burn my yard, I don’t have to mow until late May. It really helps getting rid of the weeds.
    In our area, the farmers burn the wheat fields and some burn the rice fields after harvesting.

  • Reply
    George
    March 15, 2010 at 2:44 pm

    I remember my Dad burning off our garden when I was young. We lived in the country and had a fairly large garden which he would burn off each Spring. It might be only a coincidence, but we always had a bountiful crop.

  • Reply
    Stacey
    March 15, 2010 at 2:24 pm

    We plow our garden under each fall so when spring comes, there is really no growth. We do have the room to do it if we had growth, though. Something to think about for the coming year. I’m always looking for new ways to imporove the soil, maybe I’ll give it a try.
    Stacey

  • Reply
    Nancy M.
    March 15, 2010 at 1:51 pm

    They always burn the fields around here before planting time. This year my husband burned our garden. Not really sure why, but maybe Pap’s right? Maybe it will help.

  • Reply
    Jenny-Jenny
    March 15, 2010 at 1:39 pm

    I’m thinking that might really help control my weed problem but alas. One garden is next to a wooden fence and the other is too close to the house.

  • Reply
    betsyfromtennessee
    March 15, 2010 at 12:37 pm

    Hi Tip, I certainly do remember about people burning their gardens and areas surrounding their homes.. BUT–it’s certainly not done much anymore –especially in areas where burning is illegal.
    It’s against the law in our area—but there are some places in Cumberland County –where I have seen it done…. OR—at least, some people obviously are burning trash or something on their property.
    I agree that it was a great way to get rid of the ‘pests’…. I’m just sick these days when I look at the Pine trees and the Hemlocks in the Smokies. SO SAD–to see what those ‘pests’ have done.
    Hugs,
    Betsy

  • Reply
    Will Dixon
    March 15, 2010 at 12:21 pm

    The American Indians burned the fields and forests for centuries. They knew that it would keep the insects in check thereby making the environment healthier.
    The grass seed farmers here in Oregon would burn their fields every year to enrich the soil. The smoke would fill the Willamete valley and became a health hazzard. It’s now banned. Of course we now have more ground water polution from the increased fertilizer use required by the farmers.

  • Reply
    Rick
    March 15, 2010 at 11:41 am

    I actually have heard of that or actually have heard of the process but only in a bigger stage such as complete fields and food plots.

  • Reply
    B. Ruth
    March 15, 2010 at 11:28 am

    One more thing…LOL
    Did it really get rid of the “ticks” and “chiggers” like my grandparents thought?…I don’t think so…
    I think it just warmed them up and they woke up and bit you even worse after “garden” and “blackberries” started coming in….LOL

  • Reply
    Vicki Lane
    March 15, 2010 at 10:53 am

    I remember being told about folks burning off their baccer beds. A singing school teacher named Lydy Brown told me about a woman whose long skits caught fire and burned her so badly that she died a little later. He said that he learned to sing while he was in the house where folks were keeping vigil over the dying woman and an old sing school teacher was singing.

  • Reply
    Pat in east TN
    March 15, 2010 at 9:51 am

    I remember the burning of the gardens, ditches and somewhat the woods, and you will see a little of that over this way anymore, but as a rule folks seem to clean their gardens up and ‘turn them under’ in the fall. I guess weed-eaters have taken over the other jobs?

  • Reply
    Sandra
    March 15, 2010 at 9:12 am

    Yes, daddy burned the garden and he also burned the dead winter grass of our lawn around our house, I did that a couple of times, but the neigbors were not happy and also the black soot tracked in the house for a while until the grass grew back. we can’t do that now due to over population. we also used to burn all our trash, anything that would burn, we had a pit to burn it in. but that was way back when the US was not elbow to elbow in our living space. it would be a big problem in our neighborhoods now. but i love the memories of poking that fire to make it burn higher and higher.

  • Reply
    susie
    March 15, 2010 at 9:10 am

    I have never burned a garden and I don’t remember my grandparents doing it either. I have heard of people burning their lawns tho.

  • Reply
    barbara gantt
    March 15, 2010 at 9:05 am

    We do burn our garden, not every year, maybe every other. My husband will throw all the brush and broken limbs from winter on the garden and then burn it all. Barbara

  • Reply
    B. Ruth
    March 15, 2010 at 8:29 am

    Yes, my dh burns the garden area now since we have mostly raised beds…we have so much sage around the raised beds….His Father burned the garden and my Dad was raised on a tobacco farm….and they burned the beds…
    In fact, dh called for a “burn permit” last week…but it was too windy so he didn’t burn…It always scares me when he burns since we have such thick woods around our property and now we have so many dead and fallen pines in there…

  • Reply
    My Carolina Kitchen
    March 15, 2010 at 8:18 am

    I’m familiar with burning gardens when I grew up in Arkansas, but we lived in town and of course didn’t burn. I agree that it gets rid of things that are now a problem, but also you’ve brought up a good point. Too many houses make burning impossible. Also people were more careful and protective of their neighbor’s property than they are today. Too bad how the times have changed.
    Sam

  • Reply
    Wanda in Northwest Alabama
    March 15, 2010 at 8:07 am

    Tipper,
    We always burned the garden, getting rid of the sage grass and other weeds. My mom was not a patient woman, and she sometimes set the fire when it was too windy. More than once, we not only burned the garden, but the fields surrounding it! 🙂 Made for a great adventure for us kids.
    I hadn’t thought about this in years; thanks for reminding me. Wanda in chilly North Alabama

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