Using Laurel Branches to Shade Garden

Today’s guest post was written by Kathy Patterson.

Laurel branch with blooms

I grew up with the “laurel thicket” just up the road from the house. It was on the bank of Big Reed Island Creek. 

The spring we used for the house wasn’t very strong. Daddy put in another spring bowl to save more water but it always seemed that the spring would get pumped dry at anything. One load of clothes wait awhile for the spring to fill up; wash the car wait awhile  for the spring to fill up. We washed the dog in Big Reed Island Creek and only if we caught him in the water getting a drink of water or cooling off after a chase. 

One year the “river” got up and got in the spring. That was a major calamity until mommy went to town and got three gallons of clorox. Killed all the salamanders and algae but all of us felt the water was now safe to use. In May, after Mertus Webb had her plants set out in her garden, mommy would go to the Southern States and get 25 tomato plants. Nothing special, just red tomatoes. She would drag the water hose up the hill behind the house to the garden. I would have to go in the house and turn on the water hose in the pump room. Usually the hose would be squirting water all over everything. She would take a mattock and dig the hole for one tomato plant then I would fill up the hole with water and she would come back and fill in the dirt only after she put a small cup full of Southern States Fertilizer in the water. This would happen just before it got dark in the cool time of the afternoon or in later years when she got off from work at the mill.   

When we got them set out and the water hose turned off in the house, she would load my brother and me up in the car and off we would go to the laurel thicket beside the road and Big Reed Island Creek. The dog, whoever was alive at the time, would follow the car up the road. She would stop along the thicket to see if the leaves on the laurels (really rhododendrons) were thick enough for us to use for shade. When she found the right ones, she would pull the car off the gravel road and open up the  trunk.   

We would then start breaking laurels and putting them in the trunk of the car. The stem had to be about 6 inches long with at least four leaves on it. If we didn’t get that magic combination mommy would just tell us to do better next time and she would use it with another “bush.” 

When we got the trunk full she would go up the road and turn around in the wide place in the road. The poor old dog was always following the car. When we got back to the house all of us carried the precious bushes up the bank to the garden and put a bush on each side of the tomato plant—4 in total. 

By this time the dog had joined us in the garden and tried to help. Usually mommy would get mad at the poor thing and make him go to the house. Daddy always had male shepherd dogs (Border Collies) except for Trixie and that is another story. The dog was always dirty and he would go to the front porch and take his rightful place resting in front of the storm door. 

When we got done she would go to the barn and get a feed sack, put the leftover bushes in it. Load them back up in the trunk and take them to my Grandparents house so Grandma and Pauline, my aunt that never married, could use them. Every year she would tell us that Pauline didn’t have good bushes to shade her tomato plants with so she always brought her some. 

She never took the bushes off the tomatoes. They would grow up through the laurels. She never watered the plants again, saving the precious water for something else. She always put old newspapers or cardboard (pasteboard) under the tomatoes so they could lay on the ground when they bore tomatoes weed free. She said they did better. 

One year she used the woven rug out of the living room under her tomatoes. The rug kept down the weeds, the tomatoes did great, and the dog loved his new rest area. As soon as he saw her coming to the garden he would take off back to his beloved front porch. 

The “laurel thicket” is still here. My house is hooked up to another spring on the farm. I don’t use laurel on my tomato plants. My poodles, Blondie, Charles, Portuguese Water Dog, and Cleveland, still love to lay in the garden but we outsmarted them! I have my tomato plants in raised beds!  

Mertus Webb passed away many years ago. I have to use the USDA’s no frost date of May 15th to put out my plants.  

—Kathy Patterson

I hope you enjoyed Kathy’s post as much as I did. I’m fascinated by her mother’s way of planting tomatoes. I love hearing about old gardening methods and since I adore Laurel I am especially interested in how her mother used it for shading the plants.

On my recent trip to Kentucky I kept looking at the mountains near Prestonsburg and thinking something was odd about them. It was on the trip home that I finally realized what was missing: Laurel and Ivy.

The Deer Hunter gets aggravated at the dense thick patches of it that surround our house. I say I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Last night’s video: Appalachian Characters – Sonny Reighard.

You Might Also Like


  • Reply
    April 22, 2022 at 4:03 pm

    Got a chuckle about the dog skedaddled out of the garden when he saw Mommy coming!
    Enjoyed this article….learn something all the time from Blind Pig.

  • Reply
    Gloria Hayes
    April 22, 2022 at 12:24 pm

    I really enjoyed reading this story. I have never heard of shading tomato plants. It’s so interesting to find out the old ways folks had of doing things. Thanks for sharing!

  • Reply
    April 22, 2022 at 11:01 am

    I can commiserate on the water supply. We draw from a well that has been around since before my parents were born. We fill up a small bowl to wash dishes out of, run the water long enough to get wet, and then turn it on again to rinse, I fill up a watering can to water plants if the rain is scarce – it’s not ideal, but being able to live up here on the ridge is worth it.

  • Reply
    Darlene Harbour Boyd
    April 22, 2022 at 10:11 am

    Well I live near Reed Island Church in Meadows of Dan, VA so this was a great story. We use laurels also to shade tender items. I don’t know why I’m amazed to see internet content about places close to home, but I always am.

    • Reply
      Kevin Knight
      April 22, 2022 at 11:45 pm

      Hi Darlene, I used to live in Franklin county and I love Nancy”s Candy. Nothing like fresh candy. Usually got mine in Floyd. Thanx for sharing.

  • Reply
    harry adams
    April 22, 2022 at 9:51 am

    when we lived in SC we always shaded our new tomato plants from the brutal southern sun. Otherwise the sensitive plants would wilt to nothing. The little shade let the plants tolerate the sun. Very similar to going out in the sun with untanned skin. We used pine branches.
    Here in Ohio it isn’t needed, because when we plant, there isn’t enough sun to hurt the plants. We also repot the small plants when we get them and put them out in the shade when there is no danger of frost.
    Ever since I have been in Ohio, I have heard that Ohio is the place the sun comes to die. In fact today started foggy, the sun was out for an hour and the clouds have already formed and it isn’t 10:00.

  • Reply
    Sharon Cole
    April 22, 2022 at 9:37 am

    Enjoyed the story. Love to hear of the old ways! Smart Appalachian women. My mother-in-law always had a beautiful garden. People in the community nicknamed her “farmer.”. When we were first married, I would go over on Saturdays and help her. She really didn’t need my help, but I loved watching her and working beside her in the garden. It was so peaceful. She’s gone home now and I treasure these memories. God bless you and take care.

  • Reply
    Rita Speers
    April 22, 2022 at 9:12 am

    Loved this glimpse into another life at another time!

  • Reply
    April 22, 2022 at 9:07 am

    I never saw a Laurel or Ivy plant while growing up in the part of KY you visited. Sure wish I had some Laurel bushes to shade my tomatoes. They didn’t grow in my hometown and I have never seen one where I live now.
    Kathy’s story about the dogs resting in the garden reminds me of my sneaky German Shepherd. She loves a good nap in the cool, fresh plowed dirt, but will not come near the garden if I’m around.

  • Reply
    Larry Paul Eddings
    April 22, 2022 at 9:04 am

    Years ago, before my father passed away, we would plant a garden together. He liked to shade the newly planted tomato plants with branches from poplar or maple trees. I haven’t thought about that in years. After the young plants “took-ahold” he would remove the branches.

  • Reply
    donna sue
    April 22, 2022 at 8:42 am

    I loved reading Kathy’s story! She is a good writer. It makes me really happy when people write down their memories from when they were growing up. It preserves how life was for future generations. Thank you for this wonderful post!

    Donna. : )

  • Reply
    April 22, 2022 at 8:39 am

    My mother would also shade the plants we set out in the garden. We had to tote water in a bucket but we would put water in the hole too. I set a few tomato plants out last week and put water in the holes, later on I will put newspaper, straw, and a wire cage around them .I do this to help with holding down grass and also help hold moisture around them.
    I had to cover these plants up on two nights at the beginning of this week because of frost. Daddy would always say they will be a cold spell around Easter. He would have been right this year.

    I have always liked to joke about things. When my grandson was in 4 year old kindergarten, he told his teacher about helping me set out the plants and putting newspaper around them. I had told this to him and he told her what I had told him, he told her we did this so the plants would have something to read and wouldn’t get bored. He was serious when he told this to her. From then on she would tease me about telling this to him and about how much she had laughed about it.

  • Reply
    April 22, 2022 at 8:36 am

    That was a great story. I’ve never heard of tomatoes being shaded, much less using bushes around the garden. That was interesting! Plus, I’ve never heard rhododendron called Laurels. In WV the state flower is Rhododendron so that’s what I’ve always called it. This story did bring back memories of my mom seeing plants of any kind along an old country road that she liked and pulling over to go dig it up to bring home to plant. She always kept a garden shovel and old paper grocery bags in the trunk of her car for that very reason. Back then it wasn’t against the law to do things like that. Yep, that was a good story to bring back good memories. Thank you for sharing!

  • Reply
    Angelyn McLain
    April 22, 2022 at 8:35 am

    This was so interesting. I have never heard of shading tomatoes. It is fun to hear about old ways of gardening.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    April 22, 2022 at 8:31 am

    Sounds like Kathy’s Mom was practicing something called “hardening off” I think. When plants are tender seedlings, especially if grown indoors, they need introduced to the big outdoors slowly with early protection until they adjust. I expect you and the Deer Hunter have a procedure for doing that with your greenhouse seedlings.

    I made the mistake just yesterday of not doing that. I had sprouted two seedlings of a “cherry” hot pepper inside at a sunny window. Yesterday I out planted them and the poor little babies promptly wilted in the hot sun. I really knew better but my mind seems to have taken a vacation. Thankfully, they perked up overnight and look fine this morning. Hope they can toughen up fast.

    The nursery trade is not always good about hardening off their plants before they sell them or cautioning folks about sticking them out into the blazing sun right off. Guess a lot of folks have concluded ‘bad nursery’ or ‘bad plants’ when there was a bit more to it than that. Ah, the farming life; lots of tricks in that trade, never get done learning.

  • Reply
    April 22, 2022 at 8:20 am

    Our farm has laurel on the edges for privacy. Their blooms are beautiful too. The black snakes like to climb up into the laurels sometimes and wait for rodents or birds.

    Kathy’s mom had a handle on her tomatoes for sure. Unless they are mulched heavily they will dry out. Great story.

  • Reply
    Margie G
    April 22, 2022 at 8:01 am

    I did enjoy this post. I could picture all the hard work getting in 25 tomato plants and who’s ever thought of mountain laurel to hold up a tomato plant? I’ve seen cardboard thrown down and wondered what on earth… I think it’s pretty smart myself! Can you imagine a well that wasn’t quick to fill and having to make do? Now imagine cooking, cleaning, washing people and whatever else one at a time…. I think most of us would throw some stuff and yell in desperation. Anyhow, I am encouraged by strong, good people’s wills in tough conditions. There’s a plenty of us in these hills and wherever else hillbillies grace a place with their presence!

  • Reply
    Brad Byers
    April 22, 2022 at 7:52 am

    Wonderful story. I’m so glad these narratives are being collected.

  • Reply
    Connie Hough
    April 22, 2022 at 7:39 am

    I found this quite interesting. I never heard of shading the plants.
    I enjoy your blog so much I feel like I have had a trip home.

  • Reply
    GoodGriefLouise ( Bill )
    April 22, 2022 at 7:23 am

    Thanks for sharing Kathy’s story. I could visualize every part of it.

  • Reply
    April 22, 2022 at 7:22 am

    Tipper, in much of E.KY. you will find the laurel on the highest hills and mountains. Otherwise, it grows in the many deep gorges and cool hollers along with beech and spruce pine (hemlock). One of the gorges I use to fish, it was better to stay in the creek to walk because it was as you say a laurel hell on the banks running all the way to the beautiful and high sandstone cliffs.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    April 22, 2022 at 7:00 am

    I also love laurel it is so pretty. A very unique way to garden. I wonder if it roots itself

    • Reply
      Ron Stephens
      April 22, 2022 at 8:42 am

      Mountain laurel can be layered, that is staking a new shoot end to the ground but leaving it attached until it roots then cutting it loose. But it doesn’t do it but once in a great while, that is, not very reliably. I have not heard of rooting cuttings.

      I have tried twice to root Piedmont rhododendron using cuttings of new shoots. It didn’t work. I do not say it can’t, just didn’t for me. I would think “big laurel”; that is, Rhodoendron maxinum, would be much the same.

      • Reply
        Ed Ammons
        April 22, 2022 at 12:21 pm

        A former boss of mine rooted rhododendrons in pots. He took cuttings and put something he called “root tone” on the fresh cuts and stuck them into dampened potting soil. He put the pots out in the woods so that they would be shaded. He watered them whenever it didn’t rain enough to keep them from drying out and dying. In a couple of years he would sell them at his little roadside greenhouse. He also rooted azaleas the same way.
        I think he took his cuttings in early fall after the new growth had hardened off.

  • Reply
    April 22, 2022 at 6:31 am

    Love the story . At first I thought you were talking about Mt. Laurel. Here in Ct. it is against the law to damage or cut a Mt. Laurel because it is the State Flower. There are places around that is thick with it. Around the Christmas holidays many go into the forest and get it for decorations, hoping to avoid the rangers.

  • Reply
    Glenda G. Page
    April 22, 2022 at 6:25 am

    Like so many tales of bygone days and memories you tell of your family and friends, I am always spellbound by learning how it was ‘done’ back then. Cherish all of those memories, I certainly wished I had such ‘colorful’ memories as you and your family. God Bless

  • Leave a Reply