Published on 06/05/03

Father's Day lessons learned in the garden

By Wayne McLaurin
University of Georgia

As Father's Day approaches, I remember with fond affection my own father. He wasn't a big man, but was very big in my eyes. Not educated in a modern sense, he never failed to have time to answer my thousand questions. He was never too busy to talk to us children.

Many of the conversations came in the garden, started by a question.

"What plant is that?"

"Is this bug good or bad?"

"Is that ready to eat?"

"Why are some peppers hot?"

"What causes tomatoes to turn red?"

"How big can a watermelon grow?"

"Can we quit now?"

Railroad garden

We always had a big vegetable garden on land we used with permission from the railroad.

At 10:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. a passenger train passed by going to foreign places as far as we were concerned -- northbound to Washington, D.C., and New York and southbound to New Orleans.

We knew we weren't going there, so we just waved at the people on the train and showed them Southern hospitality while we went about our chores.

Everyone had chores in the garden. One of my least favorite was to pick squash and okra -- both sticky. I was the fifth child, and now I think this chore was passed down as the older ones got more power and control.

Okra lessons

Little did I know then that I'd wind up getting a Ph.D. in horticulture at Louisiana State University and do all of my research on okra. I reckon that garden got me geared up for life.

Daddy never was into "gadgets." We didn't have a tractor or even a mule, just hand tools and a pushplow.

Having come through World War I and the Depression and having six children to support, Daddy was somewhat tight-fisted. Why have one of those gadgets when Mr. John Scott would come over and plow the garden with his mule Hugh?

Besides the chores, we did everything else that was asked. Daddy always asked. He never told us what to do. Of course, we never refused to do what he asked.

That one time...

Except there was that one time when my older brother V.L. decided if he stuck his foot with a pitchfork he could get out of work -- we always worked barefooted. Instead, he stuck it through his toe.

Daddy took him back to the house, poured iodine on the puncture, bandaged it and made him wear shoes back to the garden. All of us learned a lesson: don't try it, because it won't get you out of garden work.

We didn't have any of the supplies modern gardeners can't seem to do without. We knocked pests off the plants into a coffee can with a little kerosene in the bottom. After we were through, we strained the bugs out and saved the kerosene for the next onslaught of insects.

Specialized hoes

Weed control was never a problem. We just used hoes and kept them sharpened. As the hoe heads were sharpened, of course, they became smaller.

That was never a problem. We used the small-headed hoe to get close around the plant. With this implement I could get right next to the stem and cut the grass.

Woe be unto the kid, though, who cut a plant. We'd get "Son, why didn't you just pull the grass from around the plant with your hands?" in the kindest of words.

The newer, wider hoes were for the middles. And we never chopped. We "drew" the hoe along the top of the soil without disturbing the soil, letting the sharp edge do the work. Chopping brought up weed seeds, the exact thing we were trying to control.

Lots of lessons

We not only planted and raised each vegetable but picked it, shelled it, helped cook it and, of course, ate everything. The plate was never passed twice, and no one wanted to be at the end.

Yet there was always enough to eat and share with others less fortunate (or as we kids so selfishly saw it, too lazy to have a garden).

As I look back, gardening with my father was one of the best learning experiences ever. All of the formal education I've gone through has only refined and enhanced what I learned in my father's garden.

(Wayne McLaurin is a horticulturist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

Wayne McLaurin is a professor emeritus of horticulture with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.