Photo by Elizabeth Hunter.
A Garden for Three Generations
Jack Higgs, his garden and his grandchildren.
Jack and Reny Higgs call the narrow garden bed that runs along a low retaining wall just beyond their back door their "geriatric garden." But last summer, three generations of Higgses – the couple, and on visits home, their daughters Julia and Laura and Laura's children Sheldon and Molly – enjoyed the garden's bounty. The garden, located just outside the back door, is a 27-by-2.5-foot former flower bed.
Jack, a retired East Tennessee State University English professor, has loved to grow vegetables since growing up on a middle Tennessee farm. It wasn't long after the Higgs family moved to Johnson City in 1967 that Jack climbed the hill behind the house and created a terraced garden space to grow all manner of vegetables: corn, beets, beans, squash, tomatoes, onions and runner lima beans "that grew up into the trees" in the adjacent woodlands.
When back problems and surgeries ended his hill climbing, he turned his attention to the space along the retaining wall. He went at it with a shovel "because I think soil should be deep," working in bags of composted cow manure "and a little lime, especially where the tomatoes were going to go." Then he erected a fence to support his beans and drove stakes for the tomatoes. The beans went in – in a double row with the fence between them – around Mother's Day, and were producing by the end of June.
"My brother-in-law's mother always advised planting beans thick," he says, "and someone else told me not to plant them very deep – only about as deep as a bean seed is thick. You don't want to bury them."
Although the beans were half-runners – so called because the vines are shorter than pole beans but taller than bush varieties – Jack's beanstalks quickly overran the fencing. "I had to pull back the vines nearest the house so they wouldn't grow up onto the roof," he says.
The harvest continued into August, although the biggest crops came in early to mid-July. Reny, an accountant, weighed the pickings until the crop dwindled to a handful of beans every day or two. Between June 29 and Aug. 4, the Higgses harvested 18.3 pounds of beans, many of which they ate fresh and served to family and friends.
There was enough surplus, however, to can 10 pints and four quarts. The tomatoes, grown from transplants purchased at a local garden center, produced their first ripe fruit on July 8 and were going strong in mid- to late July when something – the Higgses suspect deer – discovered the crop and feasted on both ripe and unripe fruit. That pretty much took care of the rest of the tomato harvest.
The benefits of the Higgses' backdoor garden can't be measured purely in terms of food for the table and pantry. It's changed Reny's attitude toward growing vegetables. The garden up on the hill "all came in at once – and at the very hottest time of year," she explains.
Daughter Laura recalls "many years when the same debate took place: Mom would tell Dad not to have a garden that year because she didn't want to do all the canning. Then he would plant the garden and she would do the canning, [although] I've seen both of them snap beans."
Reducing the garden's size and relocating it "to where we pass it every time we go to the car" has allowed Jack and Reny to share the pleasure of watching it grow and tending it, Jack says.
Best of all, it has piqued the interest of the couple's daughters and grandchildren. When granddaughter Molly came to visit last summer, "she went out and picked beans and tomatoes like it was an Easter egg hunt on vines," Reny says. "It was fun for her."
Daughter Julia, now an accounting professor in Florida, was so inspired that she asked her mother to teach her the art of pressure canning. Before she returned to Florida, she bought some half-runner seed (not available in the Sunshine State, she says) and took them home with her. Around the pool in her back yard, she set out a few pots, added tomato cages for support, erected screening to keep iguanas ("the local rodent") at bay, and planted her first half-runner crop.
The gardening Higgses have big plans for 2009: early crops of cool-weather veggies before the beans and tomatoes go in, and perhaps a fall garden for Jack and Reny; for Julia, an "earth box" of the sort that patio gardeners use to provide her with more gardening space.
Blue Ridge Bean Favorites
Look in your average garden catalog and you'll find a bewildering array of bean varieties, but mountain gardeners I know swear by some old favorites: Blue Lake, Kentucky Wonder, Half-Runners and Cornfield beans. The Higgses grow half-runners because they consider the taste superior to other varieties. My neighbor Helen McKinney grows Cornfield beans – for exactly the same reason.
"They taste better and produce better than any other bean," she says. Called "Cornfield" because they were traditionally grown in rows of field corn, they'll also grow on poles or teepees. (Don't plant with sweet corn; the vines are too vigorous, will overwhelm the stalks and pull them down.) If you're growing on field corn, delay planting until you've hoed the corn the first time to give the corn a head start. Cornfield beans freeze and can well, and can be harvested at any stage: while beans are small in the pod for green beans; after beans are large for shuck beans or leather britches (dried beans).
Where do you get seed? Ask an old timer. "We got ours from Evelyn Thomas (a neighbor), probably 20 years ago, so we call them the Evelyn Bean," Helen says. She saves seed from the beans she has allowed to mature fully: shells them out, dries in a pan on a sunny windowsill, bags the dried beans and puts them in the freezer until planting time.
A Testimonial from the Third Generation
Nine-year-old Molly Higgs is not a big fan of vegetables, her mother Laura says. But she makes an exception for the produce from her grandparents' garden. She's a budding writer, and we asked her for her thoughts about the garden she helps with when she comes to east Tennessee on summer visits from her home in Slidell, La. Here's what she wrote:
"Papa Jack's vegetables are so good that deer came by to take a bite. What I like about Papa Jack's vegetables is they are so sweet. I like to pick beans because I get to see some beans that are ready to eat. I won't eat any different kinds of beans except for Papa Jack's.
"Those red tomatoes look better than fall leaves." —EH