Gardening Appalachian Style

Read about one vegetable gardener in Kentucky who tends to her crops the old fashioned way.

Berries in Hands

Mae Raney Sons began gardening as a child in the 1920s and continued these low tech gardening practices throughout her entire life.

Photo by Deirdre Skaggs

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Row by Row: Talking with Kentucky Gardeners (Swallow Press, 2015) by Katherine J. Black is an intimate look at home vegetable gardeners from across Kentucky. The gardener's profiled by Black are as diverse as heirloom tomatoes. This excerpt comes from the chapter "Can and Dry and Pickle" which gives a look into the life and garden of Mae Raney Sons.

If I suddenly had to live off the grid or if the world as I know it was coming to an end or if I entered a time machine that took me back to the 1920s, I would want to be with Mae Raney Sons. Born in 1915 to S. B. and Hannah Lee Raney, who owned several farms in Menifee County during the course of her girlhood, Mae remembers how to live well in the old-time way. She knows how to preserve and store food without refrigeration and how to maximize the length of the garden season by using nature’s resources. And although over the years she gained electricity, a freezer, and a rototiller, and what was once a means of survival is now a habit of being, she never lost her zeal for the hot, sweaty work of growing a garden and putting up food for the winter. Mae said, “I think it is healthy for the body to get out there and work and sweat. It makes you stronger. That’s why I am here at my age, exactly. And [because of] the good Lord, too. You can get out there and work, and you’re not only fixing something for yourself or for the neighbor but it’s healthy. It’s why I do it.”

Mae fell in the middle of nine children. Her father was a schoolteacher in local one-room schools. He began teaching in 1900, and as was customary at that time, he passed the state teacher’s examination that allowed one to teach with a high school diploma. In Mae’s own words, “My dad didn’t know anything about farming. My mother was the farmer.” In the early part of the twentieth century, eastern Kentucky farms, still oriented toward subsistence, could be quite diverse in crops and livestock. Mae’s memories illustrated how her mother’s farming practices fell squarely within this agricultural history.

“I can remember when we had wheat fields,” she said, and recalled ‘shocking it out.’” Her mother spread out a white sheet on which she beat the stalks to release the husk-enshrined kernels. One of Mae’s jobs was to be a “walker.” After putting on clean shoes, she and other children walked on the kernels to break the husks so they could be swept away. Mae’s mother would “fan the husks away, then stir, and fan again, stir it, and fan again until you had the wheat kernels there. They would take that to the mill and have it ground. Then you could sieve it.” According to Mae, the family grew enough wheat to provide most of their own flour needs.

When Mae remembers the wheat growing and her role in producing the household’s flour, she pictures, too, the split rail fence that enclosed the field to keep out livestock — theirs and the neighbors’. Mae’s family did not have just one milk cow; they had a herd. Besides moving them beyond their own subsistence, having such plenty allowed them to help neighbors in need. Mae remembered, “My dad took this cow to the neighbors’. They had a baby and no milk. I can remember him putting a halter on one of the cows and driving her over and turning [her] over to the neighbors so they could feed their children.”

Hogs were also a staple of the household’s agricultural economy. While the family raised yellow corn to feed livestock, especially in the winter, hogs on the Raney farm ran free on acres of fenced woods, living off mast. “Back then, there were beech nuts from big beech trees. They are scarce now,” Mae said. “There’s a blight that’s stopped them from [bearing] nuts. Well, the hogs would go and root the leaves back [on the forest floor] and gather them nuts and they would eat them nuts.” And when a sow had babies, Mae explained, she made her way out of the woods with the piglets to be fed corn, greatly improving her ability to nurse adequately. The health of the piglets and the sow meant not only that the Raneys would have plenty of pork for their large family but also that the excess could be sold, traded, or shared.

Even people who today do not raise vegetable gardens might be able to imagine how a family of eleven could eat well during the summer months. But at summer’s end with fall frosts and freezing winter months looming ahead, the imagination undoubtedly falters. Mae Sons, however, remembers exactly how they did it. “We grew so much stuff, but you didn’t have freezers back then. You’d can and dry and pickle,” she said. And bury. “We’d hole up our potatoes,” she explained. First they would select a well-drained spot and dig a deep hole there. Then they would line the hole with hay, place the potatoes in the sunken bed, and cover them with another layer of hay or straw topped by dirt. The final step was to create a roof over the covered pit by making a fodder shock of cornstalks. Its conical shape shed water away from the storage bin. “And then in the wintertime, if the ground’s not frozen,” Mae said, “you go out and kindly move the fodder around, and you can open up, go in there, and get you some potatoes, and then you put it all back like it was.” And if you were lucky, the potatoes would not rot over the winter, and you would have enough left by springtime to become the “seed potatoes” for the next year’s crop. Other root vegetables, such as turnips and rutabagas, were holed up successfully, too, on the Raney farms, though rutabagas were more likely used for cattle feed than for human consumption. Sweet potatoes, which are sensitive to moisture, were individually wrapped in paper, placed in wooden barrels, and kept in the house to avoid freezing. But it was the unusual way, at least to me, that they kept cabbage fresh into the dead of winter that captured my fullest attention. 

Cabbage tends to be a late spring or early summer crop in Kentucky. But Mae emphasized that her family strategized to extend the growing season, both in the early spring and into the fall. Having a “late cabbage” crop was part of this strategy. “Before time for it to freeze [and after the cabbage had] headed up, ready to eat,” Mae explained, “we’d take the turning plow and turn a row [make a furrow] and pull that cabbage up and put [its] head down into the furrow. Where its roots was, they’d take another furrow and that covered it. All of a sudden the cabbage head became the roots. If it was real cold and they froze, the dirt took the moisture out of the cabbage and [then the cabbage couldn’t rot]. If we wanted cabbage when the ground was thawed, we’d just go get it so we could have cooked cabbage [or] coleslaw [or] whatever we wanted.” Imagine experiencing the luxury of having a fresh vegetable in January that is not pickled or canned. I wonder if this is why Mae remembered this technique in such detail and wanted to teach me about it.

Fruit was also integral to the family’s diet. To start an orchard, first corn was cultivated on a hillside to rid the area of weeds and other sprouts. The following year fruit trees — apples, plums, peaches, pears, and apricots — replaced the cornfield. Mae once observed her mother looking at a photograph of an orchard in a Stark’s catalog and heard her say to her father, “We’d never grow anything that looked like that.” But later, after she developed their orchard, she said, “It was just like the picture.” And productive, too. Mae said that they gave away a lot of fruit because they had “extra” even after canning and drying.

Before sharing apples with their neighbors, though, the Raneys made “bleached apples,” so called because the slices stayed white instead of turning brown as a peeled apple does when it is exposed to air. “Bleached apples” were preserved using sulfur before they were dried, and it was the sulfur that prevented browning. Using wooden barrels like the ones for pickling, “you put [the apples] down in a layer in the barrel — a dishpan full of peeled and quartered apples,” Mae explained. “You push them [from the center] and line them up against the edge of the barrel. You take an old mug, like you drink coffee out of, and put [some] sulfur in it and then set it afire.” To start the fire, the Raneys attached a bolt to a wire, heated the bolt up in a fire, then lowered it into the barrel to ignite the sulfur. The barrel had to be covered quickly “because if you breathed it, sulfur would kill you.” They let the sulfur smoke for about three days and then added another layer of apples and another mug of sulfur, repeating this process as many times as the barrel would still accommodate apples.

Preserving some of summer’s abundance by drying apples and extending the growing season in the fall by planting a late crop of cabbage, as the Raneys did, was matched by starting food production as early as possible in the spring. Like many other mountain families in the first half of the twentieth century, they sowed early crops of lettuce, started their own sweet potato slips, and even planted early beans in hopes that the crop could be protected from spring frosts. A pit method was used for the lettuce and sweet potato slips or plants. For the lettuce, Mae described how they dug a sunken bed the size of a discarded window sash at hand, put well-rotted chicken manure in the hole, scattered the seed, and placed the window to span and rest on all sides of the perimeter of the pit, allowing light in while holding in warmth. It was a low-tech greenhouse. She said, “when other people would be a-sowing it, we’d be a-eating it.” Preparing a sweet potato bed for starting slips was similar, with a few twists since sweet potatoes are sensitive to cold and frost. Instead of adding well-rotted chicken manure, the sweet potato bed needed the heat that fresh manure creates. But because manure can also burn tender plants, it was covered with a good layer of rich soil (Mae said, “from a hillside where a log has rotted”), after which the slips are placed and covered by another layer of well-rotted dirt. Like the lettuce bed, the sweet potato “pit” is also covered with an old glass window. Planting early “bunch” beans, green beans that grow on bushy plants and do not climb, required less up-front work, but if frost was imminent, the plants had to be covered with burlap bags draped over tobacco sticks. Because green beans may be the single most cherished vegetable for Kentuckians, the Raneys’ gamble to produce an early harvest of beans was logical.

Over the course of Mae’s girlhood, her parents acquired several farms, one as large as five hundred acres. While S. B. taught at a nearby country school, the family lived on one of their farms until Hannah Raney got it “up and running.” Then that farm was turned over to tenants so that the Raney family could begin improvement on another one. This intent and economic advantage set Mae’s family apart from many others in her world. She relayed many stories (told as a “matter of fact,” not to boast) of her family sharing what they had with others who had less — seeds, fruit, a milk cow, plentiful beans and corn in the fall. “I am not saying we was well off,” Mae explained, “but there was a lot of poor people living around us. But we was never taught to look down on anybody. Unh-uh. [My parents,] they’d have skinned us alive.”

Mae has carried this egalitarian impulse with her into her nineties. And it still manifests itself in sharing the fruits of her garden. When she reminisced about the “new” vegetables that she has grown in recent decades — broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts — a story was sparked. Mae said that she does not care for Brussels sprouts, but she “had neighbors, over across the hill, two girls, neither of them never did marry,” who loved this vegetable. So, in typical fashion, Mae planted Brussels sprouts for them. She explained, “We were in school together. They didn’t have a place for a garden, so I’d always tell them, whatever they want, come over and help themselves. They loved them [Brussels sprouts]. We’d set and visit on the porch. Then they’d pick them. I enjoyed it so much because I’d raise a garden and tell them to come help themselves. And they enjoyed it so much.” She paused. “I feed the neighbors.”

It could be tempting to see Mae’s life as an agrarian romance, but that would be false. She told me point-blank that she dropped out of high school to get married, had three children, and then in midlife had a fourth. That is when her husband left her. And she was nearly fifty when the local physician, Dr. Graves, and Mr. Stevens, who directed the Frenchburg retirement home where Mae had been working as a nurse’s aide, enrolled her in an LPN program in Lexington. She received a scholarship funded by a program to train Appalachian nurses. In those days, nurses mostly trained in the hospital, interspersing classwork with direct observation and patient care. Her mother, Hannah, who was still alive in the 1960s, took care of Mae’s youngest daughter while Mae completed the degree in Lexington. With her training Mae continued to serve the people of Menifee County and made a good-enough living to raise her remaining daughter alone. She also built a house on her twenty acres, the one she lived in when I met her. And she continued to raise a big garden “to make ends meet,” as she said.

The garden not only is a source contributing to Mae’s physical health and economic well-being but also underpins other dimensions of her life. At least twice, Mae tested prevailing moral authority, with the outcome affecting crops. The first challenge involved her whole family. Usually the Raneys did not grow tobacco on the farm where they were living but did allow those renting one of their farms to do so. But Mae remembered one year that they did grow tobacco. It was a bumper
crop. The Raneys, who, following the religious and cultural norms of their community, never worked on Sunday, needed to finish cutting and housing the tobacco before Mr. Raney left home on Monday to begin his week of teaching. They filled the barn and even had to set up temporary scaffolding outside the barn on which to hang the overflow of tobacco. Mae said, “Do you know, what we cut that Sunday — there never was a leaf of it that stayed on the stalk. It got slimy and slick, and
instead of curing, slipped off that tobacco stalk. Every bit that we did on Sunday slipped off.” Years later Mae staged another test “just to see” whether planting by the signs was a credible system. She had learned how from her mother. “I was right at her heels [whenever she was planting],” Mae said. But once, as an adult, Mae planted her beans at the wrong time, according to the signs. “[They] didn’t set on until they were way up the [corn]stalk.”

A garden as a site where moral or spiritual actions are mediated and life’s lessons are cultivated is likely more rare today than in the world into which Mae was born. Certainly, gardening has skipped a generation in Mae’s family. None of her children keeps a garden. But an adult granddaughter does, and Mae has been her teacher. This granddaughter is poised to carry on and adapt Mae’s knowledge and practice. And all of us could benefit by infusing Mae’s habits into our own: Take a day of rest, follow the signs, can and dry and pickle. And though Mae would never say this, I will: Stay in Mae Raney Sons’s light.


For more from Row by Row, see "Garden Work through Generations."


Excerpt from Row by Row: Talking with Kentucky Gardeners by Katherine J. Black, published 2015 by Swallow Press, an imprint of the Ohio University Press. Photographs reprinted with the permission of Deirdre Skaggs/photographer.