Off the Beaten Path: Harvest in the Hills.

I was out on the stoop the other day ago, looking at my couple of pitiful potted cherry tomato plants, when I had a happy thought: I realized just how much joy gardens must be bringing to people from all over the state as this harvest season approaches. In these troubled and turbulent times, I think probably nothing does a better job at lifting the spirits and soothing the mind than to go outside and let your gaze wander over a little plot of land filled with verdant vegetation that you yourself planted.

West Virginia might be a very mountainous state, but most Mountaineers manage to find a spot flat enough to scratch out a small garden plot, if they’re so inclined.

West Virginia might be a very mountainous state, but most Mountaineers manage to find a spot flat enough to scratch out a small garden plot, if they’re so inclined. Of course, in the past it wasn’t so much a matter of inclination as it was survival. My dad, James Pyne, has told me many times that we simply couldn’t have survived without the huge garden he grew, and with nine mouths to feed, not including his and my mom’s, I very well expect that he was right.

There was just something about the feel of the dirt that came off the potatoes and onto my hands that gave me the willies.

My dad’s garden, which actually consisted of two separate plots, probably totaled up to about an acre. And in that one acre we grew an enormous quantity of food – a veritable cornucopia of delectable delights. The largest part of the garden was taken up by the potato patch. Now, one of the worst jobs of the whole harvesting process to me wasn’t really all that difficult to do. No, what bothered me was the sensation of doing it – picking up the potatoes and putting them in a burlap sack. There was just something about the feel of the dirt that came off the potatoes and onto my hands that gave me the willies. It was similar to the feeling you get when someone scratches their fingernails across a schoolhouse blackboard. YIKES!

Besides potatoes we grew tomatoes, peppers, peas, onions, cabbage, lettuce, corn, squash, carrots, radishes, beets, green beans, and one time even some weird alien vegetable called kohlrabi (we butchered the pronunciation on that one let me tell you). Of course, after growing all those vegetables you had to have a way to store them up for winter, which meant my mom, Violet Pyne, had to spend hour after hour, day after day sweating it out in our sweltering kitchen (no A/C!) canning all that stuff up.

…using an old tin can, in which huge, serrated teeth had been carved, to chop up the cabbage to make sauerkraut

Oh, we all had to help her some, but I think my sisters probably bore the brunt of it.  Not that I minded certain things. In fact, thinking about it brings back many fond memories. Like using an old tin can, in which huge, serrated teeth had been carved, to chop up the cabbage to make sauerkraut. The cabbage always had a peculiar smell to it at that point that reminded me of garden hose water.

In the spring, the crabapple blossoms gave off the most heavenly bouquet that I have ever smelled in my entire life.

I always loved watching the tomatoes scalding in boiling hot water in the kitchen sink, their peelings finally giving way and slipping off with hardly any effort at all. Then there was chopping the corn off the cobs and snapping and stringing the green beans. I remember it sometimes took a couple of days before my fingers quit hurting after a long bean-snapping session.

We also had raspberry and blackberry patches and a whole orchard full of different kinds of apples and pears, so my mom made tons of jellies and jams as well. In the spring, the crabapple blossoms gave off the most heavenly bouquet that I have ever smelled in my entire life. The crabapples themselves produced a delicious jelly and made for a very colorful and shiny table centerpiece when polished with a cloth. Those trees, along with most of the orchard, are long since gone. Wow, I wish I could smell that scent again.

Our basement shelves were always brimming over with canned goods of all sorts, and the corner was always filled with sack after sack of potatoes.

I’m not exactly sure how much food my mom stored away, but it was a lot. I do know she canned well over 100 quarts of green beans every year. Our basement shelves were always brimming over with canned goods of all sorts, and the corner was always filled with sack after sack of potatoes. I remember very well being sent down there to grab a jar of whatever was required for that evening’s supper. It was always damp and creepy, dimly lit with a single bulb, and had that peculiar basement odor.

Yeah, I guess it was kind of rough for people back then, but the reward was all that delicious, garden-fresh produce! I think many people today don’t know what they’re missing. I sure do though. Most of my vegetables throughout the year now come from cans. They’re pretty good and they sure are convenient, but there’s no mistaking that fresh from the garden taste when you can get it.

If you haven’t tried gardening yet and you have even a small piece of suitable land, then I urge you to give it a try next year. You’ll be surprised at how much happiness it can bring you, and you might even create some wonderful memories in the process.

Until next time, watch where you tread, and maybe, just maybe, you might sometimes want to go OFF THE BEATEN PATH.

– Barry Pyne, HashtagWV #135. September 2021. Contact the author at offthebeatenpathman@gmail.com

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