Bo Caldwell’s tomato cages will probably stay put. They’re on a steep slope, but he’s using no-nonsense anchors – 48-inch steel bolts made for coal mining to secure roofs and hang conveyor belts deep inside mountains. The plants gush like fountains.
In Caldwell’s notch of southeastern Kentucky, coal mining and its artifacts are never far out of sight. And, tough as the terrain is, nor are gardens, which are the draw for me.
It’s the end of June. My guide for the day is Justin Brock, a native. He’s 28 and manages a horticulture support program, part of a regional network backed by a billionaire Los Angeles entrepreneur. Brock works out of an office at Red Bird Mission, a ministry with education and health programs that started in 1921 and is located off State Route 66 north of Pineville, Kentucky.
The road that leads anywhere here winds. At a clearing, Brock pulls the pick-up truck onto an old mine haul road that leads to a mountain horizon and wide blue sky. We get out.
“Leave your door open so you can run back,” he says. “This guy’s got a biting dog.” We step through a fence and walk a ways before a couple of canines rush up. “These two look friendly. If they weren’t, they’d already have bitten us.”
It’s quiet, the breeze rustling the autumn olive trees, a common variety used for reclaiming landscapes torn by mining. Before pulling out, we sample the pea-sized red berry, which offers a tiny burst of semi-sweet juice.
The garden plots tend to run big and productive, with the cultivators taking a practical approach to the crops that make up an important and treasured part of their food supply.
At Bo Caldwell’s place on Lonesome Mountain, a wobbly carousel of small dogs roves around the yard as we arrive. A former mine operations manager, the acute angle of the garden plane wasn’t the only difficulty he faced when he started his garden.
Even after he cleared thick woods to make an exposure, the soil was an inhospitable acidic clay. It required incorporating loads of sawdust, sand and manure, including what was dug from under the horse barn after the structure was moved.
Soil samples — cores taken by hammering a pipe into the ground in various places around the garden – have been sent to the agriculture extension office for testing. “I’ve put a lot of lime on it to neutralize it,” he said of the slope he’s been working on for a dozen years. “I use a lot of humus. It’s about where it needs to be now.”
Caldwell has a chicken house, too, where the occupants include an Easter hen that lays blue-green eggs. He’s trying a technique of digging a hole 12 to 14 inches deep, pouring in some of the avian extract, covering it with topsoil and then setting a tomato plant on top.
“It’s hot down in there,” he said of the strong fertilizer. “The plant will take what it wants. They’re looking good. They’re growing fast. But I’ll have to wait and see how they do.”
Caldwell, who was 2 years old when his father was crushed and killed in a mine by an errant coal car, keeps two honeybee hives. “The main thing I got them for was for pollination,” he said.
But there’s more to it, as suggested by the chair set nearby against a tree. “There is not much more enjoyable to me than sitting here with a cup of coffee and watching the bees,” says Caldwell, who also has served as a pastor. “I believe meditation is as important as prayer.”
Around the bend, Brock makes a stop at his childhood home, which is tucked into a ledge and where his older brother Derrick now tends an expansive garden. The woods outlining the garden harbor yellow locust trees that provide sources of sturdy and durable plant supports and fence posts.
The sun is high and it’s gotten hot as we stand on the dirt of the wide open garden, where a pole wears a headdress of sheet strips to tie plants . “The heat doesn’t bother me too bad,” Derrick says. “What bothers me are these dang gnats.”
As the brothers talk, another concern becomes apparent – a pop, sizzle and puff of smoke from the top of a tree not far down the slope. The canopy has grown into the power lines heading down the mountain. Derrick’s eyebrows rise. “I’m keeping an eye on it,” he says.
Brock is in his fourth year at his job, part of Grow Appalachia, a program designed as a way to improve well-being via horticulture. Based at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky, it started in 2009 with funding from John Paul DeJoria, who overcame being down and out to earn renown for his role developing the Paul Mitchell hair products and Patrón brand of tequila. DeJoria learned about Appalachia and its trials from friend and company executive Tommy Callahan, who grew up in Harlan County, Kentucky.
The road to Michael Caldwell’s garden is cramped, requiring precarious negotiations with oncoming vehicles in certain places. “It’s one lane, but it ain’t one way,” Brock says.
Caldwell, a retired carpenter, cultivates a shred of flat land. A berm of stones shores up a lower terrace and sheets of metal held in place by poles buttress the upper level.
“People laugh at me because I crowd my stuff in here,” he said. “I believe the narrower the better.” The cabbages are packed tight into a row of slanted figure eights. “Once they grow together like that the ground stays damp. You get more cabbage to the square foot.”
Succession planting of beans boosts yields. “If it’s an early spring and a late fall, I’ll get three crops, but usually two,” Caldwell said. “When stuff comes off you plant it back. I’ve come down here and picked beans to keep the frost from getting it.”
He grows the pink peanut bean, which has a white bloom, and a white peanut bean that has a purple bloom. “You’d think it would be the other way around,” Caldwell said. Local bean nomenclature can be elusive, as Brock and Caldwell trade names of the prized open-pollinated heirloom varieties that, unlike unstable hybrids, stay true if you save and replant the seed. Are they talking about “Junior Hall Fall Beans” or something else? I’m not sure. “Some call them turkey beans,” Caldwell said, “and some call them John Brock beans because that’s who they got them from.”
One tomato type in this garden started itself, the one with a small, egg-shaped yellow fruit. Caldwell speculates that it might have ridden in with a load of manure. “What kind of tomato it is I don’t know,” Caldwell said of the self-seeding volunteer. “They’re a really good tomato, not much seed and a lot of meat. I save the seed for back-up.”
Caldwell piles compost next to the garden and mulches with chestnut tree blooms, long cords that get raked up from the yard and curled around the base of the tomato plants. “It’ll rot up and make richness,” he said. “It’s good organic material.”
Brock has recruited a few young participants in his program. They haven’t stuck with it. He’s not sure why. Hope might rest in Caldwell’s grandson Brayden, who is 10. “He loves to work in the garden,” Caldwell said, as the young plants man shuffles a scuffle hoe against some weeds. But he’s got other interests, heading toward his grandfather with his fishing rod as we pulled away.
As part of Brock’s program, he provides garden tools and plant starts, along with encouragement for gardeners to sell their extra produce at a farmer’s market pavilion built at the Mission. The selling isn’t necessarily an easy translation amid an embedded barter culture.
“Most everyone here will not sell a dadgum thing,” he said. There are exceptions, ginseng being one. Brock said wild stands of the sought-after medicinal have become harder to find, with some foragers digging up the fleshy roots for commerce before the plants have a chance to fully mature and drop their red berries to propagate. Harvest and sale are restricted to certain times of the year as a conservation measure.
Mountain gardening, of course, predates Grow Appalachia.
At 97, Henry Ledford still has a garden, like his parents and their parents did before him. “Everything we ate we produced it on the farm,” said Ledford, who made it through the Great Depression, fought in Europe during World War II and spent 29 years as an electric power lineman.
“That was the lifestyle when I grew up,” he said.
At one time his family had a half-acre of burley tobacco, a good cash cop and easy to grow. “Put it out in May, by late August it was ready to cure in the barn,” he said. “At least it helped people pay their taxes,” he said, with a laugh.
Though he says he no longer can garden as he once did, there’s still a plot with full rows and a big square of early season strawberries, which produced well this spring. “I put several packages in the deep freezer,” he said. “I like them on cereal in the morning.”
In the 1960s, he put his horticulture knowledge to work helping manage a farm at the Mission, along with friend Dwayne Yost, 82, who also is still gardening about a dozen miles from Ledford.
When I go to see Yost and Bradley Estep, his neighbor and gardening partner, they are in a white sedan at the entrance to the driveway to their homes, waiting for me — patiently.
“We saw you pass by the first time,” Yost said. “We saw you pass by the second time.” The third time was the charm for spotting my destination.
They tend multiple gardens by the road and across Elk Creek next to their houses. Estep grew up in the area. Yost, who has served as a minister and started and ran the low-income Kentucky Mountain Housing Development program for many years, has been living in the area for nearly five decades. Estep, also looks after a few hogs and cattle, along with chickens. He used to be a heavy equipment mechanic, fixing the likes of monstrous D-9 and D-10 Caterpillar bulldozers. He still tinkers with cars.
“Did you hear that?” Yost says. “That was a plum that hit the roof.” The tree arcs over a small tin-roofed building. The tree isn’t doing well, hampered by what they speculate is disease bolstered by dampness held in the mountain gap. “In the early morning, it’s real wet in here,” Estep says.
Estep has had his own share of ailments to ward off, including a battle with meningitis when he was young. He’s endured open-heart surgery and wrestles with diabetes that is claiming sensation in his legs.
“A lot of people would give up,” says Yost, who still preaches every third Sunday.
Watermelons are among their roadside plantings. “Last year, we didn’t get a single one,” says Estep, who notes that they usually go to passersby.
Passersby range widely — some more closely than others. Brock recalled that he and some friends happened upon mountain lion tracks on a remote road. They followed the paw prints, with a tail-drag line showing, until they reached a steaming pile left by the cat, which he said was enough to prompt his team to turn around and go back the way they came. Ledford recently observed three bears crossing his field.
Bev Reitz, who gardens beside the Red Bird River, contends with a more common wildlife visitor. She has tried many methods to deter deer and keeps assorted repellents handy. “I’m a sucker for anything that comes along,” she says. “I’ve gotten hair from the beauty shop.”
Reitz, a native of the Buffalo area of New York, first came to the community as a kid in 1954 for a visit with an aunt. She came back to stay when she was 23, and made a career as a general education teacher at the Mission.
Between the cultivating and the defending, the garden enterprise entails no shortage of labor. “I’ve never balanced out the affordability of it,” she says. “That wouldn’t be any fun.”
© 2017 John A. Bray