Learning from history: Subsistence landscapes

Cheap yard art
Cheap yard art

It’s not often that a 20+ year old book gets a review.  It’s not even a new book to me, but the lazier pace of gardening in the winter provides a good time to catch up on reading or even re-reading important works.  One of the challenges with gardening in the South is that we have almost no garden gurus to turn to for inspiration.  There’s Felder Rushing… and that’s about it.  The agricultural extension service is another great resource, but their data and approach is mostly aimed at farming and petrochemical inputs.  Instead, gardening knowledge in the South travels from gardener to gardener, down the generations.

While new approaches and scientific research is always welcome, much of the published gardening “wisdom” this decade involves trendy methods and gimmicks coming from books of scant actual content and an agenda to push.  If you don’t have an elderly garden guru in your neighborhood willing to share her experience and knowledge, you won’t get far with glossy garden books written in California; stick with the Extension Service.  Richard Westmacott, a landscape architect from the UK, looks at the way rural subsistence gardeners arrange their outdoor spaces for food production, creative expression and relaxation in his 1992 book, “African-American Gardens and Yards in the Rural South.”  Having grown up in the South, I can vouch for the fact there is very little in these yards that is uniquely African-American, with the likely exception of the swept yard.  While motivation and meaning may be different, the yards of rural, poor white families are very similar, driving by the same set of economic and climatic conditions.

Very few authors have tackled the yards of the lower end of the economic scale.  Instead, authors glorify the landscapes and play spaces of the wealthy elite.  Publications like Southern Living glorify unsustainable, labor and resource intensive landscaping designs that are unreachable for those of modest means, and also don’t function on a practical level for those who wish to glean more from their land.  In this book, you won’t see water features and lush lawns, engineered stone walls, patio pavers and high tech outdoor kitchens.  What you will see are:

  • Yards as an extension of the living space, essential in a hot climate without air conditioning
  • Multi-purpose spaces
  • Re-use of discarded materials like old tires and bottles, for practical purposes and creative expression
  • Vegetable gardens, fruit & nut trees, poultry & hogs and the processing facilities for them, and outdoor cooking spaces (minus the $1800 gas grill)
  • Photographs and diagrams of functioning subsistence gardening spaces, and interviews with their garden owners

If you have ever considered living off the grid in the rural South, from choice, economic circumstance or zombie apocalypse, this book provides several blueprints for functioning spaces.  It’s not all good, however.  Westmacott’s attempt to phonetically reproduce Southern and African-American accents is distracting, and the quality of the photographs and drawings could be higher.  However, overall it provides much-needed insight into gardening effectively in our climate on a very low budget.