By Frances Stebbins
Frances Stebbins has been covering events in western Virginia, especially those related to faith communities, since 1953.
There’s a verse that speaks of the nourishment of sun and rain and ends with the affirmation, “You are nearer to God’s heart in a garden, Than anywhere else on Earth.”
With the coming of warm weather each year, many folk begin thinking of gardens; in fact one of my Salem neighbors has already provided me with enough green beans for two meals and more for a frozen casserole. And through an arrangement with friend and writing colleague Meg Hibbert I will continue to benefit for several weeks from the fresh veggies sold each Saturday morning at the Salem Farmers’ Market where she offers her delicious homemade breads and pastries.
For many years, a small home garden was part of my summer activity. It started way back in the spring of 1954 when late husband Charlie and I planted our first one.
We had just bought our first home off Peters Creek Road in what was then Roanoke County. The house had been built three years previously; it was a pretty white frame cottage trimmed in green with a small front porch and a chimney with a fireplace. Outside, it had been nicely planted with shrubs, and in the large back yard, several young trees were established.
When one of Roanoke’s devastating hurricanes, Hazel, struck that fall, Charlie and I held those saplings in place as the strong winds that followed seven inches of rain in a few hours threatened to uproot them.
The one-street neighborhood in which our little home stood was just across a slight rise from the end of the regional airport’s runway. A few years after a growing family sent us seeking a larger home, our house was moved away because of a possible crash hazard. We never saw it again.
Other houses remained on the street, and quickly the open farms became subdivisions in what had been called Southview. In the “white flight” that was part of the unfortunate urban displacement of so many Black residents of the Gainsboro area of the inner city, several church congregations moved further west, and in time the narrow Peters Creek Road was widened to take higher-speed traffic.
Back to gardens. Charlie and I visited the Sears-Roebuck store, then on Church Avenue in downtown Roanoke. We bought garden tools and fertilizer there as well as a hand plow. We found a man who broke the ground for us, but then we had to soften heavy clods of soil. It was terribly hard on joints even for those in their twenties. A garden book told us of substances that could help, and we learned of manure, chemical fertilizer and the value of mulch.
Charlie remembered from his early days in southside Virginia–before he sadly lost his banker father in the Great Depression–that sweet peas were a favorite crop. We soon learned that any kind of pea needs March planting, for the heat of late spring rendered our vines dry and unproductive.
Other factors were discouraging. The soil in that area was heavy and did not drain well. As we noticed many years later at our Salem home, the water table is high so that a heavy rain tended to leave pools between the bean rows. Water stood in a neighbor’s back yard for days.
Our full basement, where Charlie used his limited carpentry skills to enclose one corner for an office, developed leakage one winter perhaps as the result of a crack that developed in the floor.
God, it seemed, was not in our garden, but we persisted in trying to grow one for the five summers we lived in Southview.
By 1959 with a daughter and son in a two-bedroom house, we had to move. Through a series of remarkable events, about which I’ve written, we found a unique “Roanoke ranch” in Hollins. On a steeply sloping semi-wooded lot, the frame home of two livable levels included a small space with enough sun to grow a few vegetables. For years we stuck it out—until critters from our woods demolished it one night.
When we downsized 30 years later to East Salem, garden space was again available, but now we skipped the corn and squash and mostly enjoyed our own tomatoes.
But the big interest of those later years was the gardening column Charlie was chosen to produce weekly for The Roanoke Times where we were both employed on semi-retired status. He found it fun to try new plants, for they offered ideas for his informal ramblings.
Today, with him gone since 2008 and me definitely a senior adult, I’m just thankful for generous neighbors.