• Posted by Thomas Rain Crowe on May 26th, 2008, 12:01 PM

    It’s late April here on the farm along the Tuckasegee River in the western North Carolina mountains, and the hummingbirds have arrived from South America. And right on cue, the morel mushrooms are springing from the ground in all their usual places—under the pine trees along the drive and under the old apple trees in what was once the orchard. Pokeweed is sprouting in abundance from what will be the new pasture, dozed over the winter for the horses. Already, a spring menu is taking shape; my appetite is being satiated with early spring meals and my mouth is watering with expectations of things to come.

    This early in the season, my focus is on foraging for spring delicacies and harvesting the early vegetables that were wintered over from last fall. On the exact day that the first hummingbird arrived, I found morels, and the season began with a meal of sautéed morels, garlic, and early poke greens. While I will continue harvesting poke for a few weeks yet, the morels will soon disappear and I’ll be doing different things with the wild greens. Like harvesting mature leeks and making a leek and poke omelet with guinea hen eggs from my neighbor, Mary Jo Cobb. Garnished with a couple of early-ripening strawberries from my berry patch, it doesn’t get much better than this—and you’re not likely to find anything like this, using these wild and organic ingredients, in any restaurant in America.

    Growing food and eating well is, and almost always has been, at the center of my life. I garden because I love the physical activity of working with the soil. I love getting my hands and feet (yes, I work in the garden barefoot if the sun’s not too hot) in the dirt. Dirty. I love the gratification that growing plants provides. Seeing the efforts of your energies, the fruits of your labor. And I like the idea and the practice of not only eating well, but eating healthily. Of not contributing anything foul or forsaken to body or bioregion. No pesticides, herbicides or chemicals. Nothing untoward that will affect health or habitat—for us or the wildlife that surrounds our farm. This, of course, flies in the face of the current corporate agrarian business mindset, where profit, not preservation, is the bottom line. And as the small farmer and the subsistence gardener become more museum pieces than staples on the American landscape, those of us who still grow our own food strive to keep the idea of the small family farm, and growing and buying locally, alive. In a very real sense, subsistence gardeners and family farmers are endangered species. Us endangered types hang out each Saturday in the summer at the local farmer’s market, which we started five years ago. You’ll find us there looking down-home and country and with our tailgates down on our pickup trucks selling the South’s finest.

    Here in the Smoky Mountains of the southern Appalachians, on the edge of a temperate rainforest ecosystem (the Cumberland Plateau) we get all kinds of weather. That being the case, growing food crops can be a tricky business. It’s really been a process of trial and error to figure out what you want to grow and what grows well. So, from year to year, I not only rotate my crops but change the nature and the species of the things I raise. Always trying to find a better balance. A better breed. A better taste. A better keeper. This kind of diversity and uncertainty is part of what I like about gardening. It’s always different. Unpredictable. Each year is its own drama, the results always a surprise.

    The early asparagus shoots are coming up in my rock wall bed behind the house, where the monarch butterflies and the bumble bees are feeding on this year’s brilliant bloom of pink, purple, and white phlox. The asparagus is great raw in the spring salads I’m making with lettuce and spinach from my raised bed out back, or slightly steamed to garnish my omelets, or just served up as an entrée, enhanced with a little butter and lime juice. The first daylilies have bloomed this week, to compliment the earlier iris bloom, and so I’ll be picking the young pre-bloom daylily buds in mid-May and bringing them indoors, rolling them in olive oil and cornmeal and stir-frying them—another wild-garden delicacy for our spring menu.

    Even as we reap the rewards of the wild things that grow in abundance around our Tuckasegee farm, we’re still savoring the foods that we put away last summer and fall. Since we primarily freeze what we store over the winter these days, rather than canning everything, our freezer is still about one-third full. There’s my special-recipe tomato and zucchini soups, the squash-and-onion casseroles, the sweet corn and green beans, as well as a few remaining loaves of zucchini bread that my wife, Nan, loves to make and put away for her daily late-afternoon winter tea breaks. So, we’re still eating well, as we have all winter, even as I plant seed-potatoes in this year’s newly tilled garden soil.

    For now, I’m going to take a break from writing to go out and check the wild strawberry patch I just discovered at the edge of the new pasture. The fruit should be setting and I may need to cover the area with netting to keep the birds and my other small wild friends in the neighborhood from getting there before I do. Then it’s back to the house in time for tea and some of Nan’s zucchini bread before heading out later to a gourmet Southern meal with our friends Tom and Karen Dill. The simple life is good here in the Southern mountains. Y’all come see us.

    Thomas Rain Crowe is a poet and translator whose work has been published in several languages. His 20 books include the award-winning Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods, translations of Hafiz, Guillevic, and Yvan Goll; and The End of Eden, a book of environmental activist essays. He has been an instrumental force behind such magazines as Beatitude, Katuah Journal, and the Asheville Poetry Review. He lives in the Smoky Mountains of western North Carolina.


  1. May 13th, 2011 at 2:57 pm

    Tom’s reflections not only stir my taste buds but my desire to get my garden planted — and do it bare foot this time.

    I’m a bean grower and find satisfaction in growing Scarlet Runners because they are so vigorous and their bright red blooms call in the hummingbirds to my small backyard garden. Each year I watch them grow, encouraging the sprouts to push on through to the other side, and they do, one seeming to compete with the other. I reward the fastest grower with a little song. Later this year, after the longs pods have dried on the vines, I’ll crack the mottled pink and black beans out of their dry pods and store them for a good bean dinner.

    Thanks for keeping me inspired, Tom!

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