Heirloom seeds, garden knowledge, and folklore.

My garden buddyIt’s Saturday, I’m standing at my vendor’s table at the Fall Festival and Plant Sale at Metro Tech High School.


“Are you familiar with heirloom vegetables?” I ask a female attendee?

“Yes, those plants are . . . old, right?”

Most people who stop by to chat with me understand that heirlooms are living antiques. Many also have heard that varieties are becoming extinct on a massive scale. However, few attendees have a clue that, not only are heirloom plants threatened, but also are the methods for growing, caring for, and harvesting the crops . . . along with rich cultural traditions, beliefs, and folklore associated with these endangered gems.

As a local example, the ancestors of the Tohono O’odham dug catchments to hold rain water, while the Gila River Pima diverted river water through canals. Knowledge about building and using these systems has become as scarce as the flow in the dry Gila River bed.

These ancient ones had crops that lined the valley in lush abundance, but the plants were more than they seemed. Tribal faiths breathed life into Corn . . . a sentient being, enveloping her into a tradition of storytelling and song.

All cultures have beliefs
and traditions centered on
growing plants.

In the past, gardening information was passed down from parent to child through verbal stories and instruction.

“Your grandpa gave me these melon seeds,” a man might tell his child. “They’re part of the Jones family legacy. I’m giving them to you—protect them.”

Then the father would describe when and how to plant the melons, relate any family history surrounding them, and pass along a bit of folklore.

“The gardener’s shadow is magical,” he might say. “Every day, make sure your shadow falls upon each plant—or it will die!”

“How can my shadow be magical?”

“It means you’re watching the garden. If a plant isn’t getting enough water, you’ll give it some. If there are bad bugs, you’ll pick them off the leaves. This is how the magic works.”

And so the child grows up and passes along the precious legacy to the next generation of Jones’—the seeds, planting information, family stories, and folklore. It’s a package deal.

As a young child, myself, growing up in Arizona, I became interested in gardening. Unfortunately, there was no one to teach me as in the example above. My parents were raised in the city. My grandparents lived on a farm in Arkansas—not much help in the low desert. My story is not unlike that of many others who have felt the lack of a mentor.

A missing link separates the generations
that once knew how to garden
from those that no longer possess that information.

It was a long haul from then to now . . . so much information to learn on my own.

Today, I focus on the lady’s face who stands in front of my vendor’s table at Metro Tech. “Yes, the varieties of seeds are old,” I confirm. “Some are also nearly extinct.”

But how do I tell her about the loss of those things that she cannot hold in her hand? What will happen to the gardener’s shadow?

. . .

The loss of precious seeds, knowledge, and stories inspired me to write my book, Baskets for Butterflies. The setting is the month of May. My plants are dying. Who will teach me how to grow vegetables in the hot desert? These true stories come directly from my garden journal.

Then I weave the truth with a bit of fantasy, when my concrete garden gnome comes to life to help me. He represents the missing mentor link, showing me how to use heirloom seeds. A gnome, being a part of folklore itself, makes my friend perfect for passing along other stories, such as the gardener’s shadow. And Gnome makes me laugh, too. I just wish the feisty imp didn’t have such attitude!

The following excerpt regarding the history of tumbleweeds leads into a fantasy piece about the gardener’s shadow.

Baskets for Butterflies (Adult / Young Adult)  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .

Wisps of Nothing
Tumbleweeds grow behind my garden. Tall bushy plants rise over my head and provide refuge to all sorts of bugs.

Sometimes called ‘Russian Thistles,’ these plants are not native to Arizona. Following an accidental introduction to the United States in the 1800s, these guys acclimated well to the semi-arid conditions of the low desert.

The problem is that non-native species sometimes become invasive, displacing resident vegetation, perhaps even to the point of extinction. It’s not that the new guys on the block are ‘stronger’ or ‘fitter’ than their native neighbors. Often the recent additions arrive without bringing along previous natural enemies such as foraging animals, bugs, or diseases. Without the normal ‘checks and balances’ in the ecosystem, the new kids have an unfair advantage.

What plants would live on this patch of ground if the tumbleweeds had not bullied their way in?

These particular tumbleweeds have met their match! I’ve come outside clad in an armor of heavy clothing, covering every inch of my body.

Fortunately, these normally thorny fellows are still green and flexible. My gloved hands carefully search for the central stems and pull them out by the root.

Since there’s no weight or substance to them, tumbleweeds are like giant puffballs. Once they’re removed, a large patch of ground clears quickly.

Sometimes dry dirt covers the foliage and floats into my throat, in spite of my dust mask. I throw my safety glasses onto the table and pick up a glass of water to rinse my mouth, gargle, and spit on the ground. It’s a hot day, so I gulp the remaining liquid in two big swallows.

Green tumbleweeds, like these, are difficult to put into a heap. Dry ones easily shatter into compact pieces, which can be raked into a pile, but green ones do not crush. When I use my foot to smash or fold the weeds, my shoe goes through the empty spaces. Tumbleweeds are wisps of nothing.

This is why these guys really do get caught in the wind and fly across the highway like in old western movies. This is the plant’s method of disbursing seeds over large distances. Nature has devised such crafty ways for species to survive and propagate—and these newcomers have definitely figured it out.

I stack the skeletons on top of each other as much as possible. Once dry, they’ll be prone to tumbling. To keep them from escaping in the wind, I cram several together, interlocking the branches from one with the empty spaces of another.

Are they embracing one another?

SHADOWS________________________________________A tale of magic

I take a deep sigh, glad to be finished with the large thistles.

A voice affirms, “Garden be much work!” I look up to see Gnome’s back as he kneels on the ground near the corner. Canal daisies bob over his head while he works.

“Can I help you with the weeding, Gnome?”

“Thanks, but near done.” A small plant with a long taproot flies through the air and lands behind him. “No put that one in compost pile—have thorns.”

He mumbles something over his shoulder. So I walk around the tree to face him. “What did you say?”

“Gnome miss that one last time. Now it make seed.” He tries to look up at my face, but the eastern-rising sun blinds his eyes. Small pudgy fingers pop up to block out the harsh rays. My feet shuffle a bit to the left to put my body protectively between him and the bright orb.

As my shadow falls on the little man, he freezes and gasps. A hand, still held at his brow, slips slowly downward. Big eyes glare at me in silence.

“What’s wrong, Gnome!?”

He breathes in and out, slow and deep. Finally, he whispers, “Not wrong—is wonderful magic.”

My eyes narrow. “What is?”

“Donna shadow…be enchanted.”

I jump sideways, displacing my shadow and breaking the spell on Gnome. He jerks both hands upward against the brightness.

“What just happened?” I ask.

“Shadow of gardener…most powerful medicine in garden—make sick plant well.”

I move back to the other side of the tree where we can both focus. “I don’t understand.”

“Of all things that Gnome can teach Donna…how to plant and grow…to watch for bugs and plant sickness…water and fertilize…much to know…but ‘shadow’ be most important lesson of all. Gardener shadow be magic! Plants must have this each day, or will die!”

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