It's harvest time at Onzie's (and Gary's and Richard's and Billy's)

J. H. Osborne • Jul 28, 2019 at 8:00 PM

“Raising a garden.” That’s how we say it my family. At least most of the time. And we’re not talking about raising its base up in a man-made trough — the increasingly popular practice “raised bed” gardening.

We might say “gardening” every now and then. But mostly we ask, “Did you raise a garden this year? How’s it doing?” Or “Has he been working in his garden today? Are his beans coming in?”

As my mother’s family moved to the Kingsport area from rural Lee County, Va., and Hancock County, Tenn., most kept raising a garden. When my parents first moved to what is now East Sullivan Court, overlooking Lincoln Street, there wasn’t much of a railroad yard across the street. Instead of a sharp drop-off, the land sloped somewhat gently down to the few railroad tracks that ran along Lincoln back then. I’m talking 1955. My parents and other neighbors, with permission from the railroad, raised gardens on that sloping land. Until many more tracks were laid and the slope became an embankment.

My parents also raised gardens in our yard, which is a double lot and relatively deep compared to some adjoining parcels. My paternal grandparents moved to a slow-paced cul-de-sac the year after I was born and bought all the remaining lots so they could have woods and space to raise a garden (rather than four more neighbors). My grandmother Maude raised herself a garden up until a year before she died just shy of her 95th birthday. In later years, that garden was in large pots or in the ground just off the front “stoop.” But it counted.

I used to raise a pretty good garden. But I haven’t in years. Mom raised gardens the past three or four years. Not so much this year. With all the heat, I’m sort of glad. We’re both thankful she has nieces and nephews who still raise gardens in a serious way and share with us their hard-won bounty.

Several of my cousins live in the Sullivan Gardens area (Kathy and Billy Walton and their daughter Missy; Richard and Rita Wallen; and Gary and Margaret Wallen). They all raise gardens. Big gardens. They have running feuds with deer, chipmunks, bunnies, groundhogs — and a bear or two have been spotted ambling nearby. I haven’t seen their gardens this year.

But I’ve seen the multiple gardens my cousin Onzie Wallen is raising this year on his near-acre yard near Fort Patrick Henry Lake. Onzie’s gardens are just plain pretty. Perfectly kept. By him and him alone. That’s the way he likes it. 

“I don’t like nobody in my garden.”

If I had his expertise, I wouldn’t either. I’m so glad Mom and I visited Onzie a couple of weeks ago to get some fresh-dug red potatoes. I used them in the potato salad recipe I shared a few columns back. Onzie has multiple garden plots, with lots of tomatoes, beans, peppers and potatoes. So far this season, with help from his friend Yvonne Good, Onzie has canned 100 quarts of beans.

“I want to tend my garden by myself,” Onzie said. “But I am very happy she takes over after I pick them.” 

Onzie will be 80 soon. Mom is turning 86 next month. So even though she’s his aunt, they played together as children. As I’ve written before, Mom is the last left of her nine siblings (one died in infancy). Onzie is the surviving son of Mom’s sister Ova and her husband, Lon. Ova was second oldest of Mom’s siblings. She’d already married and left home when Mom “came along.” But Mom remembers Aunt Ova and Onzie coming to visit regularly. After moving to Kingsport as a newlywed, Mom and Ova’s relationship deepened (they only lived four streets apart) and Ova and Lon were much like an extra set of grandparents to me. Aunt Ova (we pronounce it as if it were O.V.). taught me how to make caramel icing, over the telephone, when I was about 10 and Mom was on a rare trip away from home, chaperoning the Devilish Debs or SAPS on a trip to the beach (if Mom didn’t go, sister didn’t go). Lon taught me patience. Ova loved to raise a garden. Lon did not.

They were both extremely proud of Onzie. I think they still are. And they’d like the gardens he’s raised.

J.H. Osborne covers Sullivan County government for the Times News. Email him at [email protected]

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