Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Swept Yard

The Southern Heirloom Garden (William C. Welch and Greg Grant, 1995, Taylor Publishing) is a book I have come to treasure. One of the many reasons this book is on my list to donate to the library is it that crosses lines of both ornament and plain landscape fact: As one would expect, it details the contributions of European colonials and native American planting. But what surprised me is the respectful, delicate treatment of the southern swept yard as an important African-American contribution to the heirloom garden of today.

It struck me as an unpleasant thing at first: A yard made exclusively of hard pack dirt. Hardly a garden. But I read on, mesmerized by old photos.

I was taken in by this statement, which I thought shameful of garden historians if it were true (though I have no evidence of this, and will reserve judgement): "It is only quite recently that vernacular gardens became a subject for scholarly study and certainly not the vernacular gardens of African-Americans, which seem to have been regarded with disdain by many garden designers until quite recently. In fact, much of the recent interest in African-American yards has been inspired by folk-artists studying yard art than by gardeners studying gardens."

Certainly, if that is true, then this post will not make gardeners any more likely to dwell on this subject: Since the fact that I am writing, as the book was, but seemed not to acknowledge, about dirt and only dirt, is not lost on me. Is it a garden? Is it an heirloom? We could stay up all night with this, but I already have, and I ran out of this wine, so let's move on.

The book makes an argument photographically for the swept yard as an heirloom from yard photos collected from nearly a century of African-American yards both in Africa and in the United States.

The photos below are not in order, I wonder if you can place them by year?
They include:
- a village home in a settlement in Ghana in 1901
- a home in Southern Pines, North Carolina, 1914
- a home in Georgia,1991
- a home in Georgia, 1995.

The swept yard of a home originated in Africa. A family would do much of the domestic work in the yard: Cooking over an open flame and washing over three buckets (one of which had to boiled), and placing cleaned clothes on the line to dry, among other tasks. When the work was finished, the yard was swept and the appearance always kept neat and very tidy. Errant weeds were collected and thrown in the fire. At the end of the day, the yard was left a perfect outdoor workroom.

These pictures of the swept yard, as a group, moved me, but not simply because the yards are dirt and very neat.

What do they say to you?

Photos in order of appearance:
Georgia, 1991
Ghana, 1901
Southern Pines, NC 1914
Georgia, 1995


Anonymous said...

Wow, I love this post. The photos are amazing and I totally guessed wrong!

Christi said...

When I was growing up {I'm 35} both my grandparents and our next-door neighbors had a swept (front) yard.

We're not African-American; I know my grandparents just didn't see the practicality of planting grass. I'm not sure about the neighbor. And actually, I think she raked hers instead of sweeping. But it always looked very neat.

Interesting post!

Jo said...

What an enlighting travel in history. I was not aware of this house keeping practice. I too fail the quiz in sorting the photos.


sheilac706 said...

I grew up and currently live in Georgia. My grandmother talks of sweeping her yard as a child. I have been told that the swept yard was a practicality of not having to keep the grass, but also, made it easier to spot snakes. I recently discovered your blog and am loving it. I also have a 3 year old and an 8 month old. You are quite the inspiration! Keep it up.

bluehydrangea said...

I loved seeing these photos and having spent almost my entire life in the south they look familiar to me but also sad. A little green goes a long way...

little augury said...

Absolutely fascinating- I must get this one. I did get the pics right- from the NC sandhills onward.G

...Mrs. Southern Bride... said...

Love the photos. It's like a history lesson in pictures, instead of words. :)

Blushing hostess said...


I grew up in a place where grass was easier to grow that the south, for sure. Still my grandparents back yard was kept hard pack in New York (I am Christi's contemporary in age), I do not know the reason; grass in the front. My parents have always had magnificent lawns: cut on a high blade and the recipient of great care.

I had never truly seem hard pack yards even after all this time in the South. At first I thought it was practical. Then, as I begna to understand the photos, like Blue Hydrangea, it was saddening to me: How far we had not come in 100 years in some respects...

Blushing hostess said...

And Gaye - dont't you buy that book, I will look for a copy to send!