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?
- 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:
Southern Pines, NC 1914