The Shade Garden & The Snake

by Sharon Brown on July 1, 2017

in General,Guest Writers,Monthly Post

During most winters my grandmother visited her two daughters in cities far from the mountains where I was growing up. As soon as spring arrived, she came home again to garden.

We moved in with Granny Ninna at her request when I was about five. She said the house was much too big for her and it needed to be filled with children. It worked out well; Mom and Dad slept downstairs and bedrooms for Ninna and me were upstairs. During winters Ninna was the world traveler, she said, visiting her daughters in Indiana and West Virginia, but in spring she was always home to tend her garden.

Eventually when I was near college age, she told my dad that she’d like to have her own little place close by. She was beginning to have trouble climbing stairs, she said. There were some protests from my parents who said they’d just trade bedrooms, but Ninna was determined. She wanted her own little house on that nice shady spot just up the holler from us. She got it. About the same time she said she was tired of working the big gardens and she reckoned she’d just hand them over to whoever wanted them. The big gardens were down the hill, across the one lane road, in full sun and were in fact quite big.  Ninna was getting old, I thought.  Even as a teenager, I worried about her getting old and I worried about her food. Without a garden what would she have to eat? My dad said I shouldn’t worry, he’d always see that she had food.

Ninna had other ideas.

Her little house was built within sight of ours, up against the mountain, so close that once you stepped out her back door you could lean forward and touch a young tree or two. The first spring, she asked Dad to find her an old door frame. Her little house was new and had all the door frames it needed, but Dad was smart enough to not question her and found her not only one, but two old door frames. I was excited because I knew Ninna had a new project in mind.

We hadn’t noticed, but while we weren’t looking she had walked out her back door and leveled two spaces on the mountain behind her house. Spaces just big enough for two door frames to fit over if they were laying end to end.  They formed a terrace very close to the back of her house.  She had worked the dirt, added coffee grounds and egg shells, fruit and vegetable scraps, but as rich as that mountain dirt was, she didn’t really need to add a thing. She had built herself a little gardening space using nothing more than what she had handy: a hand trowel, a little hand saw to cut saplings, an old fork, and a small short handled hoe. It was waist high and just outside her back door. She’d piled the loose rocks around and behind the door frame, up against the mountain. She never cleared the trees that grew beyond the rocks.

“It gets no sun,” were the first words out of my dad’s mouth. “Nothing’s going to grow there, I’ll cut down some of these trees.”

“Don’t you be cuttin’ down no trees, the mountain needs them. I know what will grow, you just wait and see,” she said.

It seems like no time at all passed before she was bringing us lettuce for our salads and spinach for our pots. A little later she brought a head or two of cabbage. Dad never said another word; he liked sauerkraut.

I visited her every day as she worked in her little garden. It was a clever concept, laying those two door frames end to end. It gave her a little garden plot about 12′ x 2′ or more, plenty of room for a few veggies that didn’t mind dappled sunlight all day long. One end of it received a little more sun than the other, and I remember she tried tomatoes there once or twice, but mostly it was greens. Ninna was very happy with it and told me there’d be plenty of food for both of us.

One afternoon I walked to see her and found her again in her garden gathering lettuce for her lunch. I glanced at a movement I thought I saw on the rocks and said, “Ninna, I see a snake!”

“He’s just a little ol’ black snake,” she said, “he’s out here all the time.”

“Ninna, I don’t think it’s a black snake, I think I saw rattlers!”

“It’s a black snake. Don’t you be ‘fraid of no black snake; they keep the rabbits out of my garden.”

I was afraid. I am not fond of snakes no matter what they keep out of my garden. But it was Ninna talking and whatever Ninna said was always right to me. I kept right on gathering lettuce, but I kept right on eyeing those warm partly sunny rocks, too.

The garden grew. She and I enjoyed it and my family ate all she brought even until late fall when she finally cleared it out, covered it with leaves and put it to bed for winter. I had grazed all summer, like feeding from a trough, walking from one end to the other. It amazes me now, knowing that she grew all those greens using only small tools in only a sun-dappled spot.  There were no bush beans but most years she managed to grow pole beans in the sunny end. Beans and cornbread became our evening meal at her house. She also grew tomatoes, but not in that little garden. They needed more sun, she said.

In a sunny spot in front of her house sat two small trough-like tubs filled with soil. In each tub she grew a huge tomato plant.

“You need two,” she said, “two of everything. Ain’t nothin’ supposed to grow alone.” Little pearls of wisdom for me to string along with all the others she’d given me. We ate tomatoes very nearly till first frost.

One early September day I was alone at home, packing my clothes to return for another year of college. My mom was teaching, my brother was in school, and Dad was at work. The phone rang. It was Ninna.

“You might need to run out here,” she said. “I caught your rattlesnake, but I might have to burn the house down to get rid of it.”

Panic. I tried to call Dad, no answer, so I ran barefoot and in pink-striped homemade shorty pajamas in the direction of Ninna’s house. She was standing on the front porch with a little folding fan in one hand and a bucket full of green beans in the other, fanning her face in the warm September morning. Her purse was beside the front door.

“We was going to string these beans to make shuckies till I saw the snake,” she said.

I had run so fast I couldn’t catch my breath. “Where’s the snake, Ninna, where’s the hoe? I couldn’t get Dad but I think I can kill the snake, where’s the hoe and where’s the fire?” I couldn’t see or smell any smoke.

“Ain’t no fire yet, and I mighta already killed the snake. We’ll wait and see. Get your needle and let’s string these beans. You ain’t got your shoes on anyhow so you can’t be foolin’ around with no hoe.”

It made no sense to me, but as always, I followed Ninna’s lead. Thoughts of her getting old trickled around again, but I tried to push them aside and sat quietly with her stringing beans onto white cotton thread to hang drying from the rafters of her porch. I figured her mind was more important than my shorty pajamas at the moment; I needed to stay with her, surely her age was showing and there was no one around to see what I wore anyway.

It seemed very quiet in the holler; I was watching Ninna from under my lashes, waiting for her wayward mind to show itself again, worrying about the purse she’d brought outside, when eventually the scent of baking meat wafted from her house to the front yard where we were sitting.

“You cooking this morning, Ninna?” I thought of what she had said about burning the house down.

“It might be the snake,” she said, with a sort of relieved sigh.

My thoughts turned to ‘Dear Lord in Heaven’ and I put aside the beans and the needle and stood up. She finally looked up and started talking.

“You was right. It’s a rattler. I was pickin’ these last beans and I heard them rattlers behind me. He was slithering under the crack in the screen door, goin’ right into the kitchen. I slithered in right behind him just in time to see those rattlers crawl into the back of the stove. I gave him time to settle down, then opened the oven door a crack and peeped in. He was layin’ there, all curled up on the bottom rack on top of that foil I keep to catch drippins’. He rattled a little bit so I just shut the oven door and turned the oven on. More than one way to catch a snake but I was afraid he’d come slithering out and sling fire from one end of the house to the other. I grabbed my handbag with all my papers just in case. I reckon he’s surely dead by now but I thought we ought to wait and see.”

Only my Ninna. This very quiet, clever little woman whose brilliant mind told her what would grow in shade, how to build a garden to waist level for her own comfort, and how to live a sustainable life, could also orchestrate the demise of a rattlesnake in her own way, in her own time and in her own home, with very little damage to her or anything else. But suddenly I had another thought.

“Ninna. We aren’t planning to eat the snake, are we?” I was still a little concerned about her state of mind.

“Now honey, snakes ain’t people food, you know better. I reckon we’re goin’ to have a bad time trying to scrape that burnt snake off the oven rack and gettin’ it sparklin’ clean again, but I’ve been thinkin’. You might not should tell your daddy; he’ll go out and buy me a new stove. Not a thing wrong with this one by the time we get through cleanin’ it. Might ought to get a new oven rack, though. And maybe a new screen door.”

It took bottles of cleaning fluid, gallons of bleach and disinfectant, and many hours that lasted long into the night to clean the oven back up to her impeccable standards, even though the entire snake had remained happily baking on the foil that covered the lower rack. We tossed the whole rack out the door, snake and foil included, as soon as she opened the cooling oven. I kept my eyes closed so I wouldn’t see.

Before I left for college that weekend, I borrowed Dad’s truck and took Ninna to town. With measurements in hand she bought a new rack for her oven and a new screen door. I don’t think Mom or Dad ever knew.

Only my Ninna.

Sharon Brown, native of the Appalachians of East Kentucky, is known for her articles about wildflowers, plants, and Kentucky culture and history. Enjoy Sharon’s other articles HERE.

Author’s Note: Ninna’s shade garden was filled with vegetables chosen for their ability to grow in only dappled sunlight. Here’s a list of what she grew in her little terraced garden: leaf lettuce, peas, mustard greens, spinach and kale, and sometimes pole beans and cabbage.

 I have since learned that broccoli and cauliflower will do well in dappled sunlight, too, as do radishes. And I think she sowed a new seed everytime she finished a plant because we had fresh lettuce all summer long. She also grew potatoes, two potato plants, in the ground in front of her two tomato pots. She and I ate very well those years.

I can’t say much about killing snakes; that experience was as close as I ever came to a rattlesnake, dead or alive. I did hold on to Ninna’s pearls of wisdom. I have a long strand, but baking a snake is not one of them.

Images: above right: pole beans, megankhines, Creative Commons; tomatoes, regan76, Creative Commons; leaf lettuce: Amanda B, Creative Commons; cabbage, Alex Crowder, Creative Commons; mustard greens, Anita, Creative Commons; kale, karen yaeger, Creative Commons. Thumbnail image: University of Texas Spoon, spinach, Creative Commons.


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Sanguita July 2, 2017 at 2:30 pm

A very heart warming story. Thank you so much for sharing.

Connie July 7, 2017 at 11:58 am

Thank you for the delightful story. I loved reading it. A great deal of charm in how you told it. My opinion, write more stories !

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