Patience and a good heart

Story and Photography by A.J. Heinsz-Bailey

How many people know how to grow their own walking cane? When is the best time of year to harvest trees for building a log cabin? While information resources can be found online or in books frequently the most useful information for your location can be learned from experienced local gardeners.

At 79 years old, Vernon Seal is a rare gardening treasure. His gardening experience started at age 4 in a Washington Parish cotton field. “I was too young to know it was work. I loved being outdoors among plants. My parents were vegetable farmers. We ate what we grew. Working with the soil came naturally as a way of life. Living on a dairy farm I learned the value of organic material as a soil amendment. My career was in the forestry industry. The only time I didn’t garden was when I was in the army.”

Patience and a good heart are the qualities of a good gardener, according to Vernon. Gardens cannot be rushed. They age just like people. They need continual feeding and maintenance. Composted chicken manure and leaves are organic amendments that are readily available on his farm and recycling is an important part of his garden.

Vernon and Barbara moved to their present farm in rural St. Tammany Parish 30 years ago. Their homestead is near the road and as folks pass by, they honk their horns and wave. “Folks stop all the time to ask about the flowers and plants. I take them on a walking tour and try to answer any questions they may have about my garden. I usually have cuttings or vegetables to share. I have made lots of friends through gardening over the years. I enjoy gardening with my kids and grandkids too.”

Vegetables are Vernon’s favorite. He has been saving seeds for over 40 years. He enjoys sharing seeds with new gardeners.

As I toured his garden, Vernon shared pointers on each section and what was growing them. He has saved seeds from his ‘Polecat’ and ‘Red Ripper’ southern peas for the last 40 years. He stores them in paper bags inside an old unplugged refrigerator. The refrigerator keeps the seeds dry and cool. Pots of all sizes and colors are filled with vegetables and flowers. Green onions and marigolds (Tagetes spp.) share a large pot with cherry tomatoes. Vernon recommends experimenting with different plant combinations. Don’t be afraid to try new things is one of his pointers to new gardeners.

The fruit orchard consists of citrus trees, figs, pears, persimmons, muscadines, and mayhaws. These are used for fresh eating, wines, jams, and jellies. Mirlitons grow across the chicken pen and up a tree. Mirlitons grow best when then they are shaded from the hot afternoon sun, in a place with adequate moisture. The sugarcane grows best in full sun. Cucumbers use the sugarcane stalks as a trellis. A wall of okra 7 feet tall separates two plantings of peas. Some of the peas climb up the okra stems. The plants throughout the whole garden interact with each other in beneficial ways.

Vegetables are Vernon’s favorite, but there is no lack of flowering plants in the yard. Roses (Rosa spp.), gingers, Ruellia, and even a large cape honeysuckle (Tecomaria capensis) occupy places in the side yard. Hummingbirds and butterflies spend hours enjoying this section of the yard. Years of collecting cuttings and seeds have resulted in a one-of-a-kind display of botanic specimens. Vernon has tips and tricks for growing all of his plants if you have the time to listen and ask questions. 

I finished my visit with a lesson on how to grow your own walking cane. You will need a princess tree (Paulownia tomentosa) and some PVC 90-degree pipe fittings. Thread a pliable limb through the fitting and let it grow. It takes about a year. The wood of the princess tree is light and strong and doesn’t rot. Time and patience will be rewarded with a custom walking cane. Along with these tips I left the Seals’ with two butternut squash, a bottle of kumquat wine, a jar of squash pickles, and an invitation  to visit anytime I am in the neighborhood.

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