See how his garden grows

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 5, 2001

The narrow country lane twisted and turned like a pole bean in the wind. On one side thick new vines strangled water oaks and willows; on the other, a pond spread fingers into low, mossy hillocks. Ahead, the land turned flat, and there, as promised, stood the modest home as described by O.K. Carr.

Plantations abounded in this fertile Second Creek area of the old Kingston Community in the 19th century. No wonder, then, that a vegetable garden would thrive today and provide Carr’s bountiful early summer harvest.

He appeared suddenly from the far side of the house, a wiry man moving quickly and with purpose, a bucket of prize tomatoes in one arm – big tomatoes, red, ripe, mouth-watering luscious-looking ones that he had just picked.

&uot;Come on,&uot; he said, heading for the carport where the morning’s harvest lay in organized piles. Potatoes, some as large as grapefruit, sat to one side. &uot;I just dug those; planted them back in February,&uot; Carr said, pointing also to the piles of yellow squash, cucumbers and green beans. &uot;One morning I had so much to do I started before daybreak, had a lantern out there to work by.&uot;

It was easy to imagine the energetic 79-year-old farmer arising to get into the garden ahead of even the sunrise. It was easy to imagine his exhortations through the spring, &uot;Grow, plants, grow.&uot; Fast-talking, lively, he exudes energy. The garden has responded.

Carr led the way to the first garden area behind the house. Another, almost as large, grew to one side of the house. Lush rows of green – long leaf, short leaf, broad leaf, narrow leaf – grew harmoniously between fig trees to one side and blackberries to the other. &uot;Over there is where the mustard and collard greens were. I’ll plant some more for the fall and winter,&uot; he said, pointing out a freshly tilled section. &uot;I’m already planning the new bed for late squash and turnips.&uot;

He moved on to the other garden area and stopped to sit in the old swing mounted on a frame under a tall cedar tree. From there, both gardens were easily in view. &uot;I’ll have to say myself that it’s a magnificent garden,&uot; he said. &uot;And it’s an everyday deal getting out there and picking, maybe two or more hours a day. I picked six two-gallon buckets of squash today.&uot; The conversation turned to his church work. He thanks God daily for the garden. &uot;He has blessed me beyond my wildest imagination,&uot; he said. When Carr is not gardening, he turns his energy to missions, which have taken him all over the United States and as far away as Japan to build Baptist churches.

&uot;I had a wake-up call about 15 years ago. I had colon cancer. I began to pay better attention to my health, including my diet,&uot; he said. &uot;Today I take no pills, no aspirin even. I’m never in pain. I garden six days a week.&uot; He stood, crossed his ankles and began to squat slowly to the ground. &uot;This is my yoga exercise,&uot; he said. &uot;I go up to the Senior Citizen Center and do this just to show out.&uot;

The vegetable harvest provides a way to share his gardening talents and provide a little extra money for the family, too. He sells fresh vegetables to local hospitals, the Senior Citizen Center and other public places as well as in subdivisions from the back of his truck. &uot;I usually sell out before I get through the subdivision,&uot; he said, pleased that customers have come to know him and to trust his produce.

If he has a secret for vegetable gardening success, it is that he prefers the natural way of preparing his soil, he said. &uot;I use barnyard fertilizer, and I mulch my own leaves and put into the garden. When the beans and squash are all picked, I’ll turn the plants into the soil for compost, too.&uot;

Carr has a special way of preparing the garden for butterbeans, he said. &uot;During the winter as I get time I dig the foot-and-a-half holes for the posts where the butterbeans will go, and I fill the holes with mulch and fertilizer. Then I plant the butterbeans by each stake when it comes time to do it.&uot;

To ensure early harvesting, he gets a head start by ordering seeds from a catalog and starting the plants in the small hothouse he built behind the house. &uot;I start all my plants in there except for the ones I plant later in the season,&uot; he said.

Gardening for more than 50 years, Carr was born in Montana and grew up there in a big family that always grew vegetables in the summertime and put them up to have during cold winter months. &uot;We’ll put up some of the vegetables for ourselves,&uot; he said. When he joined the military service, he was sent to Hawaii and there met a young man from Brookhaven. Through the friend, Carr met his wife-to-be, June. &uot;I married a girl on letter romance. When I got out of the service, I went to Brookhaven and met her for the first time. We married in 1949 and moved to Natchez in 1950 for me to go to work for International Paper.&uot;

A dog barked in the distance, and Carr pointed up the gentle slope to the edge of his property. &uot;I have four acres here,&uot; he said. &uot;My daughter and her family live just up there.&uot; And across the way is the home of a neighbor, whose garden he tends because she no longer is able to care for it. Ten years ago, Carr’s older brother, Harley, moved to Natchez to live with O.K. and June. Harley helps to clean the vegetables before they go into the buckets to market. And, as a former Army cook, Harley also likes to help in the kitchen.

&uot;I don’t use recipes much,&uot; Harley said. &uot;I like to cook these vegetables, especially the squash.&uot; He fries the squash in vegetable oil after dipping slices in egg and rolling in a batter of cornmeal, he said.

Harley likes an iron skillet, an old-time seasoned one, he said. A favorite summer supper is fried fish, which his nephew sometimes brings home, and any fresh vegetables he can cook. &uot;I like to filet the fish and dip it in seasoning and deep fry it,&uot; he said. &uot;And I don’t have a favorite vegetable. I like them all.&uot;

O.K. was itching to move on to another task. So many tasks awaited, and the pent-up energy demanded release. He greeted a neighbor who came up to admire and choose a few vegetables. Then he disappeared around the corner of the house.

Summer vegetables, having excellent, fresh flavors of their own, require little dressing up. But for those whose kitchen overflows with the fresh produce, here are a few selections from seasoned Southern cooks to add variety to your meals in coming weeks.

Snap Beans and Potatoes

1/4 pound bacon, diced

1/4 cup onion, chopped

1 1/2 pounds snap beans

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

3/4 cup water

2 medium or 8 new potatoes, scraped

Brown the bacon; add the onion and let the onion brown slightly. Add to the other ingredients. Bring to a boil. Cook slowly on low heat for 1 1/2 hours or until tender. Serves 6.

From &uot;Kitchen Keepsakes: Family Recipes from the Deep South&uot; by Concordia Parish Council on Aging

Green Corn Pudding

6 ears fresh corn

1 tablespoon melted butter

1 teaspoon salt

4 eggs, well beaten

2 cups sweet milk

3 tablespoons flour

Grate kernels of tender young corn from the cob. Add butter, salt and eggs. Add milk, mixed with flour. Beat mixture well and pour into a baking dish that has been lightly buttered or sprayed with Pam and bake until firm. This is delightful with fried chicken. Serves 6.

From &uot;Kitchen Keepsakes: Family Recipes from the Deep South&uot; by Concordia Parish Council on Aging

Stuffed Squash

8 medium-size yellow squash, room temperature

1 pound ground beef

3/4 cup uncooked rice

1/2 cup scooped squash

1 16-ounce can whole tomatoes

1 can water

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Wash squash. Cut off enough on rounded end to allow for scooping. Save tip. Scoop out squash, leaving about 1/4-inch thickness. If regular scooper not available, use potato peeler and scooper. Rinse squash. combine meat, rice, scooped squash, the whole tomatoes (reserving liquid for later use), salt, pepper and cinnamon.

Mix thoroughly, mashing tomatoes well. Stuff squash loosely, about 3/4 full. If packed too tight, squash will burst, as rice must have room to swell. Place squash in large boiler; add cut-off tips and reserved tomato juice, plus 1 can of water to steam the squash. Simmer 30 minutes. Add lemon juice to the liquid in the boiler and cook 15 minutes longer. Serves 4.

From &uot;Waddad’s Kitchen: Lebanese Zest and Southern Best,&uot; by Waddad Habeeb Buttross of Natchez

Ratatouille

1/4 cup olive oil

1 large onion, sliced into rings

2 zucchini, in 1/4-inch slices

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2 large green peppers, sliced

4 fresh tomatoes, peeled and coarsely chopped

1 medium eggplant, peeled and cubed

1 teaspoon basil

1 teaspoon oregano

Salt and pepper

Optional toppings: chopped ripe olives, crisply fried bacon, grated Parmesan cheese

Saute onion in oil until transparent. Add remaining ingredients. Salt and pepper to taste.

Cover and cook over medium heat for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Ratatouille should be juicy but not soupy. If necessary, uncover and cook until almost all liquid is evaporated. This can be served hot or cold with choice of toppings. Serves 4 as main dish or 8 as a side dish.

From &uot;Some Like it South&uot; by the Junior League of Pensacola, Fla.

Joan Gandy is special projects director of The Democrat. She can be reached at (601) 445-3549 or by e-mail at joan.gandy@natchezdemocrat.com