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African American History with Gardens

February 29, 2016

Information for this article was taken from a work by John McLaughlin at the Miami-Dade Extension Office in Florida. It can be found in entirety at: http://miami-dade.ifas.ufl.edu/old/programs/urbanhort/publications/PDF/Historical%20Backround.PDF

In gardening, there are different ways to reproduce plants. Many times seeds are used to multiple plants to get more as they can be rapid, but not always genetically identical.  In the West African culture, this was not the way they typically ‘reproduced’ their plants. They actually used vegetative propagation techniques to grow their plants more often rather than from seeds. This could be for example cutting up a potato in small pieces and planting those to start a new plant. This process would actually also produce genetically identical plants, not necessarily the point of why it was done at the time. Some of the other starchy root plants commonly grown in the area were taro, tannia, and yams.

Many plants were either made more common due to African influence or were brought to this area by Africans. If you like eggplant, okra, watermelon, and cantaloupe, you have Africa to thank. These fruits and vegetables were confiscated from slaves that came to America. The slaves also brought sesame that was used to make stew thicker. There is even the belief that the spread of tomatoes was influenced by African Americans.

In respect to gardens, there were different ways African Americans ‘gardened’ or used their gardens. For example, many of them had ‘Swept Yard’ around their house which was as it sounds. It’s an area that was swept often to keep it free of vegetation and debris. They didn’t try to grow grass and only had a big problem when it rained as it obviously made everything muddy. Their ‘Garden’ was almost always seen as a source of food, so no ornamental plants to speak of. These could be in ground garden or planters made from whatever they had, including old tires. Flowers would be typically in front of homes if anywhere to welcome people to stop and talk. The last interesting aspect is their focus on ‘Shade’. They normally would either on their property or in community areas have a larger tree for shade to gather under. In Africa, it was more commonly fruit trees. In America, it could be oaks, pecans, or sweet gums.

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