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‘Row by Row’ profiles Kentucky gardeners and explores what motivates them to grow food.

Kate Black in her garden last August. Black’s book,“Row by Row,” profiles 27 gardening families in Kentucky.
Kate Black in her garden last August. Black’s book,“Row by Row,” profiles 27 gardening families in Kentucky. teblen@herald-leader.com

This week’s unseasonably warm weather has many Kentucky gardeners dreaming of spring and, perhaps, wondering this: What is it that compels them to grow food? Kate Black has wondered that for decades.

“Some years I think, ‘Why do I do this? It’s so hard!’” she said. “Why do I put up with all the problems when I could just ride my bicycle down to the farmers market and buy stuff from Elmwood Stock Farm?”

Black now understands her own gardening obsession — more about that later — but she was curious about other gardeners. “I thought, I’m going to interview people and see what meaning it has for them.”

So the retired curator of Appalachian collections at University of Kentucky Libraries sought out and interviewed dozens of fellow Kentucky gardeners. The result is “Row by Row: Talking with Kentucky Gardeners” (Ohio University Press.)

Black profiles 27 gardening families from 18 counties in every region of the state. She tells their stories in short profiles accompanied by photos, many by Deirdre Skaggs, a UK Libraries associate dean. Black describes the book as “a meditation on how gardeners make sense of their lives through their gardens.”

She begins with Gladys and Walsa Blanton of Estill County. They are typical of many rural Kentuckians with agrarian roots. So are Gloria and Don Williams of Menifee County, whose self-reliant lifestyle is both old-fashioned and innovative in a world increasingly focused on sustainability.

But many of the Kentucky gardener profiled here are anything but typical. We meet Jashu and Kasan Patel, who came to Madison County from India by way of Chicago; and Maria and Ciro Prudente, the first people to join the Russell County Cooperative Extension’s Hispanic Gardening Project.

These gardeners come in all ages, races and genders and they live in both rural and urban communities. Some come from generations-old Kentucky families, and others are recent immigrants. Some have large spreads, and one has an urban driveway with plants growing in five-gallon buckets. Each has an interesting slant on the passions shared by gardeners everywhere.

Black begins the book by telling her own gardening story. She and her seven siblings grew up tending their family’s large vegetable garden and strawberry patch in tiny Corning, Ark.

The little sign the family posted in the front yard each summer — “Fresh strawberries for sale, 857-6794” — now decorates Black’s narrow but deep backyard garden in Bell Court, where she raises food, flowers and herbs, keeps bee hives, and battles rabbits, squirrels and shade. She moved there in 1998 and built the garden from scratch after having had gardens at previous Kentucky homes in Estill, Knott and Floyd counties since 1973.

When I visited Black late last summer, the okra and tomatoes were playing out. Rabbits had eaten most of her beans. But tall, lacy asparagus stalks were testimony to what had been an abundant crop last spring.

“I find a lot of pleasure in gardening; the sweat and the hard work and the struggle,” she said. “I like to eat my own food and cook my own food and serve my own food to my friends. It brings me a lot of pleasure and pride, I guess. And I like sticking it to corporate agri-business in my own little way.”

Like her garden, Black’s book was a labor of love.

“I worked really hard to try to represent the Kentucky that I know and love,” she said. “What brings everybody together in the book is their love of gardening, but they come to it from a lot of different directions.”

While the book naturally appeals to gardeners, Black hopes non-gardening readers will come away with a new appreciation for food and where it comes from.

“It’s not a how-to-garden book, but there are certainly things you can learn about growing food,” she said, noting that some gardeners often come to their hobby for reasons both practical and mystical.

“A lot of people see growing food as going hand-in-hand with their spiritual life,” she said. “It brings that kind of meaning to their life. I found a lot of hope doing this project. I didn’t know I would find that.”

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