Red, Black and Greens: 10 Essential Plants for Black Gardeners

Green is the new black, and the greens are best when home-grown. African Americans have been planting in our backyards long before locavores and slow foodies got in the act. In order to be authentic, an African-American garden must contain these 10 essential crops. Once they flourish, there’ll be no question about your roots.

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  • Collards

    Collards

    It’s the king of greens. Yeah, I know about turnip greens, mustard greens and kale. I even know about upland cress, the pungent green known as creasy salad in North Carolina and Virginia. But collards rule. Why not? Dig a hole about 3 inches deep. Throw in a handful of composted manure and/or a slow-growth fertilizer. Put in the seedling. Cover, mulch and water. Then eat Memorial Day to Christmas. What you don’t eat, you freeze. I’ve fed a neighborhood off three or four plants I put on the sunny side of the house.

    Next to the collards, plant…

  • Kale

    Kale

    If collards are the king, then kale is the prince. It’s easy, prolific, and it comes back as soon as the weather breaks. In late summer, nurseries sell ornamental kale. It turns beautiful colors when hit by frost. Guess what? Regular kale does the same thing. Both varieties are edible. So plant in the spring and in late summer. Just leave room for…

  • Onions

    Onions

    Well, you need something to flavor the greens, and you can’t grow smoked turkey wings. Onions are troopers. They’ll grow almost anywhere. Plant the onion sets about four inches deep if you want the onion itself. For scallions, plant about two inches deep. If you’re bourgie, you can plant garlic or chives. But if you want to keep it real, stick with the onions.

    Then walk over about a foot or two, and put in a row of…

  • Okra

    Okra

    This is a nod to the motherland. Food historians agree that Africans brought this vegetable to the New World. Sheila Walker, a filmmaker and cultural anthropologist, argues the word okra comes from the Akan people of Ghana, while gombo, another name for the same vegetable, is Bantu. Since we’re talking red, black and green, put in a row of burgundy okra, then watch out. When the temperature leaps, so does okra. It will grow three to four feet high. Don’t like okra ’cause it’s slimy? Harvest the young pods, and stem them whole. Or use it as an ornamental plant.

    While we’re keeping it red, don’t forget a row of…

  • Tomatoes

    Tomatoes

    The taste of a sun-ripened tomato on a summer day is the closest thing to heaven imaginable. Everybody wants to go heaven, but nobody wants to die. That’s why everybody grows tomatoes. That’s all I have to say.

  • Sweet Potatoes

    Sweet Potatoes

    They aren’t yams, but a relative of the morning glory. Slaves named the vegetable after yams they’d eaten in Africa. You can get the lowdown on the sweet potato/yam name controversy from the Louisiana Sweet Potato and Marketing Commission. The sweet potato is an imperialist; the vine will conquer an entire garden. So let it have the run of the land. Plant after the last frost and harvest before the first one. You don’t have to cure the potatoes to eat them.

  • Black-eyed Peas

    Black-eyed Peas

    Often called cowpeas, they are a quintessential Southern vegetable. If you live north of the Mason-Dixon line, don’t plant them until well after the last frost date when the ground is thoroughly warm. Like okra, this legume arrived from Africa and has quite a bit of lore. For Southerners, no matter where they reside, a New Year’s Day meal must include black-eyed peas and greens. The greens represent folding money. The peas are pocket change. Together, they signify abundance and prosperity.

  • Crookneck Squash

    Crookneck Squash

    In the authentically African-American garden, the squash is yellow, not green. That’s why zucchini is out and crookneck squash is in. Squash is an edible gourd; don’t let it grow too large. Harvest when the fruit is about six inches long. Eat it as soon as it’s picked. Slice the squash with onions and a little garlic. Sauté in olive oil, or with a slice of bacon for flavor, and you’ve got some good eating.

  • Watermelon

    Watermelon

    It’s a symbol of the revolution: green rind, red meat and black seeds. And yes, this fruit came with the slaves. Watermelon vines roam, so give them plenty of room. The fruit likes long, hot summers, but some early varieties will grow in cooler climates. Just make sure the soil is warm before sowing the seeds.

  • Cotton

    Cotton

    You know why.