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  • Writer's pictureTracy Britnell | Just Dig It Farms

My love affair with the garden began with a few herbs

M wish I could say I grew up chasing farm animals, foraging herbs in the woods and spending my summers in the garden with my grandmother; but that is just not the story of my childhood. I did not find my love and passion for the garden until after I was married and had my boys. Gene and I spent the first 6 years of our marriage earning our college

degrees, punching time clocks and raising babies. In 1996, we were finally able to purchase our first home. It was an older home built in 1948 in a quaint little neighborhood in the center of Alabama. The houses were all close together but we had 3 acres that ran in a rectangular shape.

We had just barely moved in when I came home one day to find a bag of home grown vegetables lying on our porch, some of which I didn’t even know what they were. Like rutabaga, I had no idea what a rutabaga was or what I was supposed to do with it. A few days later there were more fresh vegetables on my porch.

A very thin, older gentleman wearing a funny looking umbrella hat came walking over to greet me with a shovel in hand. His khaki pants were covered in soil stains and he had on a long sleeved shirt in the scorching heat of an Alabama summer. He introduced himself as Jr. Williams and pointed to a garden plot just 2 houses down and very proudly told me that was his garden. He asked if we ate fresh vegetables. I said, “yes sir we sure do but can you tell me what this is and what I should do with it” as I pointed to a Rutabaga. I will never forget him laughing and saying, “you must be a city girl”. Mr. Williams and I had a lovely conversation as he educated me that day on how to cook a Rutabaga.

A few days later, I had some beautiful big red tomatoes sitting on my porch. I assumed it was another delicious gift from Mr. Williams. Just as I was gathering up my sack of tomatoes, a tall and very stout older gentleman wearing faded jeans and a neatly tucked in long sleeve dress shirt greeted me with a sweetly spoken, “hey girl, I’m Sam

Mr. Smitherman

Smitherman” He pointed in the opposite direction of Mr. Williams garden spot and said, “My wife, Nell and I just live right over there. I hope you like fresh tomatoes.” He prided himself on growing the best tomatoes possible. His favorite was Atkinson tomatoes. From that day on Mr. Smitherman came over to visit me almost everyday with a gift of delicious vegetables or fruit from his garden and good conversation. He always greeted me with a very sweetly spoken, ‘Hey girl’.

Mr. Williams grew garlic, lots of garlic! He had a little shed where he stored his garden tools and he always had braided garlic hanging from the rafters of that old shed.

There was just something about that little charming garden shed that just wooed my heart. But, it was his fragrant patch of peppermint which occupied a whole garden row that absolutely captivated me. I can almost smell that row of peppermint and that old garlic scented tool shed.

Every morning without fail as I took my

boys to school we were greeted with a wave from Mr. Williams in his garden. Every afternoon without fail Mr. Smitherman made his way over just to see how we were doing. I spent a lot of time with both of them in garden conversation over quite a few years. But that first summer, a seed was sown in my soul that changed the course of my life! I found a passion that I did not know existed and the love affair began!

Gene has always encouraged my interest and goes to great lengths to make my dreams come true. At the time, his job required him to travel a few days a week and he found a little garden nursery that specialized in growing only herbs on his route. He surprised me one day and took me to visit this nursery. It was called ‘Good Scents’. An older couple who

were legit hippies from the sixties owned it and grew all the herbs. They had so many different herbs that I had never even heard of. As I touched and smelled each herb they educated me on each one and encouraged me to taste many of them. Needless to say I did not want to leave! I still remember the two herbs I chose to take home with me that day, Orange Mint and Mother of Thyme. I planted them in little terracotta pots and the love affair had begun. I fell hard for herbs and I dove in deep. I started reading all I could on herbs, joined the herb society and attended every local herb seminar that I could find.

I went with Gene every opportunity I got when he traveled the route that passed by the little herb nursery and I would stay as long as my family would tolerate. Each trip I was always excited to add a few herbs to my collection.

My birthday rolled around and Gene surprised me with a special trip to my favorite little herb nursery. He gave me $100 (which was a real sacrifice for us) to buy herbs for my new little raised bed herb garden that he had built for me.

With my favorite herb book in hand, I spent hours at the herb nursery that day and carefully chose a wonderful selection of all the herbs I had been studying. I was so excited to get back home and plant all my herbs in my new garden and experiment with all of them. That little raised herb bed turned into a large herb garden with brick pathways, an arbor entrance, a seating area, and living walls that eventually created a secret herb garden. My passion for growing herbs & using herbs quickly grew into growing a vegetable garden, then It expanded to growing fruit, then I started collecting antique roses and eventually the 3 acres was just not enough and our dream for a farm began.

My friend Jaclyn often says, “It all begins with 3 chickens”. Well, for me, it all began with a few herbs.

Many years have passed since the day I found fresh vegetables on my porch. Mr. Williams and Mr. Smitherman passed away years ago, the little herb nursery has long been closed down and we no longer live in that quaint little neighborhood. Often, as I reflect on how my gardening journey began I am reminded of those precious moments shared in the garlic and mint patch with those 2 older gentlemen, the seed that was planted in my soul that first summer and for a sweet gift from my love of a few raised garden beds and a trip to an herb nursery.

240 views3 comments


Brittany McDonald Barr
Brittany McDonald Barr
Dec 29, 2023

A well written piece of southern hospitality. What a gem to read.


Jan 23, 2023

Beautiful story! I call these seasoned gardeners “treasures” in my life. I’ve been blessed to know a few.


Jan 08, 2023

I can still here Pawpaw Smitherman’s voice and how he’d greet everyone he saw. Jr and Sam were both great men that are hard to find today. Thanks for sharing this wonderful story!

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