By Ginna Parsons/NEMS Daily Journal
Thirty-five years ago, when Mike Smith was working on a Boy Scout merit badge that involved gardening, his parents planted a few vegetables in their backyard to help him along.
Today, Bob and Janie Smith still tend that garden on West Bristow that’s flourishing with 23 different types of vegetables, including snap beans, peas, limas, sweet corn, popcorn, peppers, eggplants, squash, zucchini, watermelons, cantaloupes, okra, tomatoes and carrots.
“The garden continued because we had grandchildren that needed to know where vegetables came from,” said Janie, 74.
Apparently, not everyone paid attention to the lessons the Smiths were willing to teach.
“Our granddaughter – she’s a UT grad – called here one day and wanted to know which vegetables Bob grows come from seed,” Janie said. “When he finished laughing long and hard, he told her.”
About three years ago, Janie decided to add a little color to the garden by planting zinnias and perennial hibiscus.
“Last year, she took 140 bouquets of flowers to people at the Mitchell Center and Traceway,” said Bob, 80. “People there don’t even know her name. They just call her ‘the tomato lady’ because she carries them flowers and cantaloupes and tomatoes.”
Popcorn and peanuts
The Smiths’ backyard vegetable garden measures 40×40 feet. Blackberry vines wind around arbors, cantaloupes snake along the ground and beans grow tall on poles. Roma tomatoes and miniature tomatoes grow side by side and if you’re not careful, you might step on an undersized watermelon.
“It’s amazing what you can grow in a small space if you manage it well,” Bob said. “We planted corn and already harvested it. I’ll plant peas in its place now. For a small backyard, we have quite a variety.”
“It’s a good hobby if you have someone like him to work it,” Janie said. “I just do the harvesting. I still can tomatoes and green beans the old-fashioned way. I put everything else in the freezer.”
Bob even grows popcorn from specialized corn seed, and with good luck, too. But peanuts are a different story.
“The only thing Bob tried to grow he said he’d never grow again is peanuts,” Janie said. “They’re too hard to dig out of the ground.”
Everything the Smiths grow in their vegetable garden they put up or give away to neighbors, the elderly or family. They also have a daughter, Donna Jarrell, who lives in Tupelo.
“We’ve had people want to buy things from us, but we don’t have anything for sale,” Bob said. “That would take the joy out of it.”
The brilliant array of flowers in the garden came about thanks to some of the residents at Traceway.
“The Traceway ladies were growing hibiscus and we became very interested in them,” said Janie. “These are perennial, not the annual kind. These you just cut back in the fall, cover them with mulch and they come back in the spring.”
The couple have 29 hibiscus plants made up of 13 different varieties.
“The blooms are anywhere from 8 to 12 inches in diameter,” said Bob. “Mallow is the scientific name. The blooms are bigger than a dinner plate. We’ve mostly ordered ours because it’s hard to buy them locally. The ladies at Traceway were generous to give us cuttings to get us started.”
“We like them because they bloom from June until first frost,” Janie said. “We take them to church every Sunday at St. Luke. But the blooms only last one day. You just have to enjoy them while you can.”
The zinnias came along at the same time as the hibiscus. The Smiths plant them from four or five packs of seed each year and they fill an 8×16-foot bed adjacent to the vegetable garden.
“We probably have about 160 plants in here,” said Janie, as she began to cut a bouquet. “We planted them in mid-April. When they started coming up, I thinned them some and gave some seedlings away. Now, they are so thick it almost saves them sometimes. In the wind, they’re so thick they hold each other up.”
Janie said of the 13 or 14 different varieties growing, the purple blossoms seem to be the biggest this year. Other colors include light pink, hot pink, yellow, red, white and orange.
“They have really been a joy to us,” she said. “You can get out there and cut a dozen zinnias and never even miss them. Zinnias just do better if you cut them. That’s the beauty of getting the pretty ones out so the others will bloom some more.”