Posted by: Banta | April 28, 2016

Uncle Billy’s Garden

(The following story by Banta Whitner appeared in Plough to Pantry | Spring 2016)

Freshly plowed fields dot the hills where I live, each one a blank canvas awaiting the artist’s vision. Every spring, without fail, farmers and gardeners step beyond the newsfeed of the day to tend their soil. They turn “swords into ploughshares,” and plant seeds for a new harvest. This is our common ground.

Long before I learned to read and write, I was digging in the dirt. My great uncle Billy introduced me to organic gardening the summer before I started kindergarten. He and my great-grandmother lived on the outskirts of Cashiers, NC, where I spent golden nuggets of summer as a child.

One morning after breakfast, Uncle Billy handed me a basket. “Blueberry pickin’ time,” was all he said. I hung back at first, wary of this grumpy old man with his big booming voice. I had no idea he was an operatic baritone or coached opera divas in Manhattan. At five, the promise of a pie won me over.

He took to whistling as we headed down the stone steps to the garden. His gruff exterior melted away, replaced by a childlike joy I understood. At the rustic gate he stopped and spread his arms wide, “Here we are.” Even then I sensed we were about to enter sacred space.

Tucked into the hillside, invisible from the house above, his garden spilled out in every direction. Besides plump blueberries, Uncle Billy grew rhubarb and asparagus, purple eggplants, sweet onions and peppers, strawberries, and heirloom tomatoes. Herbs tangled among the vegetables—sage and dill, parsley and basil, rosemary and creeping thyme. To keep out hungry rabbits, chicken wire surrounded the tiers of greens—endive, spinach and kale, and more varieties of lettuce than I’d ever seen.

We filled the berry basket in no time, but my five-year old self had discovered a lifetime happy place. With grudging good humor, Uncle Billy nurtured the clumsy zeal I brought to his well-tended garden. He treated me like a grownup and shared what he knew.

That summer we sowed crookneck squash and field peas, pulled weeds and picked hornworms off tomato plants. I can still smell the rich loamy dirt, composted with eggshells and banana peels and cow manure, and I can hear the drone of Uncle Billy’s bees.

That grumpy old opera singer, a WWI veteran and closeted gay man, taught me how to listen to the land and coax food from earth. He taught me that healthy soil grows healthy plants, and that making good soil requires patience and huge amounts of compost.

More than that, he taught me that making a healthy human, a good idea, a sustainable relationship—all take time and lots of compost, too. Toss together the discarded scraps, shredded pages, broken hearts, the missteps, snippets of memory and sleepless nights. Let the ingredients heat up in a messy pile. Provide ample water and sunshine. Stir occasionally. With enough patience, new growth will take root and rise up from the compost. Every single time.

Shed drawing by Stephanie SippIllustration courtesy of Stephanie Sipp


  1. Really beautiful, Banta, and so well written!

  2. Nice Banta

    Sent from my Verizon 4G LTE Smartphone

  3. This was so lovely, Banta, and aside from all the wonderful symbolism in the gardening and relationships, it moved me to remember the multi-generational legacy in my family for gardening. Thank you so much!

  4. I love thisl story! I want to visit your Uncle Billy’s garden and walk among the blueberries, eggplant, onions and potatoes. 🙂 My love of growing things started early also. The scent of the season’s first tomato plants can cast me back many years to the days when I was following my mom around outside. Although in our case it wasn’t rolling farm fields, but potted tomato plants in a condominium patio. No matter! A passion was born. Thanks for sharing this. I was mystified because I had not seen this in the spring Plough to Pantry. I went back and looked and looked but only saw the compost article! Finally found it…I had stopped reading at the Contributors section. What a sneaky little gem of an article hidden in the back!

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