When the day is done and there is no more light to see by, Catherine Quick climbs on her porch behind her red-brick Colonial in the cool and affluent neighborhood of Hillcrest in Southeast Washington. She sits back in her swing and admires her creations. Under the light of the moon, the impatiens are patient, because she has been careful to water them and plant them where they like it best, and the collard greens are sturdy and look so pretty even though they taste kind of "funny" this year. Mostly, she admires her cleanly "swept yard." Not a speck of dirt is out of place.
"When I was a little girl, I would be planting my flowers, and my mother would say, 'Come on, you have chores to do. You need to sweep this yard!'
"In those days, you didn't see many yards with grass. Everybody swept their yard. People didn't do grass. My mother taught us to keep the house clean inside and out. Even though it was dirt, she said, 'Make it look pretty.' "
In her own way, she is carrying on the lessons of her mother and grandmother before her--their tradition of making the world pretty. The swept yard, the "found" art, the mix of vegetables with flowers, the garden seat turned just so--not for conversation but for waving out to passersby. Scholars tell us this says something about African Americans and perhaps Southerners, their yards, their gardens, their attempts at creating paradise, echoing lessons from their past, even ancestors they never knew.
The question arises--is a black yard really distinct? When you look at it and you see the abundance of color, who is to say what was the color of hands that planted the seeds, arranged the plants, pulled the weeds, fertilized the soil, mixed it, talked to it, drenched it with water and then watched it grow? Passing it on the street, would you know? Not likely, but go around the back of some of the houses, and clues, secrets will be revealed.
In recent years, writers, scientists and anthropologists have studied African American yards, just as, in years past, they studied English country gardens and Japanese gardens. In a book called "African-American Gardens and Yards in the Rural South," Richard Westmacott argues that the gardens of African Americans have been largely ignored by landscape architects and garden historians. But to study them means to gain "a greater understanding of the traditions and continuities of African American culture in the South."
He says that the gardens and yards of some African Americans "may present an unprepossessing appearance to passing observers, but the apparent scattering of objects is by no means casual. The arrangements, the decorative ornaments, and recycled materials are rich in meanings and associations for their owners."
The gardens, he says, "are more than places of leisure. They are places where independence is asserted with extraordinary vigor and resourcefulness."
Grey Gundaker, assistant professor of American studies and anthropology at the College of William and Mary, has studied the African American garden. Still, she says, she resists classifying them as such. In her research she met many gardeners, and it was only after they began to explain what was in their yards and gardens that she came to understand the theories behind cultural gardening.
A man told her about his pine tree with its various, perhaps strange, ornaments. It had chains hanging from its limbs and what appeared to be rusty lawn furniture sitting in front of it. She asked him, "Does that tree have a name?" And he told her, "It's my family tree," Gundaker recalls. He told her the chains were for his ancestors because they carried the weight and came through. And he stacked up chairs, making his own throne of God. Then he set seats for his family around the throne.
One man decorated a tree with glass bottles hanging from the branches. Other gardeners placed bottomless bottles around young saplings and allowed the trees to grow out of the bottles.
"Part of the African tradition is that bottles trapped evil spirits," says Gundaker, who edited "Keep Your Head to the Sky: Interpreting African American Ground." "In African American yards, one might say the bottle catches negativity."
An empty chair sitting next to a driveway might mean simply beware.
"If you look at an empty chair by the driveway," Gundaker says, "you realize people put them there as a reminder somebody could be sitting there looking at them and that visitors should behave properly when they come on their property.
"If you realize there is a pattern to how people use ordinary objects, you realize they are just not ordinary junk. People put meaning into things."
'A Mess of Homey Flowers'
It was a Negro yard around a Negro house in a Negro settlement that looked to the payroll of the G. and G. Fertilizer works for its support.
But there was something happy about the place. The front yard was parted in the middle by a sidewalk from gate to door-step, a sidewalk edged on either side by quart bottles driven neck down into the ground on a slant. A mess of homey flowers planted without a plan but blooming cheerily from their helter-skelter places. The fence and house were whitewashed. The porch and steps scrubbed white.
--Zora Neale Hurston, "The Gilded Six-Bits"
Prettify the Yard
Russell Adams, chairman of the department of Afro-American studies at Howard University, knows what it means to have an African American garden. Although his own yard now is a manicured lawn that fits the suburban picture of many middle-class black professionals, he grew up with a black yard. And he remembers it fondly. It's simply culture, he says; it's maintaining the tradition of the mothers and grandmothers and forefathers and what they brought with them about farming and gardening from their native lands.
Adams says his grandmother had an eclectic yard in the South. Among the flowers, she planted onions and speckled peas. She planted okra and squash. She would alternate the rows, so when the squash came in yellow, the okra would be blooming with purplish flowers.
And Adams remembers sweeping the yard, an art form still preserved in West Africa.
"We had to sweep the yard with a certain pattern," Adams remembers. "There is a ritual of getting the yard broom. That was to go to the woods nearby and get a certain kind of stalk, a tall plant, and you would wrap half a dozen together to make the broom and use the leaves on the ends of things. It was the equivalent of straw. You would sweep backward so the tracks would not be visible when you finished. You had to do it evenly so you would have a nice herringbone pattern against the yard. This was especially important for Easter and Christmas Eve.
"We were told to do an especially good job on Christmas Eve so Santa Claus would know that nobody had been there. The Easter business, the house should be clean and the yard should be clean. There should be no unwanted grass."
Adams says country people did not "do lawns."
The saying goes: You live in the country, you kill the grass in your yard. You live in the city, you grow the grass in the yard.
"This is traceable back to Nigeria and West Africa. To have no unwanted grass in this clean space and any other unwanted green thing."
To have a garden in the South was to "prettify" your yard. The fancy way of saying it would be to "make it beautiful." But the right word to use was to "prettify" the garden and it means, according to Adams, "I am expressing myself beyond the requirements of the situation."
An Extension of the Home
Ruth Collette, who retired from the telephone company in 1994 and took a job at Behnke Nurseries just because she loves flowers so much, is tiptoeing in her garden. The garden is still green and lush despite the summer's drought. She comes out and waters it at night, when no one is looking, even though there are no restrictions on her Southeast Washington neighborhood.
"I like things," Collette is saying as she shows off the Chinese lantern that sits red and bold in the middle of her back yard full of morning glory, elephant's-ears and moon blossoms. "I said when I got to be an old lady, I would wear funny hats," she says. She is wearing a straw hat turned up at the rim, and it suits her.
She is picking up a gazing ball, a crystal ball of mirrored glass, that has fallen over. "For many years," she says, "grandmothers had gazing balls in their back yards." Collette has two, and they sit just as pretty in her foliage.
In her garden, she grows faith and azaleas. "Every day I would get up, showing I had a little faith, and run out to see whether they were still here."
Collette says she has a pile of rocks and she plans to paint them beautiful colors: reds, yellows and greens. "And I'm going to put them in a place. What that will signify, I don't know, but I couldn't throw away these rocks. They are my found rocks," she says.
She says she likes finding things and bringing them into her garden to make it beautiful, but not junky. "I think of my yard as an extension of my home, and the earth is like my carpet, and the fence and flowers are like my walls."
Lawn and Order
As Richard Westmacott toured the South, looking for answers to the question of what makes a black yard, he learned that "the use of compositions of manufactured yard ornaments, found objects, and flowers in various combinations . . . is a common phenomenon in the vernacular gardens of many cultures," he says.
He found that although plants were sometimes used for edging, some gardeners simply used what they found: rocks, bricks and bottles.
Sarah Johnson, he writes, remembers that her mother used snuff jars: "She would save those jars and put them along the walkway in the front. And it was the most beautiful little walkway that I've ever seen. People would admire it, come out to see it."
In South Carolina, he says, he found a yard edged with soda bottles filled with different colored liquids.
In his trek, he found that many gardeners used containers for growing flowers, including water troughs, chicken feeders and washing machine tubs.
Tire urns are common. You can find them sometimes painted white and cut like tulips and filled with dirt and flowers, sitting prettily in the yards of some houses in Washington.
On 36th Street SE, James Milloy has taken scraps of material and made his yard pretty. He has created a lawn statement by lining colored rocks, bordered with vinyl siding and flashing. He has planted trees that bloom from chairs and posted them on either side of the path that parts the yard and leads to his front door. He has spray-painted rocks gold and set them on pedestals.
In Virgil McDonald's yard, there is the presence of his grandfather, Papa Clark. Papa Clark was the mayor of an all-black town in Florida. McDonald did not know his grandfather, but his relatives would remind him how much he was like his grandfather and how much his grandfather liked trees and things that can't be moved.
In his yard, he has planted two oak trees and built benches with his own hands and anchored them.
"I'm attracted to sturdy items. I'm not attracted to flimsy things," says McDonald, 58, who is retired from the D.C. Department of Human Services. "It's the permanency, the fact you are doing something that is not ephemeral. I like the oak tree for its endurance and strength."
If you go back to Goldsboro, Fla., you will find the trees that Papa Clark planted are still there.
Sweep. Sweep. Sweep.
Catherine Quick is still sitting on her swinging chair, admiring the handiwork that is her back yard. She has shaped it, moved things around, planted over rock, added the patio. She sweeps it constantly. Sweep. Sweep. Sweep. Her neighbors tell her she tiptoes down her stairs so early in the morning with her broom that she looks like a carefree teenager. She sweeps her walk and theirs, too. Her neighbors say to keep up with her might kill them.
"There is no use in slowing down," she says. She is never still for long, cleaning her rooms in and out.
When asked her age, she folds her arms and looks out of the sides of her eyes.
"Excuse me?" she says, reacting to the irreverent question. She heard it. But she has chosen to answer it with a question.
Suffice it to say, she came to Washington from Wilson, N.C., in the 1930s and she'd rather talk about the flowers and how she talks to them.
"When I was a little girl, my grandmother was a great gardener. She grew zinnias. She would talk to them, and I do, too. They have no way of knowing how pretty they are unless I tell them."
She points to the azaleas that were 79 cents when she bought them and to the patio where she covered up the grass and made her own swept yard.
"I didn't like that grass," she says. "It never did do right."
CAPTION: Ruth Collette, top, tends to her garden; the Milloy yard features trees that bloom from chairs, and gold-painted rocks.
CAPTION: Virgil McDonald adjusts a planter in his Washington garden. "I'm attracted to sturdy items," he says.