LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
My favorite late-winter/early spring ritual, when I was growing up in the head of Blair Branch,was burning Mom’s big rock lettuce bed.
At the edge of our yard, just a few steps from the kitchen door, lay a huge sandstone boulder that weighed several hundred tons. It looked, more or less, like a wedge with one flat side down but that bottom side was buried so deeply it was impossible to tell what it actually looked like.
Above ground it had a surface slanted at about 45 degrees that extended upward for about twenty feet and it was about 15 feet wide. The sides and back were straight up and down and the peak or ridge was about twelve feet high.
It was simply called “the big rock” and it was a favorite place to play for my brothers, me and any kids who might be hanging out at our place. With a bit of imagination it could be a fort, a mighty sailing ship, an ancient castle, a B-52 bomber or even a mountain.
Anytime we siblings and our friends defended, sailed, flew or climbed it, we would loosen tiny grains of sand that washed off and settled at its base after every rain. Mom kept cow and chicken manure piled around the base of the big rock while still leaving plenty room for us sailors, soldiers, and explorers to have easy access to its slanted surface.
As the manure composted it also mixed with the eroding sand and formed the best potting soil I’ve ever seen. Mom used the mixture in several flower beds, various containers in which she started a wide variety of vegetable seedlings, and to form growing hills in her “big rock garden.”
Right after supper on the first warm day about this time every year, we’d rake all the good stuff up in a pile and out of the way so that Mom could sow her “lettuce bed.” At least that’s what she called it, but in reality it was more of a salad bed. When seeded, it would contain at least four varieties of lettuce, three different radishes, carrots and the seed for stuff that would later be transplanted to the main garden, such as cabbage, tomatoes and peppers.
The bed was six or eight feet wide and maybe 15 feet long. The backside was formed by the base of the big rock while the front side and each end consisted of thick locust posts or wide pieces of lumber she could prop on their edges.
But before any digging, planting or siding took place, the bed had to be burned off to kill weed seed, insect eggs and larva and to make the ground more fertile.
We would head for the pasture fields and break off arm loads of dry broom sedge clumps along with dead iron weed, horse weed, goldenrod, and queen of the meadow stalks. We carried or dragged fallen tree limbs and coffee sacks full of dead leaves from the woods surrounding our place. Hedgerow clippings and dead rose canes saved from the year before also made the burn pile as did old sweet corn stalks, tomato vines and other residue from last year’s gardens.
We started out with a thick layer of dried grass and leaves, then a layer of thin, woody stuff such as the hedge clippings, corn stalks and rose canes, then the smaller limbs and finally the serious wood until the pile was about five feet tall and more than covered the entire bed.
Dad lit the end of a weed stalk and touched it to the grass in several places. At first, there was a thick, billowing column of white smoke, so dense that, on more than one occasion, nearby neighbors came running to see if our house was on fire. In a matter of seconds, the smoke turned into a fire with flames shooting high into the air and red hot sparks falling back to the ground.
After the pile had burned down a ways, all the remaining tree limbs were tossed onto it, creating yet another column of darker smoke and a shower of air borne embers.
The bed of ashes would be left to smolder overnight and, after supper the next day, we would work the soil and ashes up with various digging tools until it was flat and soft and smooth as silk.
Mom’s peas would already be up but as far as she was concerned, serious gardening actually commenced when the big rock lettuce bed was finally sowed. Mom thought the fun had just begun but I thought, back then, it was pretty much over.