Confessions of an Urban Planter

Growing cotton in Jackson, Mississippi is problematic, yet while well south of the fabled Delta and sorely lacking in expansive fields and farming equipment, the capital city of Mississippi does have a favorable climate for the cotton plant.

In my hometown of Bruce, Mississippi, well into the hills, Mr. Buddy Massey, who ran the Shell Station on the corner of Hwys. 9 and 32 grew cotton every year. Everyone sort of chuckled at it, but the townspeople loved talking about how his crop was coming along. I wanted to do that here, reinforce a sense of community that I’d felt growing up and was certain others here remember as well. This was an ambitious undertaking in the heavily-wooded old neighborhood in Jackson I call home, Belhaven, where many years before I’d hacked out a small garden on what was once a barren, sun-scorched verge at the corner of two long streets. The sun is strong there, and not only was the soil hard-packed, it had the stump of a long-dead oak embedded in the clay. But former mayor Leslie McLemore had the stump removed (thank you, Dr. McLemore), and armed with only a shovel and persistence, I eventually worked the ground into a garden that grows a good variety of flowering plants and vegetables over the course of a given year. I figured if Buddy could grow cotton, I could too.

This project encountered obstacles right off the bat. First and perhaps foremost I discovered you need permission to grow cotton in Mississippi; the shadow of the boll weevil still looms over the Cotton Kingdom, and the Mississippi Code states specifically that “Every person growing cotton in this state shall furnish to the commissioner and the corporation on forms supplied by the commissioner such information as the commissioner may require concerning the size and location of all commercial cotton fields and of noncommercial plantings of cotton grown as an ornamental plant or for any other purposes.” Having found that out, I knew having the Mississippi Department of Agriculture in a building a mile and a half away magnified my chances of getting busted for cotton, and since the novelty of being hauled to court for growing cotton in Mississippi did have some appeal, I called the Commission. They in turn directed me to a man at Mississippi State University who assured me that such a small “field” as mine wasn’t an agricultural time bomb. Second, getting the seed; cotton seed, because of the restrictions, is not something you find in a yard and garden emporium. They seem to be sold not by the bushel, nor even the pound, but by the seed; the individual seed, mind you. At a loss, I issued an appeal on the local social networks for help, which came forthwith, netting me not only enough seeds for my modest enterprise, but enough to plant a city block. For some time, I considered the novelty of becoming a Jesse Cottonseed, spreading the wealth of white gold across Jackson’s cityscape, but in the end I decided that I would never live down the shame of being the man who reintroduced the boll weevil to Mississippi. I’d probably be pilloried, then burned at the stake, at the very least tarred and feathered and exiled to Arizona. Third, waiting for it to get warm; we had a typical winter, but a cool spring. The first batch, planted in outside seed flats on April Fool’s Day of course failed, so I decided to sit on my haunches and seed while my part of the earth tilted more towards Sol. While waiting for it to get warmer, I decided to dig up a new bed for the cotton. I’d already planned to put it in the center of the main bed where I get my best sun, but just west (all of about 5 yards) was another patch of ground covered in grass. In my mind I’d always known that I’d have to hew out another bed there, but this time I needed more than a shovel. This earth, Yazoo clay to be exact, had been baked by the brutal Mississippi sun for decades and was full of gravel, broken bricks and fragments of concrete and asphalt. I found this out on my first efforts at making it useful for cultivation.

So I put out a cattle call on the local social media for a garden adz. After much back and forth, I ended up with a pick-axe with a horizontal blade weighing about 50 lbs. What followed was a series of excruciatingly painful lessons on performing heavy manual labor with a body that had grown soft and old involving such simple elements of physics as gravity and motion. In the end, I had not one bed but two: the one intended and another across the parking lot entrance, smaller and with a trellis. I dug the beds as deep as I could after reading up on cotton roots, which are said to extend up to nine feet in an alluvial soil such as the Delta’s. People, I did my best, but I only ended up with a bed that is about two and a half feet deep. I filled it with a mixture of clayey sand and humus, Mrs. Hutto’s garden soil. As a good son of Calhoun County, there I buried a sweet potato that had sprouted over the winter behind the refrigerator as a blessing on my endeavors and waited for the earth in orbit to tilt closer to the sun, another lesson in physics, this time involving celestial mechanics.

Springs in Mississippi are usually brief; most years we jump directly from winter to summer with little respite at the end of March, but this year Father Winter, who had enjoyed a brutal reign in the north with record snows and lows, lingered here in the South with cool temperatures and cloudy skies. Any other year I’d have been grateful for his late company, but I had a crop to plant, one that needed warmth. The temperatures remained cool and rainy until the end of April; then suddenly the skies cleared and the sun came out in force. The earth, which up until then had been too soggy to work, suddenly firmed and my shovel seemed inadequate. But it was all I had, so I began digging, one square yard at a time, sometimes only one a day, at the same time working in the sand and humus the cotton needed with the clayey soil. The teachings of toil and tedium brought home another lesson of how hard people worked to grow cotton when it was still a farm crop, something people raised to provide income to abet that from what little food they had to sell. If they were lucky, they had a plow and a mule, but they were no strangers to hoes and shovels, and had to deal with weeds in the same way I do, by uprooting. Likewise, herbicides and pesticides were out of the question, since calling in a crop duster to fly down Poplar Boulevard might have peppered the gyros at Keifer’s with legal consequences potentially much worse than growing cotton without a permit and besides, with the exception of an occasional light fertilizer, my garden has always been free of chemicals. I prayed for some Muse of Cotton to grace my crop with benevolence as she must have for those who came before me.

The first week of May, Jim Steeby from Stewart, Mississippi, said cotton planting had begun in the Delta. With two beds ready, I sowed my cotton by hand, which was a less-than-mystical experience than I had anticipated, but shouldn’t have, since cotton itself is a plant, and what aura it has is what we have given it; besides, it was the seeds themselves which no doubt found an exhilaration in being thrust into warm, moist soil after such a wait. Of the four beds planned, the ones on the east and west were planted on May 5. Since my appeal for seeds had netted no less than three copious batches (in different colors, I might add, blue, brown and purple due to the fungicides which coated them), they were mixed together in a batch and sown, some in short rows, others in small hills. Predictably, once the seed was planted, the rains ceased, and watering began, not just for the cotton, but for the other seeds and seedlings already in place; their roots, once established, would sustain them in months to come, but the roots themselves had to be encouraged.

The next two beds were planted on May 10, after the soil had been broken up with an adz borrowed from a nearby neighbor, then churned by another near neighbor with a gas-powered tiller, which thoroughly belittled my former efforts. Sandy clay and humus was mixed with existing dirt to a depth of at least a foot. The seeds were sown in roughly four very short rows in both beds, and though rain threatened all day, it never appeared, so watering was again in order. On the same day, I noticed that the first seedlings had begun to appear in the pot and the west bed. Again, their emergence seemed anticlimactic. Perhaps I was simply tired, or perhaps I was distracted by other events in the garden, since other plants were up as well: sunflowers, morning glories and moonflowers, marigolds, plum grannies and zinnias, cherry tomatoes and celosia. The coneflowers were budding, as were the orphaned Easter lilies I’d garnered from neighbors, and the herbs (chives, mint, oregano and others) were at their late spring peak. The garden was coming into being, and it promised to be a bountiful year.

For whatever reason, the cotton seeds proved fickle. To make a series of mini-rows, a total of perhaps fifty were planted each round, each planting a mixture of the three seed types, those with a purple coating proving the most viable. Rainy weather in mid-May helped the second set, and before long the rows (as such) began to take shape, not only in lines but in triangles and circles. Only the closest of seedlings needed thinning. In Delta fields, such fussy tending is not necessary, but being fractional this acreage needed more attention to crowding; in this instance, optimal outcome involving big, pretty plants that would bloom and boll. A rainy May helped; the cotyledons and stems grew big and fat. By the end of the month, some seedlings had preliminary leaves, and I decided to wait on thinning. On the one hand, I wanted the best plants possible, but then I’ve seen cotton growing close together, and in the best situation of open field and plentiful rain, all the plants were tall, leafy and in flower. Somehow back in the back of my mind I kept trying to imagine what kind of machine planted cotton, and I couldn’t envision it being less haphazard than me. I tried to imagine how cotton must have looked in its primeval state in Tehuacán, predictably failed but persisted. While many scoffed at my crop, growing cotton had become more than an endeavor; it had become a responsibility, and my care paid off. By the first week in June, the cotton was about six inches tall and the cotyledons were being replaced by true leaves. Though my beds received only five hours of direct sun a day, the stems were strong and red, so I decided thinning needn’t be that drastic, since cotton in row crops grows much closer together.

In the Deep South, we have nothing resembling the graduated springs and falls of more northerly latitudes, and while our winters are predictably brief and comparatively mild, summer has such a duration that it can be divided into three parts: new summer, high summer and far summer. The summer solstice marks the beginning of the high summer, when daytime temperatures are in the nineties and seventies at night. By that time, the cotton was a foot high, but overshadowed by early summer annuals such as zinnias, first crop marigolds and sweet cherry tomatoes. With marigolds and cotton still in mind, more marigolds are planned for early August before the cotton bolls. By that time the old maroon plume coxcomb will bloom, the yellow plum grannies ripen, the red popcorn will begin to brown and the low hedge of asters make such a show of blue as to bring the October sky to ground. In the meantime, it was lay-by time.

After a wet June, when the petty dregs of cool air from the north had wrung what rain they could from the encroaching Gulf winds, a mountain of hot still air settled over Jackson, and the sun was unrelenting, turning upon the city as a child with a magnifying glass but without pity might focus on an insect. The light itself had gravity, a throbbing, beating pressure that made any lengthy walks in the afternoon an exercise in humility and endurance. The cotton plant is what horticulturalists call a heavy feeder, meaning that it needs more nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium than an ordinary garden-variety soil can provide in order to achieve maximum growth. Cotton needs a lot of nitrogen, which was bad news for my tomatoes, but the cotton had priority. Since the cotton was planted very near the end of spring, the rest of the garden needed much tending before the solstice; the flowers and fruit of May had to make room for those of October: orange marigolds and autumn sunflowers, corn and gourds as well as hollyhocks and hibiscus for the coming year. These all had to be in the ground by the first week in July, and with the rain and heat the weeding became even more arduous. So though the cotton grew taller, I took no notice of what was happening beneath the canopy of leaves and found myself surprised in early July by the first blossom, a pale crimped envelope of crepe protruding from a frilly green box. Again, I’d been anticipating a transcendental moment for the occasion, but my reaction was more composed of surprise and curiosity, which for all I know may well be the essential elements of a transcendent experience. I lack a frame of reference. Pale at first, the petals of the blossoms turned a rich purple before dropping. My neighbor John Lewis said that in Leflore County they have a saying: “First day white, second day red, third day from my birth I’m dead!” When the blooms had fallen they left a tight, blocky wad of green still enclosed in a feathery case. On this bud empires had grown and tumbled, but other work distracted me.

July brought a heat like I couldn’t remember in many years, the sun a hot press upon the world, heavy and dense, but the autumn seeds broke from the earth and reached for the sky, hungry for light. Their growth soon replaced the spring bloomers, which had to be cut. Room also had to be found for plants that languished in other places for various reasons, others had to be moved and some culled even when the temperatures were in the eighties at midnight, but any sincere gardener knows that caring for plants is an honorable duty, and one often done against odds. Such are the toils of the earth. August brought the far summer, when the sun begins to lessen but the heat lingers like a rash no ointment will cure. Some people maintain that the southeastern United States would be just as dry as the southwest if it weren’t for hurricanes, and after once enduring an autumn drought in Tupelo that killed most of the azaleas and dogwoods, I believe it. Clouds would form and rain would fall over the Pearl, but not over LeFleur’s Bluff, which held my little share of earth.

Remember that this is a very small patch of cotton in a city, so access to water could be found; Jackson does have a water system, however antiquated. The problem was finding a tap, which involved negotiations with a local landlord who owns several apartment buildings nearby (including mine, which is unfortunately across the street). His property just up the hill has an outside tap about 200 feet away. He readily agreed to let me use it; not only that, but he gave me a better hose, a sprinkler and a spray nozzle to boot. The sprinkler covered the entire garden (all 100-odd square feet, if that) and with this water, which ultimately came from the Pearl itself, the cotton and corn, gourds and hollyhocks thrived, particularly the cotton, which began to set bolls the last week in July. As mentioned, cotton is a hibiscus, as is okra, the latter with a pod, the former a boll, both exhibiting a symmetry that is architectural under examination, one elongated and the other compact, one edible and the other not, but both threads in the woof and weave of the fabric that is the South. As I’d hoped, the cotton outgrew the celosia, four-o’-clocks and marigolds, all planted at the same time. The other plants blossomed and stoutened first, and though the cotton began blooming as well, it kept stretching towards the by now waning but still powerful sun. Very soon, a canopy of cotton thrust above the flowers, broadening as it secured stronger light. Beneath this undulating blanket of green more blossoms opened and the bolls swelled. What weeds grew beneath were smothered in the cotton’s shade, and I grew lackadaisical in dealing with them; in time, I’d get the unwanted before they went to seed, but for now I could stand and wait rather than crouch and search. It was lay-by time, after all.

During the last week in July and the first in August I found myself continually researching the growth and development of the cotton plant, which as luck would have is one of the most complex structures in the kingdom Plantae. I wanted to know such things when maximum production of bolls takes place (from 80 to 110 days after cotton is planted), how cotton responds to heat and water stress (badly) and why the buds are called “squares” but they’re triangular bracts; nobody knows, though a graduate prominent graduate of Mississippi State University (to my mind the final court of authority when it comes to cotton cultivation) did point out that an open boll has four locks of fiber and four carpels which dry into a bur with prickly tips that make picking cotton by hand an often bloody business. The garden received a long soaking once a week, and while this benefited all the plants, the cotton needed nitrogen. With nothing to give but a general-purpose fertilizer, I held off feeding the plants until cotton seed meal could be found. I’d heard that it’s risky to fertilize in such heat anyway, and though the season was rapidly waning, I simply watered when needed, and had to be content.

Two months after the solstice, the intensity of the sun had lessened, but because the earth had begun to tilt back in its orbit, the cotton plot received more continual light (if fractionally) as the sun cleared the tree line south of the garden. It was then almost to the day that the first vestiges of cold air presaging the oncoming season came sweeping across the Lower Forty, bringing frost to North Dakota but to Mississippi nothing more than a steady northerly breeze that in a higher latitude might well be construed as a sirocco. Summer’s rule was under siege, and though the heat persisted in the days, nights no longer wrapped you in a suffocating blanket. It was hurricane season; sere, still and expectant. The first boll opened the last week of August. I saw it under the light of a nearly-full moon, a low, white symmetrical glow against the shadowed green. Again, no thunder and lightning came, but though a friend in Arcola had sent me photos of a local field crop waist-high and plush with open bolls along with disparaging comments about my “scrappy-ass Jackson ‘plantation wanna-be’ cotton”, I was proud of my little fraction of an acre. It was, after all, making a crop, one that fit well with my modest and unpretentious character as an urban planter. Making a bale out of it might be impossible, but I’d have cotton to harvest.

To my astonishment, the opening cotton proved unrecognizable to many if not most of my neighbors. On many occasions I found myself faced with the question, “What is that?” as someone pointed to the whitening bolls. “Cotton,” I’d say, and they would either slap their foreheads or form a silent “o” with their lips. These reactions became a general rule of thumb for determining who of my neighbors were from where, and I’d always ask, but then I found that people from North Carolina and Tennessee didn’t recognize the plant. Most of them didn’t know an oak from an elm, either, but I’d cherished the notion that most Southerners would recognize the most iconic crop of their homeland out of repetition if nothing else. Perhaps the image of a cotton boll itself has become so divergent from reality that its actuality has become inconceivable to anyone save those who plant the seed.

Sure, I was a half-assed farmer in the middle of Mississippi’s capital city, but I was making an effort. As the weeks drew on, every surface of the cotton, leaves, stems, even the ripening bolls, became scorched, ruddy and freckled beneath the unrelenting sun. The change in color was so drastic I’d be willing to bet that big-time cotton farmers can look at a photo of a full field and tell within a month or less of how long it’s been in the ground as well as if it needed a goosing of nitrogen before it set a crop. While the cotton was reddening, the trees were yellowing, becoming sallow, assuming that peculiar jaundice I found familiar from past Septembers. The air itself became hazy because what brief winds we had were picking up the dusty earth and passing it around as they do with pine pollen in June. Everything had a sense of resignation about it, even the light, which seemed suspended in ether, hung between a pale blue sky and a dark dun earth. The world was a sepia silhouette, and the leaves were falling. With the failing of the light, the tentative knocking of Father Winter brought about the decline of the cotton plants themselves. Blistered by the sun and exhausted in their efforts to produce seed, the stems drooped under the weight of the swelling bolls, which were opening ever-so-slowly while the autumn sunflowers were swaying in a northerly breeze.

October proved the coda for the cotton; the heat was gone, the light lessening, their dance was over, and the year itself was coming to a close. Sure, for all my work and attention, I was left with a mere bundle of cotton, no more than a grocery sack, but the real harvest was reaped from the people who were a part of this creation of a bit of nostalgia and whimsy on a street in a Southern city.

Cotton field on Hwy. 49, Lula, Mississippi. Photo by Euphus Ruth.
Cotton field on Hwy. 49, Lula, Mississippi. Photo by Euphus Ruth.

One Reply to “Confessions of an Urban Planter”

  1. What a great story of determination and fortitude. How wonderful that you provide such a beautiful display for your neighborhood. I learned a lot about growing cotton. I had no idea about the different stages and especially how deep the roots went. Keep educating the masses with your delightful writings.

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