In my family the south 40 was a reference to my parents’ back yard, which was anything but large. Their home sat on a small lot in the heart of Sewickley, a village outside of Pittsburgh, Pa. along the Ohio River, and their back yard was tiny. The lot may have been 30 X 100 at most.
The reference to the massive acreage was because of the large yield of produce from the small plot of land every summer. My parents had several fruit trees: a peach, apple and cherry tree. The peach tree did not survive because it became diseased, and produced tasteless and tiny peaches. The cherry tree, however, produced an abundance of cherries, which mom gladly said she would shared with the birds, since they took the first of the ripe cherries. There was enough for everyone. These were sour cherries which made the best cherry pies. I even stained a brand new pair of pants with cherry juice once, while pitting a batch.
Mom and dad had created a paradise for themselves with a produce garden, which had to share space with their car. There was no garage but only a drive up space from the alley which was large enough for the vehicle. The fruit trees outlined the garden area and a low retaining wall separated the grassy back yard from the vegetables and car. Dad would relish his time off from work and lay in his hammock on the postage sized grassy portion. They even had a picnic table back there.
I remember when we first moved in to the house and we all looked at the back yard. I envisioned a dog house and little dog in back, but their plans were grander, a yard and a sustaining vegetable garden with a place to relax. They began to transform the yard, from front to back into a peaceful retreat. One of my mother’s most favorite plants was her raspberry bushes which lined the opposite part of the property from where the car was. These raspberries represented the wild raspberries she picked in fields where she grew up, Kosów Poland. She would take my kids out there to pick fresh berries, even if there were only one or two to be had.
During the garden’s hay day, they grew pole beans, lima beans, cucumbers, tomatoes galore, dill, parsley, kohlrabi and Brussel sprouts. Dad lovingly took care of his tomato plants, by watering them at dusk most nights by using a watering can instead of a hose. He felt they received better hydration. He did produce some of largest Beefsteak tomatoes. One year they even tried to grow corn, but there were issues with cross-pollination, and the plants did not bear fruit. The back portion of the garden was bordered by a fence, a white picket fence lined by poplar trees which created a hedge. The fence also had a gate which enclosed the car in its gravel based space. You may be perceiving a pattern here. Privacy was absolutely a must. I also remember tall, majestic sunflowers gracing the property in front of the hedge during the summer.
As the years went on, the garden became smaller. The upkeep involved was too much for what it yielded; although tomatoes and herbs were still grown. The fence was mended several times, and flowers eventually replaced the raspberry bushes. My dad became ill, and his bit of paradise became neglected, while mom did what she could to clean it up every spring. She allowed wild flowers to grow everywhere. Even if the flowers were wild as seeds blew in with the wind, she loved them and let them take over wherever space they wanted. Her philosophy was that if they are green and wanted to flower, let them alone.
The garden, in its abundant state, went on for over a decade after they moved in which brings me back to the south 40 reference. My husband Alan coined the phrase about their yard, because he was amazed at what the little patch of land produced. Our family now uses the phrase when there is an abundant back yard of not just produce, but of beauty which grows and brings us peace and joy.