As the seasons begin to shift, I am excited not only for longer days and the Chicago traditions that make our summers incomparable, but also for the fresh fruits and vegetables that are grown in my Pops’ garden. Though harvest happens during the late summer months, I enjoy the early summer days of seeing him in the garden preparing the ground for local, plentiful produce. 

With a green oasis in the backyard of his two-flat building in the South Side neighborhood of Auburn Gresham, Pops is what most would define as an urban farmer. The garden has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember and has become an integral part of our family’s diet.

Pops' Garden. Photo courtesy of Corli Jay.

Pops has worked the land for generations, but no one seems to remember exactly when he started the garden. His first grandchild, my cousin Tony, says Pops has had the garden since the 1970s at least, when he was a little kid. Pops manages to bring back the garden every year for a new generation to enjoy and admire.

In the garden, he grows tomatoes (green and red), bell peppers, collard greens, snap peas and cucumbers, my favorite. As early spring in Chicago is still too cold to begin the process, he starts turning the soil in May. I remember him doing this when I was a child, but I didn’t know what was happening. I recall being angry when he’d do it because we didn’t have the extra room in the backyard to play anymore.

He says he likes to begin the annual labor in his small field around Mother’s Day each year. I find this to be a bit ironic, as he is tending to Mother Earth. We all celebrate the women we come from, with this year being the first Mother’s Day we’ll celebrate without my great-grandmother Rosie Tolliver, a.k.a Granny.

Although we affectionately call him Pops, my great-grandfather was born Louis Tolliver in 1932. That’s the same year that dozens of Black sharecroppers died of syphilis during the Tuskegee Experiment in Alabama, the neighboring state of Pops’ birthplace of Mississippi. Pops moved to Chicago during the second wave of the Great Migration in search of better opportunities for his wife and children.

He would go on to own property in 1967 when he moved from the West Side to the South Side —eventually growing vegetation for him and his descendants to consume. With his garden, he showcases the resilience of our people in a society whose goal has always been to stifle our progression. If you ask him why he decided to start the garden, he’d tell you because he wanted to watch things grow.

Pops. Photo courtesy of Corli Jay.

“I did that because I ain’t have nothing else to do but sit around.” At the age of 90, I’ve never known Pops to sit around. He’s operated Louis Auto, the auto repair shop that’s run in the garage of his Auburn Gresham home, since 1978, way before I was born in 1995. He still repairs cars today, a decade shy of 100. 

He says that nothing about the gardening process is difficult; the hardest part is making sure not to plant the seeds too early, since spring starts late in Chicago, and working to make sure the grass doesn’t take over and choke out the growing crops. “You have to make sure you clean up the grass from around the plant. You chop it and pull it up. I pull a lot of it up by hand.” 

Last year was the first time he says he grew popcorn but says he won’t be doing it again this year. When I asked him about the work that goes into growing popcorn, he said it takes 90 days to grow and is another crop to be maintained. “It all depends on how you feel,” he said.

Pops in the garden. Photo courtesy of Corli Jay.

Pops grew up in a family of sharecroppers in Percy, Mississippi, but his father had his own personal garden too. So their family ate off the land. Pops described the Mississippi garden as being much larger than his in Auburn Gresham. The Mississippi garden was a piece of land that spanned the length from the Auburn Gresham house to the back of the alley. “He raised everything; onions, cabbage, tomatoes, popcorn,” he said, reminiscing on his father’s garden.

Though Pops’ garden is exceptionally smaller, the impact it has had on our family has been grand. As Pops worked the land, my Granny would use the fresh produce in her recipes, such as fried green tomatoes, salads and beef stew, much like his father and mother would do during his adolescence. 

It’s common for my family members to dig into the fruit bowl upon walking into the kitchen to divulge in Pops’ creation in any way they see fit, like cucumbers with salt and ranch or to take home to combine with other ingredients. I often just walk around the garden to look at how the seeds have grown, taking in the abundance of beauty.

Pops' Garden. Photo courtesy of Corli Jay.

This farming season will be the first without my Granny. She passed away in March of this year. She loved the produce from her husband’s garden, often mentioning how the taste was more delightful than store-bought fruits and veggies. Though she won’t be around to enjoy the fruits of his labor, the garden is symbolic of the care and nurture she provided for us as a family throughout her 87 years of life. 

This harvesting season will be one of reflection and appreciation for me and my family as a whole as we deal with the loss of our matriarch, as we consume the vegetation from the garden, reaping the benefits of his dedication.

is a freelance contributor for The TRiiBE.