Saturday, August 8, 2009



Jesse Splawn at 77 was still going strong as a gardener when I met him in 1989. He had lived his entire life since he was three on a hundred-acre family farm outside of Brownsville, Oregon located in the beautiful lush Willamette Valley. His roots were deep in the area.

Never marrying, he was an independent and knowledgeable person of the land. I sat down with him many an afternoon on an old log in his yard while he shared his life stories with me. One of his stories was about his ornamental front-dooryard garden. Of course this is not what Jesse called it; to him it was his, “mother’s garden.”

By definition, historically, a front-dooryard garden is one that is within the usually enclosed front yard of a home. The Splawn front-dooryard garden began in 1915 when Jesse was three. His mother planted and maintained the garden and her children helped with the weeding. Jesse assumed the care of the garden after his mother died in the mid-1950s. He assured me that it was still of the same basic arrangement that his Missouri-born mother first planted in the early 1900s.


Jesse's mother lived her early life in Missouri and moved to Oregon shortly after she married Jesse's Oregon born father. His mother's garden pattern was reflective, perhaps, of Missouri gardens. She moved to Oregon as a young adult so she had time to fill her mind with Missouri patterns. Jesse, claimed her garden was plotted out according to,”what she knew in her head." and not by the,”garden pattern books" that were available at that time.

Following is a description of the garden pattern:

The layout of the garden was of two (2) approximately 30-foot long beds separated surrounded by weedy-mown pathways. The two beds were rectangular, one being approximately four feet wide and the second ten feet wide and were positioned perpendicular to the front porch. The ten foot wide bed lined up against a fence line and contained large shrubs as well as perennials and rose bushes. The four foot wide bed contained the same as the ten foot minus the shrubs.

The front porch overlooked the garden and was a small open one with a waist-high railing along its front. The garden and the porch were south facing. Both garden and porch were integral parts of the front-dooryard garden complex.


On the front porch were very old pots and pans that were damaged but provided excellent containers for growing plants.

Jesse got the plants for the old pots at the nearby cemetery. He explained that there was a place where the plants were dumped and he would pick out a few for nurturing. His front porch garden had a quaint look although that was not the intent. His nurturing was practical and being quaint was not a part of his thinking.


At the end of the four foot wide bed, near the front porch, was a wooden unpainted whirly-gig that was of the same design as the original one that was built for his mother's first plantings. The whirly-gig was a simple, unpainted design, the top piece turning with the direction of the wind. About four feet high it was made of four pieces - the pole, head, body, and the propeller that turned with the wind. Over the years the whirly-gig had to have various parts replaced as the damp Oregon winters eventually rotted the wood. The whirly-gig remained the same design through all the repairs.

Jesse maintained the bed by shallow digging with a shovel -- no mulch -- just soil exposed around the plants. He did not use any chemicals or even organic fertilizer or compost. He just let Mother Nature take care of the health of the plants as he felt that she did a good job. Even with Oregon's dry summers he did not use any watering system to supplement the droughty weather. The garden evolved apparently from knowledge of tough plants that could survive this type of care.

Roses were the predominant plants in both beds. In the wide bed a Harrison rose bush grew. Jesse said it had its origins from the early days when his father's ancestors traveled with the root stock along the Oregon Trail..

Occasionally, a small snake slithered in and out of the grass as one walked around the garden -- it was rich with wild critters. Birds sang woven complexities of various sounds. One of the old hardwood trees near the garden had an old blooming rose that climbed twenty-plus feet up the trunk and into the lower branches. Overall it was a chorus of nature's spontaneity.

Jesse died about ten years ago. He was the last caretaker. The garden no longer exists. It was an example of a distinctive folk vernacular garden. It contained artistic embellishment, social history, and individual predilections. It had garden patterns that were woven into the social fabric of early settlement in Oregon. It was a naturalistic form of expression conveying the emotional roots of the Splawn family.

Post photos by Barbara, Folkways Notebook

1 comment:

  1. I grew up in St. Louis, MO. and Jesse mother's garden is just like the ones I grew up with back in the 50's. My mother, her father both had gardens like this. My Italian grandfather had one too but his was full of vesgatables. This article took me back to seeing my grandfather with his old push mower cutting the grass up and down the asiles and he would let me push the mowner with him. The good old days of summertime in St.Louis.