Southern Agrarianism and the culture of the Old South

Grow What You DON’T Eat

Cotton from the garden

Fruits and vegetables are what most folks think of when they think of gardening. There are, however, other things that are good to grow, but are not for the dinner table. We’ll go into each of these in more detail in future posts, but I wanted to get you thinking about what non-food plants you might want to try growing.

  • Winter Rye – Used to add organic matter to the soil. It also helps control the nematode population, protects the top surface layer of soil, shades out weeds. I had my garden planted in this over the past Winter. It was used as a calibration crop to compare different areas of the garden and to add organic matter to the soil when it was tilled under in the Spring.
  • Cotton – Mainly just a fun crop for most of us. On the other hand, it is a vital component in society and open-pollinated seed stock must be preserved. Each year, I grow a few cotton plants just to keep a supply of seeds and to show visitors where their clothing comes from. The variety I grow – Red Foliated White – is a beautiful plant. The cotton yield from this open-pollinated variety is nowhere near as high as what commercially-grown cotton yields, but I’m not interested in growing commercial hybrids.
  • Luffa Gourd – Sold in stores as Luffa Sponges, they are great for scrubbing in the shower. They also make a great utility scrubber. The very young fruit and flowers can be eaten, but I’ve never tried eating it. They produce numerous beautiful yellow flowers, so we have them planted along the front fence this year.
  • Velvet Bean – This vine was a very commonly grown plant along with corn in the days before cheap fertilizer. It fixes Nitrogen in the soil, supports tall plants in high winds, and shades out weeds with its kudzu-like growth pattern. An interesting side note is its use as a treatment for Parkinson’s Disease.
  • Gourds – Used to make bird houses, water dippers, crafts, and other items.
  • Moringa – This one is a sort-of-food plant (actually a tree). High in vitamins and minerals, the leaves are dried, ground into a powder, then used as a food supplement. This is a very fast growing tree and is often kept pruned to bush size to make harvesting easier.
  • Marigolds – In addition to it’s beautiful flowers, it repels insects when planted among other plants.

What have you grown that isn’t for the dinner table?




  1. Heather

    Good Morning! Years ago, when we lived in Hawai’i, my husband grew a lot of cotton in our backyard garden. Mostly he grew colored cotton, rust color and green mainly. These were from seeds that a friend of ours gave to us because she had many plants growing in her backyard. She and I were in the local spinning and weaving guild and many of the members liked to work with local grown cotton. Its a bit labor intensive to remove the seeds for spinning, but I became fairly proficient at just fluffing up the seeded bolls with my hands and spinning that, bypassing the carding phase, mainly because I didn’t own cotton carders! And in Hawai’i the plants grow very tall, taller than our heads! It was very rewarding. So nice to get up this morning and find an article on growing cotton in my inbox! Many thanks, and may our good Lord bless you and yours!

    • Stephen Clay McGehee

      Good morning, Heather! You’re the only other person I’ve heard of who has grown cotton other than uncles and cousins who grow it on their farms. I really didn’t know that people hand spun and wove cotton. Wool? Yes, but just hadn’t heard of folks working with cotton. I have a shawl that I inherited from my mother. The wool was from sheep raised by one cousin, and another cousin spun and wove it. It’s a prized possession.

      I have a book on order that was published in 1867 titled “Hand-Book on Cotton Manufacture: Or, a Guide to Machine-Building, Spinning and Weaving; With Practical Examples, All Needful Calculations, and Many Useful and Important Tables: The Whole Intended to Be a Complete Yet Compact Authority for the Manufacture” (They liked really long titles back then). Why? because it is the kind of information that is easily lost over time, yet it deals with a vital part of life.

      I’d be really interested in hearing more about the hand spinning and use of cotton that you’ve done. If you know of any good books on the topic, please pass them along. Thank you!

      Yes, The Lord has truly blessed me and my family.

  2. Heather

    Hi Mr. Mcgehee,
    Spinning Cotton, by Olive and Harry Linder was the book I used the most. Also Practical Spinner’s Guide–Cotton, Flax, and Hemp, by Stepheneie Gaustad, and Cotton Spinning, by William Scott Taggart are more recent books. All of them are very useful. I spun the cotton, but to be honest, I enjoy spinning wool better. With wool I wove bags, blankets, yardage, shawls and with wool and cotton I wove many rugs. I love to make practical household items, I have never considered myself an artist, as so many people who weave, sew, etc. like to do nowadays. I also enjoy dyeing, and there are many books out on natural dyes. Early this summer, my 10 year old grandson and I are going to take a walk and pick some dyestuff to dye some wool I spun last year. He’s very excited about it! When I demonstrated spinning to his class at school, the kids were thrilled!!
    And I must agree with you, old books quite often had extremely long titles!
    And your shawl sounds beautiful and amazing. We joke in my family that the only thing from Ireland that we still have is a laundry bag that was spun and woven by some great, great great. Others have wonderful things, we have a laundry bag, which we all love and cherish, by the way!
    Where did you get your luffa seeds? I went to the link you mentioned, but they were all out. already. Do you know of another source? Thought my grandchildren would enjoy that as a project also this spring and summer.
    And I also wanted to mention I agree with you on saving old knowledge, I have many old books bought just for that purpose. But I’ve been so blessed, I knew my grandparents well as I was growing up and learned much from them. My grandfather would tell me stories of his mother when she was a girl in North Carolina during the Civil War. Fascinating stuff. And my mother is 96 and still with us, God bless her.
    So glad you are so blessed, and I enjoy this blog very much. Hope I have helped you out a little. Oh, and Fox Fiber, a website that sells organic cotton seeds, yarn, etc. might be helpful. Sally Fox has been raising colored and white cotton for a very long time. So glad to help and to answer any more questions you may have.


    • Stephen Clay McGehee

      Thank you, Heather. I just send you an email.

  3. John

    I’ve often thought of planting some dual purpose plants like cattails and such for the purpose of, if need be, for food and other uses. As well as pines and other trees that have nutritional and medicinal purposes.

  4. Nancy

    A small garden of variety of flowers are often fun to grow and make lovely bouquets for the kitchen table or to give to friends, family and neighbors. Much better to grow your own flowers than buy a flower arrangement from a florist or the grocery store, as those mostly likely have been grown with pesticides and sprayed with chemicals to make them last longer.

    • Stephen Clay McGehee

      Nancy, it’s great to hear from you again – thank you for commenting.

      Fresh flowers are one of those bits of civilized life that are underappreciated in importance. Some years ago, I asked my mother and some other folks about that, and the response I got was that there are very few, if any, good candidates for fresh cut flowers in this area. We’ve got some that do well here, but don’t last as cut flowers. Gardenias do well here, and when they are in bloom, we usually have a vase with a few of them on the kitchen window sill. They’re one of my wife’s favorites. The roses we have here (and we have quite a few) are all vintage roses. They require almost no care, but they don’t last long when cut – a few days at most. The good side is that they produce lots of blooms, so it’s just a matter of frequent cutting.

  5. Stephen Clay McGehee

    Nancy, you might find this video helpful. It’s titled “How to Build a Bouquet”. It came in an email this morning from Johnny’s Selected Seeds – a major seed producer.

  6. John

    I’ve thought about this post, I really have come to respect it more. It’s one thing to keep a well groomed yard. It’s another to cultivate an environment that is a reflection of yourself and your family. In these modern times, we call it landscaping. However, making your yard an extension of your home comes from something that’s not as impersonal as landscaping. On my piece of ground, I’ve planted Confederate Jasmine, Tea Trees and am working on getting palm trees. Personal symbols of my Southland that remind me of my history and heritage. Hence, an extension of myself and my home. I guess I call it who I am.

    • Stephen Clay McGehee

      Great insight, John. It’s something that I’ve been aware of, but never really fleshed it out as you have.

      We had a lot of Confederate Jasmine here. It was all along the perimeter fence (chain link). Last year, we had a micro-burst during a thunderstorm, and it blew the fence down – bent the steel fence posts flat to the ground as the Jasmine acted like a sail that caught the wind. We had to replace the entire fence and have the roots of the Jasmine dug up with some heavy equipment. We still have some on another fence and in one other location, but nothing like it was before the storm.

      Are the Tea Trees the same that are used to produce black tea? If so, I’d sure like to know more about them. Once or twice a day, I have my ritual of making a cup of Earl Grey tea, brewed with loose leaf (the subject of a future post that I’ve been thinking about).

      I tend to think in terms of an entire “homestead” in which all the basics of life are present: the house for shelter, a well (with hand pump capability) for water, a garden and fruit trees for food, a workshop to make and repair things, etc. It is sort of like a very scaled-down version of a large plantation – all the basics were there: the blacksmith shop, the barns and gardens, a chapel, etc.

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