Irene Virag's Garden Party

I'm Irene Virag -- a writer, a gardener, a cancer survivor. I think ideas are like plants. They need nurturing to grow. And gardeners share both. So welcome to my blog. It’s all about what’s happening in my garden and beyond.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010


I’ve always had a thing for George Washington Carver, ever since I did a report on him in the third grade and discovered a kindred spirit – or at least a man who knew what was important in life.

(Photo by Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1906. U.S. Library of Congress)

I mean I was nuts about peanuts and I loved sweet potatoes. George – who talked to plants and grew up to be director of agriculture at the Tuskegee Institute – knew a thing or two about some of my favorite foods.

He invented peanut butter – that would have been enough – as well as developing more than 300 other products from the lowly legume including ink, soap, facial cream and shampoo. On top of all that he also came up with more than 100 products from sweet potatoes and another 60 from pecans.

But it wasn’t until I became a gardener that I really grew to appreciate the man who actually turned down a $100,000-a-year salary – about a million dollars by today’s count – to work for Thomas Edison. George Washington Carver almost single-handedly saved agriculture in The Land of Cotton with his revolutionary method of crop rotation.

It was a simple idea that he actually convinced southern farmers to embrace – give soil depleted by nutrient-guzzling cotton a break by growing nitrogen-producing peanuts that restored the earth.

His method worked so well that before long Dixie was drowning in peanuts. So Carver went back in his lab at Tuskegee and his got-lemons-make-lemonade approach to life gave the world peanut butter -- and linoleum.

And then he discovered that sweet potatoes and pecans could also enrich the soil. So he found ways to turn them into synthetic rubber and postage stamp glue. When he started his research, the peanut wasn't even considered a crop. But he lived long enough to see it give king cotton a run for its money, becoming the Number Two cash crop in the South by 1940.

George Washington Carver -- a slave's son who preached soil conservation and crop rotation and counted Henry Ford, Gandhi, The Crown Prince of Sweden and Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt as friends -- died on January 5, 1943 at the age of 78.

And so, I’ll sit down today with the seed catalogs that have been flooding my mailbox and plot out my vegetable garden. I’ll be sure to make plenty of room for my own favorite legumes – peas and beans and edamame – and I’ll remember to rotate my crops so my soil doesn’t wear out.

And then I’ll eat a peanut butter sandwich in George Washington Carver’s honor.

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