The Times West Virginian

April 25, 2012

A fine ‘mess’

By Debra Minor Wilson
Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT — It’s good to dig in the dirt.

“It eases your mind,” said Mary Whyte.

“It doesn’t do anything for my fingernails! But they’ll outgrow it,” she added, laughing.

In her little garden right off the back porch of her 100-year-old home, she grows just enough for a dinner or two at a time.

“What the old folks call ‘a mess,’” she said with a chuckle.

Right now, early sweet peas, potatoes and onions she planted on St. Patrick’s Day are just sprouting.

“I don’t know why I plant them then.  I never asked. It just seemed like my family always did,” she said.

She scatters lemon slices throughout the garden “to keep the kitties out,” she said.

When the peas are ready, she’ll dig up some marble-sized potatoes and onions, and cream them together.

“I can’t wait,” she said.

Today, her garden is just large enough for herself. But her husband Jim used to have tomatoes (double oxhearts were his favorites), lettuce and so much more.

One year, his tomatoes plants grew to more than 6 feet tall. He needed to stand on a stepladder to reach the top. She took a picture of this, showed it around and one friend suggested they send it in to “Country” magazine.

It was published in the June-July 1994 issue in the “Can You Top This?” section.

“People still talk about that,” she said.

“My uncle came to visit after Jim passed and said, ‘Mary, you have a nice garden, but you’re not gonna need a stepladder to pick them!” She laughed.

“Now, it wasn’t typical for his tomatoes to grow that tall. When my father had his garden out there, he’d put a stake in and when the tomatoes got to the top of the stake, he’d whack it off. That way, the strength stayed down in the plant.”

Lots of gardeners swear by beefsteak tomatoes. But her late husband preferred double oxheart ... large, meaty and heart-shaped.

“It’s got a little thing in the middle with all the seeds in it, and you can slice it, slice it, slice it,” she said.

He didn’t really have any gardening tips, except for maybe one: his watering system.

“He’d take two-liter plastic jugs and cut them to fit over top of each other,” she said. “Then he’d cut holes in the bottom for the water. He’d put this down in the garden and take off the top, put the hose in and the water would go right to the roots.

“I think he force-fed the tomatoes,” she said with a laugh.

“He had so much fun with this,” she said of Jim and his garden. “Oh, he did.”

Come the end of May, beginning of June, she’ll put her tomato plants in the former lettuce bed.

“You want to have ripe tomatoes by the Fourth of July,” she said.

She uses “quite a bit of potting soil” to get the ground garden-ready, she said.

“I have a nice little garden, just enough for my table.

“I don’t go by almanacs,” she said. “I know people who do, but the almanacs are so general. They don’t say, ‘Do this today.’ They’ll say to plant according to the moon. But there are bound to be some good ideas in them.”

She’s lived in this house since 1992, but her parents had purchased it long before that.

“I wouldn’t take it 10 feet further up the hill,” she said. “When it was built, the kitchen now was the kitchen porch. the well was out there,” she said, gesturing to the backyard, “and the bathroom, too!” She laughed.

It’s a good neighborhood, she said.

“It’s changing, but I have good neighbors. We look out for each other,” she said.

There have been some clouds in her life. In 1999, she lost her son, Eugene Kirby, at age 48 to a tumor. In 2004, Jim passed away after 46 years of marriage.

“Still, I have a good life,” the 79-year-old great-grandmother of two said.

“I married right out of high school and started my family,” she said. “I thought that’s what we were supposed to do at the time.”

She’s always worked outside the home, including at an embroidery factory in New Jersey, where they lived for about 17 years for Jim’s job at Owens-Illinois. When that factory closed, they moved back home.

She gets visits from the usual garden-loving critters, such as deer, squirrels and groundhogs.

“One neighbor had quite a big garden. There were three deer, a mother and two little ones. They ate good until she found out about (deer repellant) spray. Then they’d come down the road but wouldn’t go in her garden.

“Groundhogs eat my tomatoes,” she said. “Just a bite out of them and then nobody else wants to eat them.”

Soon, she’ll put in her tomato plants, and maybe some green beans and carrots.

“I plant whatever kind of potato I have in the house that goes to seed,” she said with a laugh. “These are russet. I get the little red potatoes from the farmer’s market. I haven’t tried those gold potatoes yet. But I always see them at the farmer’s market.”

She always plants the same vegetables, she said. Too many things to choose from.

“This is good. I look forward to the first of June. I’ll have this, and I will enjoy it.

“It’s interesting to watch things grow,” she said. “I cut my own grass. That’s how I get my exercise. Really and truly, if I didn’t do that, I’d have to have money to go to the gym.” She laughed again.

Every Wednesday through June, Take 5 will be strolling through our readers’ lush gardens. To have yours featured, contact Debbie Wilson at 394-367-2549 or

Email Debra Minor Wilson at