November 2013
Homeplace & Community

Growing for Past, Present and Future

Dianne and JDanny Cooper pause along the Auburn footpath in their backyard garden.   

Feeling Connected in Backyard Green Space

Working long hours in the field, we sure looked forward to dinnertime and taking a 15-minute nap before heading back out for the rest of the day," shared JDanny Cooper about his childhood experience working as the son of a Chilton County sharecropper. "Our days were long, starting early and working late. We grew peaches, dewberries and a variety of vegetables we sold in Birmingham at the Alabama Farmers Market on Finley Avenue."

As an adult, Cooper realizes those long days shaped him to become the person he is today. He does not farm these days but says he has to be growing something! His backyard at his Montgomery home grows a variety of lush, green plants. JDanny and Dianne, his wife of 43 years, encourage guests to relax while enjoying the environment. In talking with the couple, one quickly learns they take pleasure in their backyard green space and feel connected to past and present generations because of it.

Rambling pink roses grow along the Coopers’ fence, just one of the plants reminding him of his past and the generations of family before him. The roses he grows actually took root from clippings of a rosebush planted at the Cooper Family Cemetery in Marble Valley in western Coosa County. Family members from four to six generations ago are buried at the site. Because roses are propagated by a piece of the original to grow a new plant, Cooper’s rosebush is essentially the same plant. When looking at the delicate pink flowers, Cooper appreciates that someone lovingly planted irises, daffodils and the rambling rosebush in memory of loved ones at the family cemetery so many years ago. In addition to heritage roses, Cooper’s garden grows devil’s backbone and angel leaf begonia, both varieties of plants he propagated from plants once tended by his great-grandmother.

Although Cooper cultivates a number of plants with a rich history, he also grows "pass-along" plants given to him by friends and neighbors, plants to enhance the backyard bird habitat, and plants for beauty and consumption.

"We grow many of our blooming plants for the beautiful and amazing hummingbirds," Cooper said. "Dianne maintains feeders for them, too. They fly so close, even when we are nearby!"

  JDanny Cooper holds an angel wing begonia rooted from stock from his great-grandmother’s plant.

Cooper carefully reads his monthly AFC Cooperative Farming News magazine for tips on caring for his yard. He clips and saves pages for future reference.

"I learned the best way to store my caladium tubers between late summer and the following spring by reading my AFC magazine," he claimed.

He shops at Elmore County Co-op in Wetumpka. Cooper’s connection to Quality Co-ops started years ago when he was a child growing up on that farm that once belonged to his great-grandparents.

"Besides peaches and vegetables, we grew dewberries. Those berries, as well as berries from 14 other local farmers, were the sole source of Bama Blackberry Jam for years," he related.

After they picked the berries, they put them in 100-gallon wooden barrels, which were taken to the Farmers Co-op in Thorsby and swapped for empty barrels so the process could continue. He wistfully revealed he wishes he could find one of those old barrels now.

Cooper’s pride and joy this past growing season was his banana plant. Close to 30 feet in height, this year’s plant grew the tallest in the 12-plus years since he has had it.

"When we moved to this house 3 years ago, I brought a piece of the banana plant with me from our other home," Cooper shared. "At the time of planting it here, the root was about the size of a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk. That first summer it had four, maybe five, stems and leaves. Last summer the plant had many more and even produced bananas for the first time!"

Cooper attributes the number of banana bunches on this year’s plant to the high amount of rainfall Montgomery had this year. Bananas, which belong to the genus Musa, are native to tropical South and Southeast Asia. Now, however, bananas grow in more than 100 countries - primarily as a source of food. Bananas rate fourth among the main world food crops, following rice, wheat and maize in financial values. Generally speaking, the past summer’s climate – humid, rainy and muggy – proved perfect for bananas. The combination seemed to be just what Cooper’s banana plant needed.

"I told JDanny the plant was growing to Heaven!" Dianne laughed.

In addition to the amount of rainfall the plant absorbed, Cooper regularly watered it with rainfall collected in his rain barrels. He said watering 15-20 gallons of water per day is not too much during its growing season. Bananas love water, in the ground and from the air.

Left to right, the Coopers collect rainwater in rain barrels placed throughout their garden. JDanny Cooper’s banana tree is close to 30 feet tall and over 12 years old (three in their current location). It produced six stems of bananas this year.

Although in the past Cooper removed and composted all dead leaves from the plant, this past year he learned how the plant itself benefits from the leaves and the spent flower petals. In the past, he removed the brown leaves of the plant once winter arrived, but he discovered they provide protection during the chilly months. In the winter months, Cooper tells that the center of the plant, known as the corm, remains protected inside the stem under the layers of leaves.

"You cannot see life, but it is there!" he proclaimed.

Since banana plants produce suckers that are easily shared, banana plants are often "pass-along" plants. If you have received a baby banana sucker from a friend, go ahead and plant it. With proper tending and patience, perhaps it will grow and one day yield bananas!

Dianne and JDanny share their love of plants and the outdoors with their children and grandchildren. Dianne encourages their two granddaughters Caroline and Ella Cate to try gardening by planting tomatoes, peppers, potatoes and other vegetable plants.

"Ella Cate really loves gardening!" said Dianne about her granddaughter’s enthusiasm. "She loves to see things grow. We send texts back and forth as our garden plants grow and produce vegetables."

Dianne said both girls loved that their grandfather’s banana plant produced fruit they could eat for the past 2 years.

Whether growing plants that connect them with their past, nurturing "pass-along" plants shared from friends and neighbors, or by gardening with their children and grandchildren, Dianne and JDanny Cooper will surely pass along a green legacy.

Ashley Smith is a freelance writer from Russell County.