Live in America


The House

Untested Recipe for Growing Blackberries

I hope I am still planting blackberry canes when I am grandma-aged. By then, I’ll have a tested recipe. By then, I’ll have planted blackberries in the front yard and the side yard and the backyard. Wherever there is plenty of sun


Two Years?


  • Sweetie Pie Blackberry Canes
  • 1 part cow manure and compost
  • 3 parts just regular old not fancy soil
  • Some sulphur, like a big pinch
  • Maybe a big fake rock

Step One: Sourcing Ingredients

Cutting out sod is not my favorite job, but the eight, six-inch blackberry canes must be planted. And maybe I plant them around Lone Rock: a large, flat-top rock that lives in the least trafficked spot in the front yard. This rock spot might just give the blackberries the eight hours of sun they need along with decent soil and drainage. But before thoughts of blackberry companionship, know that Lone Rock is a large rock surrounded by a sea of manicured Johnson grass. Three men I don’t know come every ten days or so and move about the yard like mechanized worker bees, lopping off the weeds, shaping them into a respectable lawn. Lone Rock, though, seems, well lonely to me, so my thinking is to dig out the Johnson grass from around it and plant the blackberry canes about its perimeter. Give it some company, and perhaps in return its girth will protect the fledgling canes. Also maybe, since the canes are thornless, just maybe in a few years I can step through their painless wonder, perch atop the rock, and eat all the secret berries growing on the inside. I imagine the rock wants for these coming and goings because to make matters worse for its sense of self, the rock may not even be a real rock. Justin questioned its authenticity. Lone Rock might be a concrete mixture poured into the facsimiled form of a real rock. It does have an eerily similar rock twin across the yard in the front flower bed. A lonely fake rock who can’t even claim a unique nature in its own yard. Surely Lone Rock will appreciate blackberry friends.

Credit: Carra Martinez

Step Two: Sourcing Yourself

But with Lone Rock’s streetside locale, there is the inevitable issue of folks walking by and picking the fruit for themselves. Initially unwilling to share, I almost plant the canes in the backyard in a spot that definitely would not serve blackberry production. In the backyard, surrounded by a tall, solid don’teventhinkabouteatingmyblackberries fence, the blackberry plants would definitely grow big and green and brambley, but they would never receive enough sun to fruit to their full potential. And I learned from early gardening attempts that plants are not fucking around about how much sun they need. If they say eight hours, they mean eight hours. So the choice is this: do I keep for myself all the ten blackberries produced from a low-light backyard situation, or do I turn a potential bounty over to the chaos gods of the passersby, strangers taking my fruit.

Historically, in my family, we protect our fruit. It’s like, genetic. My Martinez grandparents had a very large pecan tree that grew just outside their tiny yard in the middle of a public sidewalk in Galveston, Texas. To protect his pecans, each fall my grandfather hid about the lawn and stared out the window, watching for pecan thieves. And when they arrived, and they did because many-a working-class Mexican loves a free pecan, my grandfather would bellow down from his window perch: Those aren’t your pecans! In order to protect his onpublicland pecan tree from passersby, he even went so far as to grow large girthy hedges across the sidewalks, blocking folks entirely from moving down his side of the street. (Eventually the city made him cut down hedges.) Regardless of bureaucratic interference into his activities on public land, my grandfather nevertheless gathered fallen pecans, and then at night while he watched the news and his telenovelas from the comfort of his Lazy Boy, he’d pluck pecans from the bowl that sat on the side table and crack away. Whenever I encounter a Lazy Boy, I still expect to see a bowl of unshelled pecans next to it.

Genetic resource-guarding is a real thing, y’all. I almost plant the blackberries in the backyard behind my large girthy fencehedge. There is a kind of life-sustaining gesture to such a move. On a very real level my grandfather’s actions were logical: his life taught him to hoard pecans. He came to the U.S. at age 13, alone and undocumented, swimming across the river, his whole body wet, not just his back. (Wet back, a term I frequently heard growing up, has always confused me. Back then I would think: But when you are forced to swim across a river for safety, the whole body is wet, not just the back.) At 13, my grandfather was profoundly wet and poor and hungry. For years, he slept on a cot in the back of a Galveston bakery, his job feeding the ovens wood that he scrounged off the beach each morning. But a body cannot live on wood-fired bread alone. As I have learned from my nutritionist, bodies need fat. At the least, they need some pecans. Maybe on some level my grandfather was unknowingly hoarding his fat store with his hedge fortress. Using his garden-smarts in preparation to survive the lean times that were always lurking no matter what side of the river he lived on. But then again, maybe he was also just a cheap asshole pecan hoarder.

Regardless, in a mere two generations, his granddaughter is running an artist residency in a charming yellow 1918 bungalow that is funded in part in appreciation of her fatty creativity and systems mindset. I don’t need to hoard the fucking pecans. Or the blackberries. I get plenty of fat and carbohydrates and protein, and I can buy berries from Whole Foods if so inclined … though to be real, I am more likely to hit up that tiny top-shelf of organic berries at the WalMart neighborhood market. Every time I am in a Whole Foods, I have to quieten this mantra that plays through my head: You didn’t come from no Whole Foods people. That refrain really impacts my ability to fully engage with the olive bar and organic berry picks. Two generations later, I can afford to share my low glycemic-impact blackberries, my version of pecans.

And besides I come from a long line of blackberry thieves. As kids, we picked the thorned vines that grew along our pasture fences in rural East Texas. And you need a lot of berries to make a large cobbler (accompanied by Bluebell homemade vanilla). I don’t know the actual measurement, but I know you want to half fill the big bucket. A half-fill of the big bucket necessitates plundering neighbors’ fence lines and wandering into their pastures or purloining fruits from the local game preserve. So who am I to stop a blackberry thief? The blackberries will go in the front yard! And if they flourish around Lone Rock, then I hope a chubby black-haired little girl comes along and helps herself to a few–but not all–sunwarmed blackberries.

Step Three: Mixing

After much internet research and after the guys at the local feed-and-seed insisted that I buy some sulfur because “berry growers around here always buy sulfur” and that I buy the cheap cow-manure compost because “that mushroom compost [that they have for sale] is too damn expensive,” I believe my steps for planting include the following:

  1. With my shovel, cut the Johnson grass sod away from the rock.
  2. Sit in the grass and breathe hard cause cutting out sod is not a joke.
  3. Pull the cut clumps up and shake out the dirt I want to keep in the bed. (With this step, Lone Rock is particularly useful in terms of banging the sod clumps against it until the dirt is released.)
  4. Sit in the grass and breathe hard some more, just like step two except now really sweating and covered in dirt.
  5. To this freshly turned earth, circle the rock adding two full bags of garden soil and about a third a bag of compost with cow manure. Note: Too much cow shit in a garden bed can burn up your plants.
  6. Then, using no actual weight measurement and with a sense of full confusion produced by researching how to make soil more acidic for blackberries but knowing that too much sulfur can also kill the plants and that all the internet measurements are based on a blackberry-farm amount of blackberries, I abandon science and instead intuitively rely on Grandma Martinez’s cooking measurement system and hope that blackberries are like arroz con pollo or mole. I hope blackberries like big pinches of ingredients. Circle Lone Rock sprinkling big pinches of sulfur.
  7. Mix all these ingredients together with shovel and sometimes hands.
  8. If needed, another dirty grass break.
  9. Create mounds of this mixture. Space said mounds at least 1.5 feet apart. Note: The internet says to place the mounds three to four feet apart, but I have too many canes and not enough rock circumference for that formula. Thus, overplant.
  10. Plant the cans in the mounds.
  11. Water.
  12. Sit on the porch and be veravera tired but pleased.
  13. Eventually if this recipe works, build supports for the canes. Finally! A hedge of sorts!

In no small way, I need the porch moment to recoup because there is an unexpected ingredient in my mixing: processing some deep shame and embarrassment. My nutritionist asked me to record daily goals for my physical/mental health, and while most were like “deadening anxious thoughts and repetitive negative inner monologues,” I also wrote down “sweat more.” But in recording these thoughts, I did not stop to consider the link between the two goals, between deadening a thought pattern and sweating more. As I work in the bed, which results in a fairly sweat-soaked gray tshirt, I begin to recognize how a goal of “sweat more” comes with a whole host of gendered, raced baggage.

Before I begin clearing the sod, I process: When you do this, you are going to sweat. In the front yard near the sidewalk, people are going to see you sweat–a whole fucking lot. And you will be dirty. And your back will be soaked from manual labor sweat. This is the ridicule-loaded sweat you’ve avoided your whole life. You got a lot of shiny degrees that are supposed to mean that you don’t need to sweat this way anymore. Your family’s moved beyond this sweat. Nonetheless, as my siblings frequently remind me,, I am still just very good at repetitive farm-ish tasks involving lifting and hauling heavy objects about in the hot sun. All the PhDs in the world can’t kill that hard-earned muscle memory.

Growing up doing a fairshare of ranch-based labor and watching my father do a Herculean amount of manual labor across three and four jobs at once, I have no small amount of emotions and thoughts about sweat. And a good portion of that emotion and thought transformed into paranoia a long long time ago. Paranoia about sweat. About what sweat signals. What is says about my race and class and gender. My success at moving “beyond.” Beyond 12-hour days spent in a hayfield for most of the summer. Now that’s some sweat; that’s some blowingrotteddirtoutyournoseattheendoftheday, manual labor-soaked, sweated body. I learned lessons from that sweat. I learned the language a wet-tshirt-painted back can call forth. I heard those words aimed at my father, at myself, at most every brown person I grew up around who dared to sweat in front of white people. Even sweating in a “sanctioned” environment, like a high school gym, felt risky. In high school, I so hated publicly sweating that I would sit shirtless in the locker room a long time after a basketball game in an effort to cool down, to stop the sweat. And I played a lot of minutes, and we won lots of games in front of a whole gym full of folks watching me drip sweat. But I didn’t want my face to be red when I left the locker room. I didn’t want to the back of my good street clothes to show any sweat. I kept my hair braided after the game because the braid hid how drenched my head was. I was a fairly confident kid in a lot of ways, but I could not stand the thought of folks recognizing that I sweated.

Years, manymany years later, I face Lone Rock, shovel in hand, grappling with the sweat that is about to come. But I created this artist residency and moved to this Latinx neighborhood in some ways because I wanted to remember all the life lessons I’d forgotten inside of three degrees and hip cities and years of pondering critical theory and experimental performance. Perhaps my time at this residency is, in part, once more learning how to sweat, what sweat means to and for me. Yeah, maybe I moved here to sweat. That seems as logical as any of my other reasons for relocating to Springdale, Arkansas.

Step Four: Growing:

I’ll wait until late in the afternoon to undertake planting, but the temperature will still likely be in the upper 80s. Still a sweaty business temperature. Inevitably, I’ll be drenched–front and back. Folks will see me dirty sweat. Passersby will no doubt comment on my labor and my body as they cruise past the yard. They’ll see me balanced atop the shovel’s step or banging sod against once-lonely rock. Or at my most vulnerable on a break, red-faced and flopped across the ground, sucking wind.

Planting these Sweetie Pie Blackberry canes in the front yard around Lonely Rock will inevitably elicit public feedback as cars roll by the busy intersection. Kids are gonna call out from the bus as it halts at the four-way stop just a few feet away. A “damn lady” will ring out as will a “get it.” And then some kind of “grandma” comment coming from an old shitted-out black Ford Taurus. I’ll wrestle down my immediate impulse to yank that stupid fucking teenager out of the car via the window. I’ll stop to consider what such an impulse teaches me about my own embedded ageism.

But now that I think about it, I hope I am still planting blackberry canes when I am grandma-aged. By then, I’ll have a tested recipe. By then, I’ll have planted blackberries in the front yard and the side yard and the backyard. Wherever there is plenty of sun. By then I will have a better understanding of the actual measurement for sulfur. By then, I’ll have sweated. A lot of sweat, and maybe it will mean something different.