Lessons from P. Allen Smith

P. Allen Smith spent two days with 20 garden bloggers from all over the US. It was such a special gathering.

As I watched P. Allen Smith walk and talk around his Arkansas home this spring during Garden2Blog, I found my passions united.  Allen, the consummate teacher, led me to see cohesiveness between my deepest – and on surface very different – interests.   I found the thread between my love of growing food, interest in preservation of historic architecture, native plants and my love of raising chickens.

I learned what Allen, who is a masterful student of history, must have known for a long time.  Connections with our past through our plants, livestock, food and buildings are integral to living life in a grounded and beautiful manner.

P. Allen Smith founded the Heritage Poultry Conservancy in 2009.

Allen’s Moss Mountain Farm is designed around a stunning 300-year old Oak. He’s preserved many of the original buildings on the property. He raises heritage chickens and has started a noisette rose garden that is a living history of roses in this country.  He gardens organically as we all did before World War II.

I have long been interested in preservation of historic architecture.  The beauty and the sense of permanence old buildings bring to communities ties us to our past and maintains a connection to those who walked here before us. Historic walls have witnessed life for generations.  Simple tools were used and each piece held importance and heart.  Old buildings talk to you if you listen.

Building grew into a craft, long before it became the industry it is now.  Folks used to carefully craft wood and stone to build structures that have stood through decades. Old buildings testify to our history.

Touch a wall of a 200-year old building and you touch the hands of the men who built it.  Hatch eggs from heritage chickens and you perpetuate livestock that fed our troops through wars and the great depression.  Grow heirloom vegetables and you maintain our food history and flavors while ensuring pure and natural seeds persist in this age of genetic manipulation of our plants.

P. Allen Smith and me. He's a charming host with a keen sense of humor.

I see now that I have deep-rooted appreciation for historic connection.  I see the need for connection with our food, objects and nature.  Once we get too far away from these things, we lose the understanding of their value.  And, I think, this is the gospel that Allen has been sharing with his viewers and readers for years.

Among Allen’s passions is history.  He references historical events and dates in casual conversation.  His love of sharing knowledge is evident.  He describes himself as a teacher and being around him, I saw how natural he is in that role.  He sent me home with a deeper understanding that preserving traditions of our past is preserving our history, food safety and regional diversity.

Much of our country has lost regional uniqueness. Identical malls and the same mansions can be found in both Pennsylvania and Georgia. The same businesses and restaurants fill the landscape in New York State and New Mexico.  There is a homogeneity settling in and robbing our regions of the diversity we once had.

I find my peace when I distance myself from the sterile, stamped-out new parts of our world.  I morn the torn-up farmland and stripped-off topsoil when I see construction of cookie cutter mini-malls and slapped together mansions.

Allen is an accomplished landscape designer. His grounds reflect his talent.

Prevalent sameness is dished up within our corporate food systems as well.  Part of what our culture appreciates about fast food and national restaurant chains is that predictability.  As we chase the predictable, like the flavorless but cosmetically perfect tomatoes we find in our grocery stores, we lose variety in flavor and nutritional value.  Imagine if we had not preserved heirloom seeds and lost access to thousands of tomato varieties with distinct characteristics and flavors.  Reducing our seed stock to what we can buy in grocery stores would be like limiting our wine selections to just red or white.

We stand to lose food safety as well as deep palettes of flavor, as we hybridize not just or fruits and vegetables but our livestock.   Chickens used for meat and egg production today have been genetically engineered so far from their ancestors that they cannot breed naturally.  They can’t walk and they can’t survive without large doses of antibiotics.  Similar things have occurred in all areas of meat production.  There is concern about the long-term health affects of consumption of meat that is so far from natural as well as the effects of consumption of antibiotic residue in the meat and in the water supply.

Conservation of heritage livestock breeds and heirloom seeds become ever more important to the safety of our food supply.  If we don’t have the natural stock to return to, we can’t correct errors of science gone to far.

The unnatural processes of industrialized food and production creates too much distance between the product, the producer, and the consumer.  When we are alienated from food and shelter because they are industrialized, we miss a large part of the human experience.

Our history is who we are. Preserving the past protects the future. It’s imperative to keep alive traditional knowledge and practices so we are able to return to more natural and healthy ways of living and stay vital as humans. Turning away from better living through science and turning to Mother Nature has a spiritual component as well.  As every gardener knows, connection to the earth and to nature propagates true contentment.

I’m not sure whether P. Allen Smith would articulate this in the same way, but I came to see his home and farm as a laboratory and living library bent on keeping alive healthy, happy living practices from our history.  I thank him for that.

P. Allen Smith’s company paid my travel expenses to make the visit possible.

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About the Author

Laura Mathews

Laura is a garden writer and photographer. She writes online content for gardening websites, writes for gardening publications and blogs for three gardening blogs. Her interests are local food, organic gardening, backyard homesteading and native plants. She assists gardening related clients with social media. And occasionally, she'll offer a solicited opinion as a garden coach.


  1. Beautifully said and interesting thoughts. The photos are gorgeous too. I agree with everything, but I also think new can be good too. There are exciting things going on in art, architecture and design that thrill me. I think heirloom chickens and tomatoes can co-exist with the cutting edge.

    # Posted on July 15, 2011 at 8:59 pm by Kerry
  2. Beautiful stated Laura and the photographs are stunning. Connections are what weave the fabric of life and connections I believe are what made #g2b11 so wonderful. Allen the man behind the brand is an extremely special person. I enjoyed meeting and sharing with him, his family, staff and of course all of you who I have been tweeting with for so long. Thank you for this beautiful blog post to help hold the memories of such a special event hosted by such a wonderful man! Annie Haven

    # Posted on July 16, 2011 at 12:03 pm by Annie Haven
  3. Love this sentence, “Touch a wall of a 200-year old building and you touch the hands of the men who built it.”

    Nice post Laura.

    # Posted on July 18, 2011 at 9:52 am by Mary Ellen
  4. So true. So very, very, deeply and amazingly true. I lived in Dover, Delaware, during high school – and my parents retired back to that area. I remember back then vast crop fields of corn and soy… which while I visit them now I see they are now vast fields of McMansions. It is sad to see the world that we’re turning into.
    Although there are many turning to growing their own food and animal husbandry [I will, soon one day, have chickens.] which hopefully will keep the balance between old and new.

    # Posted on July 19, 2011 at 10:50 am by Donna B.

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