In Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, what is the collard patch?
Harper Lee was a product of the American South. To be more precise, she was a product of what is called "the Deep South," the states that mostly border the Gulf of Mexico, where racism exceeded even the standards of more northern southern states like Maryland. Lee was born in and spent her life in Alabama, and she knew the culture of the region intimately. Part of the culture of the Deep South is the culinary preferences unique to that region, including collard greens, a green leafy plant roughly similar to spinach that is a staple of the Southern diet, especially when combined with ham and beans. As a native of the South, Lee lends authenticity to her narrative by referencing collard plants in To Kill a Mockingbird, as in Chapter 6, when Scout, the young narrator, describes Jem and Dill's venture into the yard of the Radley house, which precipitates an angry response from Mr. Radley: "Miss Maudie replied, 'Mrs. Radley says he shot at a Negro in his collard patch'."
The significance of collard plants in To Kill a Mockingbird lies in their association with the American South. Lee's novel is a story of the American South, albeit in the more negative sense of that region's history of systemic racism. While it is primarily a coming-of-age story, the narrative, like its author, is a product of the South. It makes sense that a story attempting to capture the essence of the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum in that particular region, especially during the period depicted, would include at least a passing reference to this particular dietary staple.
In Chapter 6, Jem plans a night-time raid on the Radley house hoping to see Boo through a window. In order to get close to the house, the children have to travel through Nathan Radley's garden. Jem warns Scout and Dill not to walk in the collard patch because "they will wake the dead." (Lee 71) A collard is a vegetable. Specifically, it is a type of kale that is grown in the South. Collards are short plants with huge green leaves, and the children try their best to avoid walking through them. The children quietly walk through his garden and Jem manages to see a shadow in Radley's window. Jem gets spooked when the shadow stops about a foot beyond him, and he jumps off the porch toward Scout and Dill. Scout trips and falls as the children run through the collard patch. Nathan Radley emerges from the house and fires a warning shot into the air. The children narrowly escape, and Jem loses his pants after they get caught in Nathan's fence. Later on, when the neighbors are discussing what happened outside Radley's house, Stephanie tells Jem that Nathan scared a Negro in his collard patch. Nathan does not suspect the children, and thinks that a black man was walking through his collard patch.