Theoretically, here in the Deep South we can garden any day of the year. But the sorry truth is our "window of opportunity" is not 365 days. The real gardening window in the South opens for just a few days at a time. Then it's slammed shut by steady downpours or relentless sun. Most of the time our soil is either sticky goo or so hard baked the only thing you could grow is ashtrays. The air is either drizzly, steamy or baking. Even the dew is so heavy that it makes working the garden messy early in the morning. We have plants that can take the weather, but it's pretty rough on the gardeners!
The average southern gardener has a big garden, with impossibly long rows spaced three feet apart whether the crop is corn or carrots. The merciless weather explains a lot about when most people plant down here. The traditional planting date is Good Friday, too late really. But we eat fresh squash and tomatoes in May, sweet corn on the Fourth of July, and then beat a hasty retreat indoors until next spring, when it's time to plant again.
Planting day should be in February, but it's just too nasty then for most of us. It takes forethought to get part of the garden ready in fall so that Irish potatoes, edible-pod peas and beets can be planted in the rain. And in summer it's way too hot and dry (and the stinkbugs are too big) to plant for fall.
So with rare exceptions, and in spite of our long potential growing season, we plant just once a year and try to "make do" the rest of the season. But change is coming, thanks to a cross-pollination of ideas from other regions.
Smaller Patches, Shorter Rows
I've had small raised beds for some years, planted in the potager style of Europe -- an almost random mixture of flowers, culinary herbs and ornamental vegetables. This approach suits the real me. It's easier to plant in a mess. The wide variety seems to confuse pests and encourage beneficial critters. And it always looks nice -- even when something is harvested, or dies, there's someng else to look at.
A New England friend, Shep Ogden, once showed me a trick for having year-round salads in my "potager patch" without all the sweat or effort. He told me to plant just a few short rows at a time in one of the beds, and harvest as they grow.
This made instant sense. Fresh salad greens are especially hard to grow here in summer. To have them at all, you need to get them in and out of the garden as quickly as possible. Planting little salad patches makes this easy, and I immediately adopted the method for my own garden. Now we can enjoy fresh salads almost year-round. With planning, we can plant and pick from late summer through winter and into the following summer.
The first step is to make a simple, shallow raised bed. It should be four feet wide and as long as suits you -- four, six, eight feet or more. My beds are dug a foot deep, and I mix in lots of bark and compost. This raises the soil only a few inches high, which works well for winter drainage, yet doesn't make me a slave to the hose in the summer the way a higher bed would.
I don't worry as much about using pressure-treated wood for the beds as do some of my more respected peers. But then, I eat greasy tamales slathered with hot pepper sauce, so I'm probably not long for this world anyway. I do take the precaution of not growing root crops right next to the wood.
Soaker hoses plus lots of mulch keep my soil moist and cottonseed meal delivers plenty of nitrogen to my plants. Plus, my worms have all the protein and moisture they need to get big and fat and churn my soil.
I plant four little rows together somewhere in the bed, front to back, six inches apart. Easy enough. I do this weekly, and by the time the third weekly crop is sown, the first is ready to be "grazed." And just as the last four rows are put in, it's time to rework the soil in the first one and begin over again, or move to a new spot. Ogden builds his salad beds over spread-out compost, but my garden area is too limited, my compost in too-short supply.
Succession planting is the key. We can keep up this continuous cropping until we figure we ought to stop either because of impending hot weather or because summer vegetables need the space. Everyone in the family can help with all stages. Easy.
Ogden has also been trying to get us to experiment with mesclun, the mixed salad greens concept. But this idea we aren't completely sold on yet. We don't have the space or time to mess around with weird things we don't eat. In addition to unusual lettuces, Ogden recommends radicchio, dandelion and arugula (which some say tastes like Colt 45 malt liquor -- tangy and bitter. Who needs that in a salad?).
Still, we are in an experimental mode these days, so for every two or three little rows of our familiar, sweet lettuces (including the colorful kinds), we have planted a strip of mesclun. Slowly, our southern palates may adapt. We've already adjusted to eating fat buds of orange daylilies (better tasting and more nutritious than broccoli, and a heck of a lot easier to grow), Johnny-jump-up flowers, salad burnet and hot peppers.
Ed Nichols, a market farmer who grows salad greens, fresh herbs and edible flowers near Canton, Mississippi, came up with a simple twist on Ogden's method. Nichols sows tiny pinches of seeds of mixed greens in cell packs of potting soil, and when they come up, he plugs them directly into the garden on 8- or 10-inch centers. Each clump quickly becomes a little salad, "Mississippi mesclun," ready to be cut and served. We adopted this idea this year, too. So far it works well and looks good. And it's something even the children can do, start to finish.
We're learning to garden year-round down here. Conjuring up spare gardening energy in midsummer is a challenge. These little salad successions are one way to make it fun and improve our diet, a row or two at a time.
Photo by Suzanne DeJohn/National Gardening Association