Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Upper South
February, 2009
Regional Report

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Let's hope that ice storms are a distant memory and that spring is just around the corner.

It's Just Around the Corner

The first red-winged blackbird, singing his rusty-gate song, has appeared. I've spotted robins as well, and a flock of sandhill cranes was sited flying north. All of which means, it won't be long before it's time to plant the first round of lettuce, arugula, spinach, and other greens, to be followed soon after by peas, turnips, and other cool-season crops. Then, before you know it, it's time to plant tomatoes, peppers, squash, corn, and all the other main season crops.

What with the state of the economy as well as concerns about personal health, food safety, and global sustainability, more people than usual will be growing vegetables, herbs, and fruits this year. But wouldn't you know it, I'm actually cutting back on what I'm growing this year. Not that I don't care about all the factors listed above, but this summer, due to some deadlines and other constraints, I need to spend less time growing and preserving my food and more time on other areas of my life. (Truth be known, I have a built-in fudge factor with all the food that's already stored.)

Think About It
In deciding what and how much to grow, there are a number of factors to take into consideration. Whether you're wanting to grow more of your food or less, these factors still come into play. The conundrum for all of us is balancing the time, effort, and money involved in food gardening with the return on that investment. You don't have to go out and spend a fortune on tools or paraphernalia to have a garden, but you may have to be creative in how certain jobs get done if there are budgetary constraints. Sometime overabundance can be a problem, as it was for me last year, when it seemed like every weekend was spent canning and freezing rather than spending time with friends. In other words, there are always trade-offs.

What is helpful for me is to decide what crops I really, really like and want. Then I look at how difficult a crop is to grow and whether it's available at a local farmer's market at a reasonable price. I also take into consideration the cost and availability of the food at the grocery.

For instance, due to a variety of factors, I no longer have a burning need to grow my own sweet corn. Instead, when I want fresh corn-on-the-cob, I turn to a local farmer, then for corn during the winter, I look for organic frozen corn to be on sale and stock up. On the other hand, beets are expensive everywhere, and they're one of my favorite foods. Because I make the best pickled beets in the world, I'll always go through the long hours spent planting, thinning, pulling, cleaning, boiling, and canning. Plus, there's the bonus crop of nutritious beet greens!

On The List
Granted, my good intentions often get waylaid, but in looking at the "big picture" of the food garden this year, here are some observations and plans.

--It's hard to grow just a few green beans. Every year, I grow less and less, and still I'm canning, freezing, and pickling beans, most of which never get eaten. This year: a very short row of the French baby green beans, which should only be eaten fresh.

--Ditto for cucumbers. The four plants in last year's garden produced bushels. And the supposedly bush plants aren't. More research and thinking about this one.

--The verdict is still out on peas this year. There's nothing like fresh snow and snap peas. And for eating year-round? Give me a serving of green peas anytime. They do take a lot of time to shell, though.

--Tomatoes are a tough choice. Should I do the usual 50 to 100 different varieties? Wouldn't a couple of plants of an early variety, like 'Stupice' or 'Wayahead' a half dozen 'Arkansas Traveler' for a main crop, and one or two 'Cherry Roma' be enough? I had entertained thoughts of doing a paste tomato comparison because it seems like those varieties don't do as well as they used to, but that may have to wait a year.

--Then there are my beloved potatoes. Last year, 11 varieties and 175 feet of rows. Haven't even made a dent in them this winter. Quite honestly, the volunteer crop will probably be enough. In addition, maybe just a few 'German Butterball' to sustain me with mashed potatoes and 'Rose Finn Apple' for potato salad.

--For sweet peppers, a relative new hybrid called 'Carmen' has consistently outshone all other varieties the last couple of years. I usually preserve these by freezing, but think that this year I'll try roasting, peeling, and canning instead.

--Last year, the eggplants had the worst case of flea beetles ever. So far I haven't found a good way to store them, so these are definitely a vegetable to pick up occasionally at the farmer's market.

--Dried beans are hot. They may be the latest "in" vegetable, but they also take up lots of space in the garden and a lot of time to shell. I'm leaning toward buying mine.

--Sweet potatoes are one of my major goals this year. Although the plants themselves grow very easily, I have horrible childhood memories of knotty, half-rotten sweet potatoes coming from the garden. Will making a nice wide mound on well-drained soil and covering it with plastic be enough for success? Wait and see. And, of course, there's the variety dilemma. Have my list of 30 possible choices whittled down to 20, and that's from over 100 choices of heirloom and rare varieties offered by Sand Hill Preservation Center.

--For summer squash and zucchini, the beetles decimated them so quickly last year, that I may take a break for a year. If they were on my list, I would continue to stick with the flavorful 'Striato d'Italia', 'Largo', or 'Romesco'. To save space, I like the smaller-growing version called 'Sarzano'.

--Because okra is another favored vegetable for me, it will always be in my garden. Unfortunately, I can't pick a favorite variety, so there are always four or five different ones, sometimes only two plants of each.

--Red onions are incredibly expensive at the grocery, so they'll be in my garden this year for the first time.

--Oh, gosh, I haven't even touched on greens, turnips, fennel, broccoli, cabbage, parsnips, and oh-so-many more, and this list is already pretty long. It's hard to grow just a little garden if you love good food.

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