In the Garden:
Upper South
February, 2008
Regional Report

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'Carmen' peppers have an especially sweet flavor and produce high yields.

Great Tastes Await

Wasn't it just the day before yesterday that I pulled the last boiling hot jar of green beans from the canner and hauled the bushel baskets of winter squash and potatoes to the cellar? Even if in reality all that was over four months ago, it's always somewhat of a surprise when I hear the sand hill cranes flying north and realize that the time is here once again to finalize plans for another year's food garden.

My food gardening seems to follow the pattern of growing too much one year and not quite enough the following one, then rebounding the next. If that behavior holds, then this will be an "off" year. Truth be told, I need a wee bit of a break this year to attend to other aspects of life. And there is already enough food in the freezer and pantry to feed a small army. But what would summer be without at least some of my favorites, fresh from the garden?

No doubt, you already have much of your food garden planned for this year, perhaps even already growing. If, however, there might be a bit of room left for a few more plants, or, like me, you're still in the planning stages, I'd like to share a few of my experiences.

Tomatoes
Last year I cut back from growing a hundred varieties to selecting 50. The odds are that the number will be drastically cut again (okay, maybe to 25). In the record-breaking heat and drought of 2007, the hands-down tomato winner was 'Arkansas Traveler'. The plants readily set fruit even with the high temperatures. Averaging 6 to 8 ounces, these tomatoes have great flavor. I prefer tomatoes in this size range as opposed to the beefsteak types, as there seems to be a lot of waste with the larger ones, what with the core and blotched shoulders.

Cherry and grape tomatoes continue to fascinate me with their range of colors and flavors, but if I were forced to grow only one, it would be 'Cherry Roma'. The 1-inch-long, plum-shaped fruits have a surprising flavor that is both sweet and spicy at the same time.

The three paste tomatoes grown in 2007 -- 'Alamo', 'Big Mama', and 'Margherita' -- were a miserable failure. I'll probably give them another try in 2008, plus return to two previous successes -- 'Opalka' and 'Amish Paste' -- for comparison.

If you're looking for early tomatoes, consider 'Matina', 'Stupice', 'Polfast', and 'Ultimate Opener'. All of these bore early and continued up through frost in the fall. The tomatoes are in the 4- to 6-ounce range, but reliably produced during the heat and drought.

My secrets for growing tomatoes? In addition to good soil preparation, I use a porous black plastic mulch and cages made of heavy-duty fencing.

Peas
I hadn't grown regular peas for years but in 2007 grew two varieties of supersweet peas plus five baby French peas, three snow peas, and one variety of snap pea. Peas are very easy to grow if started early enough in the spring. Shelling peas is time-consuming but not totally onerous if you schedule it with a favorite television program.

My plans for 2008 include growing 'Green Arrow' for freezing. This is a variety that is very productive, sweet, and disease resistant. I'll also continue to grow snow and snap peas for fresh eating.

Okra
This, more than any other vegetable, is the one I most look forward to every summer. Nothing beats freshly picked okra, sliced, dusted with flour, and fried in a bit of olive oil. Usually, 12 to 16 plants produce enough for me. Even though that isn't very many, I usually grow at least four varieties, for the various attributes that each brings. These usually include two newer hybrids, such as 'Cajun Delight' and 'Annie Oakley II', the ever-reliable 'Clemson Spineless', and at least one unusual variety, such as 'Burgundy' or 'White Queen'.

Peppers
Peppers purchased at the grocery are among the most pesticide-ridden of crops. In the home garden, I've never had to use pesticides. For winter use, I core, seed, and freeze the sweet peppers as well as thick-walled hot peppers. Other hot peppers are easily dried. There are hundreds of pepper varieties, but two new ones did very well in my 2007 garden. 'Carmen', a 2006 All-America Selections (AAS) winner, bears lots of large, elongated, thick-walled peppers, with a great, sweet flavor. 'Holy Mole', (a 2007 AAS winner) is a mildly hot pasilla pepper that is very productive. Fruit can be used fresh, pickled, or dried.

Pepper plants get very heavy when loaded with fruit. Those cone-shaped wire cages sold for tomatoes, for which they are worthless, work very well for supporting peppers.

This is only a smattering of what I grew in my 2007 food garden. Other items included summer and winter squash, cucumbers, potatoes, melons, kohlrabi, green beans, yard-long beans, black-eyed peas, Italian borlotti beans, eggplant, Swiss chard, lettuce, beets, radishes, kale, collards, cabbage, broccoli, garlic, and Asian greens. I wish I could tell you about all my experiences, but, hopefully, you'll be inspired to grow more of your food this year. The satisfaction is immense, and your health will improve, both in the exercise you'll get and in the nutrition from your home-grown foods.


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