In the Garden:
Coastal and Tropical South
March, 2010
Regional Report

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Locally reliable tomato varieties can withstand some leaf damage without ruining the fruits.

Food Gardening Smarts

Notice I didn't say vegetable gardening, since fruit and herbs are a big part of the latest trends. Whether you call it a "recession garden", a path to healthier eating or a cheap alternative to joining a gym for regular exercise, food gardening is more popular than ever.

Getting started
If you've never grown food before, now is the time to begin. Address the basic needs of food plants and you'll be a better gardener as well as a better eater. Start by considering how you'll grow vegetables and herbs. Choose the method that suits your lifestyle, from traditional garden plots to raised beds, containers to hay bales. Often it seems onerous to dig up another bed in the garden, or perhaps the children play in the sunniest landscape space. Most of our native soils must be amended to improve drainage and fertility, but growing vegetables, herbs and fruits in pots solves that issue readily. Small space varieties and dwarf rootstock fruits are available that have been bred to have smaller root systems and still produce plenty of food. Container growing systems such as Earth Box are particularly well-suited to seasonal vegetables.

Find the sun
No matter your growing method, food plants need at least 6 hours of sun each day. To get the most from vegetables and popular fruits like figs, citrus, blueberries, feijoa and Japanese plums, set aside a spot in the landscape that gets full sun and well-drained soil. If planting fruit in the area with vegetables, orient the taller fruit plants to the north of the veggie plot so shade does not become an issue. Food plants need ready access to water and it's a wise idea to put a plan in place before planting. Handy drip systems can be very conservative in their water use, as are soaker hoses, and neither is hard to set up and use. Both of these and traditional sprinklers will be most efficient if you invest in a timer to regulate irrigation. If at all possible, put this garden where you will see it every day. Not only will you enjoy the view, but a daily walk through gives you a good look at both progress and possible problems. It's simply true that the sooner an insect, disease or other challenge is addressed, the easier it is to deal with both from a practical standpoint and from an ecological one.

Finding favorite foods
Perhaps the best reason to grow at least some of your own food is to expand your palate. Savor tastes that are unavailable elsewhere, afford gourmet and organic foods and extend the seasons of the foods you love most. If you find red beets too earthy, you should try the golden ones, most likely available only from seed. The same is true for sweet white 'Tokyo Cross' turnips, which even converted me to the creamed roots. If your family is tired of broccoli, grow 'Calabrese' and other sprouting types that taste lighter but still retain plenty of vitamins and antioxidants. The Southern Coast region can still get these crops into the garden now, but both regions can plant them for the fall garden. Perhaps the easiest of vegetables to learn to grow and love are beans and squash. Green beans are a great first food crop because no hand is too small or too clumsy to plant them. There are two types, compact bush beans and pole beans, so named because they need poles or some sort of support to hold their vines off the ground. No additional fertilizer is necessary for these and other legumes, because of their ability to "fix" nitrogen from the air to sustain them. That might be reason enough to grow beans, or the fact that you can pick them at 3" long and impress your guests with these gourmet "haricot verts". To feed a family of 2-3, plant a 4x4 bed or 3 huge pots. Two rows, each 10 feet long, can feed four people plus a bag or two for the freezer. Green beans need only to be blanched before freezing for up to 6 months.

Three kinds of summer squash can be planted now. If picked while very small and tender, any one can be persuaded to enjoy these versatile vegetables. Yellow squash, zucchini and the flying saucer-shaped patty pan squash need fertilizer, water and space but not much else. Two plants can feed the average family; plant more if it's a favorite. Female flowers have a tiny squash attached, while male flowers are distinguished by large amounts of pollen. You may need to help them find each other early in the season. Play "bee" by using a cotton swab to transfer pollen from male to female blossoms. You'll have lots, so get versatile and serve them roasted, grilled, stir-fried, sauted, or cooked down with onions.

Tomatoes can be more challenging, but will be easier if you begin with reliable varieties known to do well locally. No matter whether you grow them in containers or beds, put up wire cages or other supports at the same time you plant to avoid disturbing roots unnecessarily. Space traditional vining tomatoes in beds 2 feet apart, or in pots that hold at least 15 g of soil. The idea of a daily visit to the food garden is especially important in tomato growing, since a wilted plant may be stunted and may or may not recover. That said, these queens of the summer garden are well worth the effort, and growing them can become a bit of an obsession. Why else would there be so many to choose from? Entire competitions rally gardeners for great tasting tomatoes, hellishly hot peppers, blueberry cook-offs and such. Be careful with food gardening- you might catch a blue ribbon bug!


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