In the Garden:
Upper South
January, 2012
Regional Report

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This year, choose something you've never grown before, like a purple sweet potato.

What Vegetables are in Your Future?

Before I even began to crawl out from under the Christmas wrappings and ribbon, seed catalogs were overflowing from my mailbox. In only two months, it's going to be the time to plant the first of the hardy vegetable seed outdoors, while cabbage transplants should already be growing. At the same time, we should be starting tomato, pepper, and eggplant seeds indoors for transplanting out after the last frost. All of which means, there isn't much time to plan the vegetable garden, if we want to be at the top of our game.

I will throw out a caveat curve ball, however. Don't panic if you don't plan. There will be wonderful seed assortments and transplants available at garden centers later this spring. Even if you wing it, you can have a wonderful garden producing outstanding vegetables.

But for those of us with at least slightly obsessive tendencies, we will pour over catalogs, angst over which varieties to try this year, and develop plot plans and succession sowing. Personally, I'm beginning to understand why some people methodically buy the same vegetables every year from the same companies. It certainly makes life easier, though not nearly as exciting. This year I'm trying to bring some balance to what I order and grow. Perhaps some of what is going into my decision making will help you, too.

Set Some Criteria In Choosing What You Grow
Stating the obvious, first and foremost, grow vegetables that you like. Couch your choices, however, in choosing ones that will bring the most reward. This mainly will be in terms of cost effectiveness, availability, or how much you want to can, pickle, or freeze.

For instance, if you plan on canning tomatoes and have a favorite variety, it may make sense to start your own seedlings rather than buying several bushels of whatever a farmer's market offers. Conversely, I have a friend who has decided to buy her cucumbers from a local gardener, who grows hundreds of plants and will readily have plenty available for a single, massive pickling session.

Or, to offer another example, I finally learned this year why people hate beets, which happens to be one of my favorite vegetables. I didn't get any planted this spring, so I bought some at a farmers' market this summer. They were awful. It seems most market gardeners grow old-fashioned varieties that are not to my taste. I happen like the sweet hybrids. To me, they're almost an entirely different vegetable. So my favorite beets, plus a few new varieties for comparison, are going to be high on the list for my garden this year. Testing out at least a few new varieties each year is part of the adventure of gardening. If you haven't done this lately, I encourage you to add at least a few new ones to this year's list.

Two of my criteria in choosing what to grow are how easy it is to find at a farmers' market and how much it will cost to buy. Some examples include fennel, okra, and leeks. The only drawback to growing my own is that each of these are usually eaten fresh rather than being a crop for preserving. So does it really make sense to go to the effort of growing 150 leeks if I'm only going to eat a dozen or so of them?

Think Purple and Red This Year
If you do much reading about health and food, one recurring theme is the benefit of eating vegetables and fruits because of their antioxidants. Among those highest on many lists are purple and red vegetables and fruits containing anthocyanins. So why not grow some red onions, which are usually more expensive than yellow or white ones at the grocery? And how about adding red cabbage or some of the purple and darker red tomatoes? There's a new cocktail-sized tomato called 'Indigo Rose' that is among the darkest of tomatoes and highest in anthocyanins, but there are many other luscious black tomato varieties as well.

There's also a pak choi called, appropriately, 'Red Cho'i, and dozens of red-leaf lettuce varieties to try. 'Garnet Giant' is the darkest red mustard variety, while 'Graffiti' is a purple cauliflower. Other choices include 'Prima Rosa' chard, 'Cosmic Purple' carrots, 'Red Burgundy' okra, red orach, purple tomatillo, and 'Redbor' kale. Did you know that there is a purple-fleshed sweet potato from Korea? I bought some recently, and they're a bit gummy (not nearly as delicious as my favorite Garnets), but I'm going to sprout and plant some to experiment more with cooking them. I've also seen them listed in seed catalogs. And does anybody know if the anthocyanins go away when purple beans are cooked? Look through seed catalogs this year to see what purple vegetables you can add to the garden this year.

And Now For Something Completely Different
Just for the fun of it, add at least a few things to the garden that may be completely off your radar. Maybe this year it could be the cape gooseberry, also known as the husk cherry. Related to tomatillos, these small yellow berries encased in papery husks are high in vitamin C. Want another reason to grow them? They sell for $20 a pound when dried, even though plants produce copious amounts. Or, what about purslane? Sure, you've been pulling it out as a weed, but it is high in omega-3s, so why not grow a cultivated variety with larger leaves on upright plants?

Who knows what other strange and wonderful items will find their way into my seed orders, but no doubt several unusual and fun items will be included. Remember, a food garden not only fills our bellies but also our spirits.









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