When it comes to vegetable growing, Mary Alice and Terry Ramsey take a freewheeling approach in their North Carolina backyard.
Combining complementary talents, Mary Alice Ramsey (an artist and writer) dreams and imagines while her husband, Terry (a machine designer and engineer), brings her plans to life. Whether it’s the waterwheel, creek-spanning bridges, or an ambitious three-story tree house, anything is possible in the Ramseys’ Fairview, North Carolina, garden. Hailing from a long line of vegetable gardeners, they’ve tended this plot for 17 seasons. A border of coneflowers, bee balm, and Shasta daisies greets all who enter through the handcrafted gate. Cabbages, carrots, tomatoes, squash, and beans interplanted with flowers grow abundantly here. The Ramseys attribute much of this success to two things: growing in raised beds and using rich, crumbly soil made from their own on-site compost.
The geometry of the raised beds shapes the kitchen garden’s design, but there’s no stuffiness. Tomatoes sprawl over a baker’s rack, and pink petunias spill out from a bright blue chest of drawers, making sure the tone stays lighthearted despite the serious amount of produce they harvest.
The Ramseys were inspired to build a “bean house” after seeing a garden teepee built for children. During the summertime, ‘Kentucky Wonder’ pole beans scramble up strings attached to a skeleton structure, creating the ideal place to play, hide, or pick beans. They frequently invite their grandkids and other children to the garden and believe that even the pickiest eaters can learn to love broccoli and peas if they just experience the magic of planting and harvesting their own. Here are their hard-earned, down-to-earth tips for garden success.
Enjoy your garden year-round with a greenhouse.
The Ramseys start seeds and grow tender plants here in early spring. Storing her tools in one spot helps keep the greenhousr organized. During the winter, the greenhouse is a getaway for writing, drawing, or napping. Mary Alice also uses it as a gallery for her botanical paintings.
Grow vegetables and flowers.
Pretty meets practical when these two come together. Flowers lure pollinators, which increase veggie yields and motivate gardeners to tend their plots. “The blooms get us out there to weed,” Mary Alice says.
Amp up your soil.
North Carolina’s native red-clay soil may suit the local flora, but vegetables require a rich, well-drained growing medium to thrive. The Ramseys add a mix of compost, shredded leaves, and cow manure to the soil in their raised beds. These beds warm early and are a smart way to extend the growing season in the mountains.
Baby your tomatoes.
The high-altitude location of the Ramseys’ garden means a shorter growing season. Erratic weather is also a challenge. Wet years promote disease, and dry ones demand diligent watering. To ensure tomato success, they pick reliable selections such as ‘Mountain Pride,’ ‘Celebrity,’ ‘Mortgage Lifter,’ ‘Sun Gold,’ and ‘Better Boy.’
Plant with a purpose.
Following the Master Gardeners’ often-used mantra of “right plant for the right place,” the Ramseys are thoughtful about selecting prime locations and conditions. Sun-loving plants get sunlight, and shade-loving ones get shade. They applied the same philosophy to their kitchen garden by planting it in a spot that receives optimum sunlight (at least eight hours a day) so vegetables ripen to perfection.
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Invite good bugs into the garden.
Mary Alice and Terry encourage the presence of natural predators such as ladybugs and lacewings, whose larvae gobble up troublemakers like spider mites and aphids. With their laid-back attitude, the Ramseys are willing to tolerate some damage yet suffer no qualms about removing harmful bugs by hand if necessary.
Mary Alice advises beginning gardeners to learn as much as they can from written resources. Her favorite book is Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew. She also recommends reading Bringing Nature Home by Doug Tallamy. Both novice and seasoned gardeners should also reach out to local Master Gardeners and other plant lovers to learn from their experience. Mary Alice feels strongly that the more she gardens, the more there is to learn and that the education never really stops. Her all-time best gardening tip though? “Take delight in your plants!”