Raise Your Own Veggies
Right Out Back
Anyone who loves to eat and possesses even a remote interest in cooking should plant a kitchen garden. A bold statement, yes, but those who've experienced plot-to-pan freshness are bound to agree: No substitute exists for that just-picked taste. Plus, if you're watching your pennies, you'll be amazed at how much you'll save, especially when you start from seed.
So does this mean you'll be tilling the back 40 and investing in pricey equipment? Heck, no. All you really need is a shovel, a rake, a bucket, and water. Gene and Jan Harlow both grew up as backyard gardeners and even they started small.
"Test your interest, and then add on as your needs grow," says Gene. The couple's first garden at their Laurel, Mississippi, home measured 7 x 16 feet and included eight tomatoes, an assortment of peppers, and herbs for cooking. Now their backyard serves as the nucleus for the much-expanded garden that this family of five cooks from today.
Within the trio of beds, an entire arm is devoted just to herbs. The other beds contain cucumbers, beans, eggplants, tomatoes, and peppers. Colorful zinnias are summer essentials. Cool-season crops include lettuces, arugula, onions, collards, broccoli, mustard, turnips, cabbage, snow peas, and ‘Sugar Snap' peas.
"Good soil is the key to a great garden," says Gene. "If you think you're going to get serious, save room for at least two compost bins." Gene adds organic matter to his garden twice a year―in the spring and fall―and amends each time he starts transplants. Dark and rich, the results are visible to the eye.
Good soil can be made even better and bad soil can be improved when you add organic matter. Make your own compost, or purchase it by the bag, as Gene often does. Surprisingly, he's not picky about what he adds. "Decomposed chicken manure gave me some of the best tomatoes and lettuces I've ever had," he professes.
Test Your Soil
To ensure plants can take in the proper nutrients, test your soil annually. Contact your county Extension office for more information on how to test your soil. Based on what you're growing and the test results, recommendations will be made.
One of life's great pleasures is eating your first tomato of the season, sun-warmed and just off the vine. A self-professed "tomato-holic," Gene says that as soon as your soil is workable, you should till in organic matter and add a little 16-4-8 fertilizer. You'll be ready to plant when the weather warms. Read the steps in the following slides to see how he does it.
1. Make Your Bed
Working from either side of the row, rake soil toward the middle, forming a mound. "It should look like a grave," jokes Gene. Using a rake, level the top. This will enable you to dig a deeper hole in quality soil and promote good drainage.
2. Prep the Hole
Dig a hole about 10 inches deep and about as wide as a small shovel. Pour in enough compost to fill the hole, and lightly incorporate it into the soil. Prepare a 5-gallon bucket of water mixed with a water-soluble tomato fertilizer, and pour in enough to fill the hole. Rich, moist soil helps young plants establish faster and keeps them happier longer.
3. Pinch 'em, and Plant 'em
Strip off all leaves halfway up the stem, and plant the tomato so the soil reaches that point. Sometimes Gene will plant laterally, with the stem parallel to the ground. Referred to as trenching, this method is preferred if plants are leggy.
Get the Winning Edge
To keep your garden pretty year-round, Gene offers these helpful tips.
- Make beds no wider than 3½ to 4 feet. They'll be easier to work from all sides.
- Separate planting areas with paths of mulch or grass. Gene initially digs out the edge with a narrow, flat-end shovel and then edges with a string trimmer after mowing.
- Add height. Trellises, sculpture, and even bird houses inject interest into a flat site.
More Helpful Tips
- Mulch to maintain moisture and keep weeds at bay. If using pine straw, rake it aside prior to tilling.
- Develop a year-round attitude. There's something to do in all four seasons. In late winter, when weather allows, break soil and get rid of weeds. Snow peas and ‘Sugar Snap' peas can often be planted in late fall or very early spring in the Deep South.
- Stay on top of chores. Pull weeds when you see them. Tie up that tomato on your way to the car. It may sound like a lot of work, but the rewards are not only tasty, they're good for the soul.
Good to Know
For indeterminate selections such as cherry tomatoes, staking is an ongoing process because their vines continue to grow in length, yielding fruit all season long. Determinate selections, on the other hand, get only so tall and produce their entire crop at once. Be sure to stake or cage tomatoes soon after you plant.
Try These Tomatoes
* very new to market but highly recommended (may be difficult to find)
** denotes determinate selections