Sunday, April 5, 2009

Garden News

Got the Home-Grown Veggie Fever? Try a Little Moderation and Lots of Education

BOISE—As spring awakens Idaho yards this year, recession-weary citizens aren’t just anticipating the summer’s aromatic roses and aristocratic delphiniums. Hot with the nation’s grow-your-own fever, they’re dreaming of far more humble—but filling—lettuce, tomatoes and squash.

“Veggie gardening is the big thing this year because people are trying to save money on produce,” said Susan Bell, University of Idaho Extension educator in Ada County. “Oftentimes, their eyes are bigger than their backs are strong.” To make sure 2009’s “big thing” will work for you, Bell and her statewide colleagues say the best thing is to start small.

Before you till a quarter-acre tract, stop, smell the—uh—onions and consider what your family will actually eat. “If they’ve never eaten okra in their life, there’s no reason to grow it,” said JoAnn Robbins, University of Idaho Extension educator in Jerome County. “If your family eats a lot of carrots, by all means plant them. But if they’re banana eaters, it’s not going to save you money to grow a garden.”

Steve Love, University of Idaho Extension horticulture specialist in Aberdeen, applauds Americans’ renewing interest in self-sufficiency. “I think people should be at least partially self-sustaining,” he said. “Growing your own food gives you the satisfaction of doing something that is relatively difficult, has true meaning and tastes really good.” When gardeners overplant, they “lose a lot of effort, time and money—and wastage in the garden is one of the things that people should try to avoid.”

Love advocates developing a plan for how and when your anticipated produce will land on your family’s table—and in its larders—this year. That includes learning what to expect of each variety and when to harvest it. Some fruits and vegetables can be picked casually over a prolonged period, Love said. Others have an unforgiving harvest window of just a couple of days.

In Canyon County, Extension educator Ariel Agenbroad advises gardeners to focus on high-value crops like tomatoes and peppers that can really save money at the grocer’s compared with low-value, space-hogging crops like sweet corn. Some top-dollar berries and herbs can even make your landscape look good while making you feel good about the cash they’re leaving in your pocket.

In Nez Perce County, Extension educator Lydia Clayton suggests growing food in modest-sized raised beds and even in containers, thus saving precious time in watering, weeding and pest management. For gardeners with few hours to spare, time-saving approaches make the difference between delight and despair, Clayton says. If you want, you can always plant more containers as the season progresses.

For those who will be tilling their own ground, Extension educators agree: great produce depends on great soils. If you don’t have them already—and few of us do—it’ll take several years to achieve them with generous, repeated applications of composts, aged manures, leaves, grass clippings and so forth. “Most of our soils here have less than 2% organic matter content,” said Wayne Jones, Idaho Falls-based Extension educator in Bonneville County. “Adding anything organic helps.”

While a soil test can be moderately pricey, Mike Bauer—Jones’ counterpart in northern Idaho’s Bonner County—said it’s “worth the money to know what your soil needs. After you’ve spent a couple or three years improving the soil, you may not need to add fertilizers”—and the test will begin to pay for itself.

University of Idaho Extension educators are rich in other cost-cutting tips as well:
Start plants from seed if you have time.
Share spendy seed packets, fertilizers, tools and equipment with fellow gardeners.
Stagger your plantings so you don’t harvest two-dozen kitchen-ready lettuces all at once.
Save space by interplanting, like slipping carrots in between lettuces or tucking herbs into your flower borders.
Save water—and the weeds it awakens—by using drip irrigation, soaker hoses and mulches.
Make your own tomato cages, bean supports and other garden structures: creativity pays.
Be vigilant for pest damage: nip it early while you can still treat pests cheaply or—better still—dispatch them for free underfoot.

“If you’ve never gardened before, it’s okay to start with three tomato plants, a 6-foot row of carrots and maybe a zucchini,” said Robbins. “Insuring your personal success is more important the first year than growing a lot to eat. If you find that you like gardening and were successful at it, then put in more next year.” In the meantime, Robbins suggests supplementing your home-grown produce with trips to the local farmers’ market.

Knowing and growing are unquestionably linked when it comes to producing food, said Agenbroad. “An educated gardener is a successful gardener.” Fortunately, University of Idaho Extension offers a cornucopia of gardening education through its county extension offices, its p:// Web site and its Educational Communications catalog that’s ripe with how-to publications. These publications—most of them downloadable—walk you through the gardening experience with everything from “Planning an Idaho Vegetable Garden” to “Harvesting and Storing Fresh Garden Vegetables.”

If you prefer the personal touch, sign up for a University of Idaho Extension gardening class or ask local Master Gardener volunteers to help you diagnose pests or determine whether your crops are performing as they should. The university’s Extension Food Safety Advisors can even teach you how to can, freeze and dry your harvest.

“You bet, I tell new gardeners to give it a shot,” said Jones. “We’re here and we can help you out.”

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