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March/April 2010

 Living Well in Hard Times
by Sherry Hagerty

                    Gardening 101

One of the best ways to live well, in hard times or good, is to grow some or even most of your own food. Home grown food generally is more nutritious, flavorful and if grown without pesticides and herbicides, healthier.  Gardening is good exercise.  It is fascinating and educational.  And providing for yourself, even if it is just a little, gives you an unbelievable feeling of empowerment.  Recently a friend new to gardening asked me the following questions.  So here, for her and for you, are the basics to get you started.


Ideally, your garden should be in a spot that receives at least 6 hours of sunlight a day. This is the most critical factor, as the others can be more easily overcome.  If you don’t have a spot that gets enough sunlight, you may want to plant some things such as tomatoes in pots that can be moved around as the sunlight changes. Your garden area should have soil that has neither too much clay nor too much sand. It should be close enough to the house to make getting out to work in it easy, as well as convenient to bring in your harvest.  A flat area that is not too low and wet is best.  You will probably need to water, so gardening where you have access to a hose is desirable.  Preferably there are no trees close to the garden area.  Trees too close to your garden may be damaged by cultivation and will also sap nutrients from the garden.  Some trees, such as black walnut actually give off chemicals that retard the growth of competing plants.  However, you may not have all of these ideal factors.  Look over the possible areas and choose the one that gives you the best option or that you can most easily modify. Hillsides can be terraced for gardening.  Water can be collected in rain barrels or dipped from a pond or creek.  Poor soils can be corrected with the addition of plenty of compost and organic matter.  Also, some plants such as potatoes will do better in a sandier soil than others.

                                            SHOULD I START WITH PLANTS OR SEEDS?

It depends on several things. Many plants such as beets, beans, peas, corn, radishes, etc. do not transplant well and so should be sown directly in your garden.  If you want a certain variety of plant, you may have to grown it from seed, as there are hundreds of varieties available and nurseries can’t possibly carry them all.  If you want to save your seeds, you will want to grow heirloom plants (non-hybrids) and many of those are not available as plants.  (Hybrid seeds do not bear true…if you plant a seed that you kept from a hybrid tomato, you will get a tomato, but it probably won’t be like the mother plant.)  If you are getting a late start on gardening or don’t have room to start your seedlings, you may need to buy them.  Most likely you will use some of both.


Heirlooms are non-hybrid seeds.  Many varieties of fruits and vegetables have been bred for certain characteristics over the years.  Large growers need vegetables that can be harvested mechanically or that travel well.  Hybrids can give us such things as seedless watermelon, or sweeter sweet corn.  But often, flavor is sacrificed for better shipping quality or ease of harvest. *(See additional comment at the bottom of the page).


There are hundreds.  Many times a seed packet will tell you whether a seed is an heirloom or a hybrid.  Here is a list of some popular vegetables and the variety that is an heirloom.  There are hundreds more, but these are ones that you will likely find in any garden center or seed rack: Mary Washington asparagus, Blue Lake bush beans, Golden Wax beans, Scarlet Runner beans, Detroit Dark Red or Early Wonder beets, Golden beets, Catskill or Long Island Brussels Sprouts, Premium Late Flat Dutch cabbage, Danvers Half Long or Chatenay, Red Core carrots, Snowball Self-blanching Cauliflower, Bloomsdale Long Standing Spinach, New Zealand Spinach (not a true spinach, but often grown in place of spinach because it is more heat tolerant), Early Prolific Straight neck or Crookneck Early Golden yellow squashes, Black Beauty or Zucchini Gray squash, Blue Hubbard, Buttercup and Waltham Butternut winter squashes, Connecticut Field , Big Max, and New England Sugar Pie pumpkins, Table Queen Acorn squash, Beefsteak, Marglobe, Moneymaker and Rutgers tomatoes, Roma paste tomatoes (also known as Italian or plum tomatoes), Sugar Baby watermelon.


Compost is basically decayed organic matter, such as leaves, grass, wood, garbage, natural fiber clothes, hair and bones and even manure.  Things you should not add to a compost pile, at least in any quantity, are oak leaves, sawdust, pine needles, and animal meat and fats (these last two will eventually break down but may attract dogs, skunks, etc.) Also adding large amounts of grass clippings or ashes, may cause matting…these things need to be mixed in with other things to decrease composting time.  Composting can be simple or elaborate, but it is the single most important thing you can do for your soil.  It can vastly improve the quality of the soil texture, provides plants with nutrients in forms they can use, increases the nutritive value of the plants, keeps plants healthier, reducing problems with insects and diseases.  It helps soil hold moisture and helps to prevent erosion.  There are two main methods of making compost: The biodynamic-/French method and the Rodale method. I recommend How to Grow More Vegetables than you ever thought possible on less land than you can imagine by John Jeavons for more complete information on the first method and the Rodale Complete Book of Compost for the second. Some plants do better in acidic soil and some in more alkaline soil. However the addition of compost to the soil increases the overall tolerance of many plants. Testing the ph of your soil can be very helpful, but adding the wrong soil amenders indiscriminately may do more harm than good.

There are many other areas of gardening that you may want to check into such as green manure, crop rotation, and intensive planting, but save that for another year! Happy Gardening!  by Sherry Hagerty

*Remember those tomatoes your Grandmother grew, or the ones that the farmer down the road used to sell at his roadside stand?  With the advent of hybrid seeds, the older open-pollinated varieties are getting harder to find.  While the hybrids have many advantages (disease resistance, greater productivity, more uniform fruit, etc.) they just can't match the heirlooms for taste, and isn't that why you grow your own vegetables? With a little extra care and planning, the heirloom varieties can do just as well as the hybrids in your backyard garden.  As for flower varieties, many of today's nurseries consistently offer the same varieties year after year, with little variation.  The older varieties seem to have taken a back seat to the newer, flashier varieties.  This year, why not try some of the simple old fashioned varieties in your garden?  We think you will be pleasantly surprised!  Don't forget to plant a few herbs,
as well.  They'll complement your fresh produce nicely on the dinner table.  After tasting your own freshly picked herbs, you'll readily agree to their superior taste!  Once you try them, you'll always insist on growing your own!!

What exactly is an heirloom variety?  Sorry to say, but there is no "exact" definition for this term.  In fact, there have been entire books dedicated to this subject and still there is no agreement between gardeners as to what constitutes an heirloom and what does not.  First, lets try to cover what everyone agrees on.  Heirlooms are always open-pollinated varieties. This means that if the seeds produced from the plant are properly saved, they will produce the same variety year after year.  This cannot be done with hybrids, which are a cross between two separate varieties, as the seed produced from those plants will either be sterile, or start to revert back to the parent plants.

The next part of the definition starts to get a little fuzzy.  Most gardeners agree that heirloom varieties should be at least 50 years old. But can a variety that is 48 or 49 years old be eliminated from this group, but then be eligible 1 or 2 years later?  And what about an improved variety of an old favorite?  We'll let the so called "experts" argue about this one!

Lastly, many gardeners think there should be some history behind the variety, perhaps a story on a variety's introduction, some ethnic background or a tie to a certain time in history.  Part of the joy of growing heirlooms is discovering these stories behind the seeds.  But in some cases, the early history of some seeds is not known.  Should these varieties be eliminated from the group?  Many heirloom gardeners will only grow varieties introduced outside the seed trade.  What about the older varieties that were originally introduced by professional plant breeders over 100 years ago?  Would it be fair to eliminate all of these varieties from the group?

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         West Finley PA 15377


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