Summer Gardener 

Seven ways to champion a cause in your yard

Seven ways to champion a cause in your yard

Americans have historically prepared for potential annihilation with two strategies. Duck—or duct, in the case of the current unpleasantness—and cover.

Or plant a garden. From the Victory Gardens of World War II to the survival gardens of the millennium scare, we have been urged to protect our food supply in the face of an unsettled future.

Save your country, save your community, save the economy, save the environment, save yourself. It may seem like a lot to ask of a small plot of ground, but when the personal is threatened by the political, our gardens can become bully pulpits. Here are some ways to prepare your garden to champion a cause this summer.

1 Grow your own food —Produce travels, on average, about 1400 miles from harvest to store. Help break the country’s reliance on foreign oil by growing your own grocery store. Mel Bartholomew’s book Square Foot Gardening or (www.squarefootgardening.com), contains all the basic information you need to boycott oil prices without suffering on the home front.

Square foot gardening is pretty much what it sounds like: Plant intensively in each square foot to reap the most efficient harvest. Just eight 4-fooy-4-foot garden plots can produce enough to feed a family of four. Plant four more garden plots and have plenty of vegetables left over to can.

For the summer garden, focus on growing tomatoes and beans for preserving; winter squash and carrots because they keep for a long time. Grow the vines up trellises to take up less space. Plant bush beans and half long carrot varieties to make the most of the small garden. The planting times, techniques and procedures are all in Bartholomew’s book, but one of my favorite things to grow is tomatoes.

For me, the best part of summer is when that first cherry tomato, vine-ripened in my own garden, explodes in my mouth. Want to know the secret to great tomato plants? It’s all in how you transplant the new seedlings. Before you go to the store, dig a hole at least 8 inches deep, place a handful of compost in the bottom and fill the hole with water. When you get home, place the little six pack of plants in a shallow pan of water and let them soak it up. Wait until the cool temperatures of the early evening to do the transplanting.

The real trick is in how you prepare and plant the tomato seedling. Starting at the bottom of the stem, closest to the soil, pinch off the leaves, leaving only eight or 10 leaves on the very top of the seedling. Gently unpot the plant, place it into the deep hole and fill in with soil. Ideally, only the top leaves and about 1 inch of stem will be above the ground. Since each little hair on the tomato plant stem will make a root if it is underground, your tomato plant will develop a deep root system that will keep it going through the dry summer.

And if you’re interested in canning, but don’t know how to put up your veggies, download instructions from the University of Tennessee Agricultural Extension Service Web site (www.utextension.utk .edu) or write them at: Davidson County Agricultural Extension Service Office, 800 Second Avenue N., Ste. 3, 37201-1083. Their number is 862-5995, and you can get all the information you need on safe canning procedures.

2 Open a neighborhood produce stand—Once you’ve got your square foot garden up and running, focus on growing specialty vegetables that can be marketed to white linen tablecloth restaurants in your area.

Last year, I was contacted by two such restaurants looking for a reliable, local source of arugula. That peppery leafy green grows easily year round, produces lovely edible flowers and abundant seed. Vine ripened tomatoes are also restaurant staples during the summer. Grow roma tomatoes if your restaurant wants to make sauce. Grow cherry tomatoes and heirloom varieties for use in salads.

3 Compost—Twenty-eight percent of household waste can be composted at no expense to taxpayers. In other words, what doesn’t go to the landfill represents a savings to you. Not only is composting simple, but the government wants to teach you how to do it, with classes, pamphlets and booklets that are readily available. Learn some fancy compost pile techniques or just dig a hole in your garden and bury the vegetable and fruit scraps that come out of your kitchen. Compost can be used as mulch, soil amendment, fertilizer, fungicide and pesticide. And for a gardener there is nothing as exciting as digging to the bottom of a compost pile and finding the perfect soil amendment squirming with earthworms. If you garden in Middle Tennessee, a compost pile provides the only hope for growing flourishing plants in our root suffocating clay soil.

For information on composting, go to www.nashville.gov/recycle and click on “composting” for a downloadable composting booklet.

4 Use organic gardening techniques—Federal law mandates that each state have a plan to collect and properly dispose of household hazardous waste you produce. For the gardener, this means pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers and other toxic products. It isn’t cheap, and it isn’t pretty.

Stop relying on expensive, ineffective garden potions and brew up your own. A homemade spray of mild dishwashing soap, garlic and onions will repel bugs. A layer of newspaper or cardboard will smother weeds. Vinegar or boiling water poured on the same weeds will kill them dead. You’ll feel clever and save money when you wage war against garden threats the organic way.

For a quick primer on organic remedies, check out Bugs and Slugs and Other Slugs: Controlling Garden Pests Organically5Become an environmental activist—This year, don’t harbor or plant honeysuckle, burning bushes or privet hedges. They are exotic pest plants. While pretty, these gardens fads of the past are threats to good, solid American flora.

Instead, choose some solid Tennessee citizens. Coral honeysuckle is a delightful vine that attracts hummingbirds. Black chokeberry turns bright red in the fall and feeds the birds with its berries. Don’t know the friends from the foes in your yard? Consult the Southeast Exotic Pest Plant Council’s Web site for a list of invasive exotic pest plants in Tennessee at www.se-eppc.org. To help you pick out native plants to replace the exotics you are now planning to uproot, contact GroWild, a native plant nursery located in Fairview, Tenn. (799-1910).

6 Use SmartGrow—Be on the lookout for a gardening product that is made from 100-percent recycled and organic materials and that helps reduce watering by up to 50 percent. SmartGrow is not only produced by a small business, but it was developed out of a desire to save the environment by soaking up oil spills. Placed in the bottom of a plant pot or in a planting hole, the mat retains moisture and nutrients, and slowly releases nitrogen. Placed on top of the ground, it defeats slugs and snails, repels deer and prevents erosion. And, would you believe, this product is made from human hair. How’s that for American ingenuity? Pick up some SmartGrow mats at your local garden supply outlets as part of your patriotic duty to put some money into the economy.

7 Declare your lawn an urban meadow—Quit applying herbicides, then set your mower at the recommended height of 3 inches and observe the small flowers that bloom on short stalks. Get wild and eat some dandelions. (The smallest leaves taste great in salads.) Cook the bigger leaves like spinach and mix them in with other greens to best enjoy their bitter flavor. Buy some 10-packs-for-a-dollar seeds at a dollar store and scatter them haphazardly. Let the rain fall when it will. Give up trying to control the world and see what happens when you just give peas a chance.

Julie Berbiglia is a master gardener and master composter, a host of NPT’s Volunteer Gardener, a home gardener with a prolific stand of arugula in the front yard and is employed as the Organic Garden Coordinator at Scarritennett Center.

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