March 23, 2011 10:55:00 AM
Jan Swoope - firstname.lastname@example.org
"We like this a lot better than working in the house," 11-year-old Harrison Nasekos grins, taking a break from tilling a plot of loamy, brown earth at Palmer Home for Children on Columbus'' Ninth Street South Monday. His friend, 13-year-old Alex Franco, leans on a hoe and heartily agrees. Their sentiment draws laughter from Mary Tuggle, the boys'' gardening mentor, and Alice Talley, a Palmer Home house mother.
Warm spring sunshine bathes the group surrounded by acres that will soon yield corn, snap beans, tomatoes, purple hull peas and so much more. In the distance, an orchard of blueberry and blackberry bushes already boasts verdant green growth. A frisky breeze ruffles the boys'' shirts, a perfect spring day. Is it any wonder the children would rather be outdoors? Even at this age, they can feel something of what draws a host of Golden Triangle gardening buffs, itching to dust off the green thumbs and start digging.
Timing is everything
While some are waiting a few more weeks to get their hands dirty, Tuggle and the children at Palmer Home are busy disking and tilling to loosen soil in several plots of varying sizes that will keep the Palmer dining room supplied with fresh vegetables and fruits for months ahead.
"That''s red potatoes in that row and white potatoes over there," Alex said, identifying the new green growth already pushing up through mounded rows in a separate plot that was, until a recent wind storm, covered with plastic sheeting.
For unprotected gardens, veteran growers are biding their time.
"Our last average frost date for North Mississippi is April 10, so you have to keep that in mind when planting," said Jeff Wilson, Mississippi State University Extension Service area horticulture agent. "Usually Good Friday is recommended as a planting day, but that falls late this year. People could go a little earlier if the forecast looks promising."
When it comes to reading a sometimes-inscrutable Mother Nature, gardeners and farmers are famous for their homegrown wisdom.
"An elder gentleman once told me to mark the calendar on the last day in February you hear thunder," Tuggle smiled. "That will be the date of the last cool spell in April and your signal for planting." Just for good measure, the horticulturist flagged Feb. 28 as the last day she heard thunder, to see how well the theory tests out.
Don''t skimp on planning
Experienced hands like Tuggle and Wilson know gardening can be about as simple, or as complex, as you want to make it, but careful planning can definitely make it easier, more productive and more enjoyable.
Some basics to cover are deciding what to plant, the best location, garden size and drawing out a sample garden plan. The Extension Service site, msucares.com, offers advice for every stage.
Wilson stresses getting seeds or transplants from a reputable source. "Buy resistant varieties and follow the label''s planting date and directions," he stated.
It''s important seeds are freshly-packaged for the current year. Home-saved vegetable seeds may give disappointing results. The only vegetable seeds gardeners should save are those of varieties that have been in the family for many years and have become heirloom varieties, advises the Extension Service site.
After selecting healthy plants, till the garden to a depth of 10 inches and amend the soil according to soil test results, only adding lime if recommended, Wilson said. "Keep young plants watered well by applying about 1 inch of water a week," he added.
Tilling and watering aren''t the only tasks Tuggle''s protégés will learn. Jobs are assigned according to age, with the older children handling more in-depth chores. In the course of a growing year, they get hands-on experience ranging from correctly spacing crops to that most-important of a gardener''s duties -- weeding. They''re proud of their burgeoning knowledge and skills.
"We''ll plant vetch or peas here to add nitrogen to the soil," Harrison says, only lightly-coached. He and Alex list more of the crops they''ll be tending -- carrots, onions, radishes, lettuce and broccoli. "We had a broccoli this big!" announces Alex of last year''s crop, holding his arms in a wide circle, as though holding an invisible plump pumpkin.
No chemicals will be used in the smaller plot they''re working on. Tuggle likes to keep this particular garden, plus the raised beds already boasting herbs, collards, radishes, lettuce and English peas, chemical-free "so the kids can walk over, wash it off and eat right out of the garden."
In addition to preparing soil in the larger gardens, Tuggle and the trainees have been busy filling Palmer''s eight greenhouses with plantings of herbs, plus impatiens, geraniums and many more hanging baskets that will soon be a carnival of color. The herbs and some of the flowering plants will be sold at the Hitching Lot Farmers'' Market. Many will tempt customers at Palmer''s Spring Open House April 15-16.
Tuggle said, "The greenhouses will be open to the public from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 15 and from 9 a.m. to 2 pm. Saturday."
Portents for a delicious -- and colorful -- spring and summer ahead are everywhere, as Wilson can attest. "I spend a lot of time in garden centers and co-ops, and they''ve been busy lately." The fairly warm March, with no below-freezing weather, has allowed for beautiful bloom colors and good garden-prep weather.
Just imagine sitting down to a summer table, with vegetables at their freshest, sometimes only minutes from harvest. It''s a Mississippi tradition, for old and young -- a tradition worth passing on to youngsters like Harrison and Alex.
Access plenty of gardening and crop tips, publications and even helpful videos at msucares.com, or contact the MSU Extension Service at 662-328-2111 or 662-323-5916. Dig in and enjoy the bounty.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.