There is little that can compare to the taste of a just-picked, vine-ripened tomato still warm from the sun. Growing your own vegetables is not only economical, it also provides you the utmost in nutrition. Whether organic, heirloom or just the newest variety offered, growing your own vegetables is sure to guarantee you and your taste buds satisfaction.
It is essential to test the soil of a new or established garden bed because the amount of nutrients in the soil is directly related to the health and production of your vegetable plants. Composting with organics is a must with Southern Maryland's acidic and dense, clay-based soil. Home gardener Neal Gimmel of Indian Head applies lime to his established vegetable bed to "sweeten," or increase the alkalinity of, the soil.
Home kits are available for soil testing, or for a more thorough result, a soil-testing laboratory will produce a report with exact recommend amounts of nutrients to be applied.
In late April, home gardener Shahla Butler of Huntingtown applies a fungus called mycorrhiza to increase the surface-absorbing area of her newly planted vegetables' roots. "It improves the ability of the plant to access nutrients in the soil." She also tests her soil, and amends it as necessary, in the fall.
Keeping The Weeds Down
Home gardener Buddy Owens of Leonardtown suggests you "feed the plants, not the weeds." He doesn't broadcast fertilizer on his entire 50-by-70-foot vegetable garden; he applies it directly in the hole with a newly-planted vegetable.
Gimmel and Butler use newspaper to cover their beds, topped by a few inches of leaf, wood or straw mulch. All of these components break down, and can later be incorporated into the soil as compost. The goal is to have organic matter comprise 25 to 30 percent of the top eight inches of soil.
Weeds take valuable water and nutrients away from your vegetables, so whether you pull weeds by hand or use a small rototiller, exercise extreme intolerance.
What Grows Well Here
Most vegetables can be started from seed, but some things do better when transplanted in our area, including tomatoes, peppers, cabbages, eggplants, broccoli and herbs. If starting from seed, be mindful that there are three harvest options: early spring, summer and fall. Seed packets will provide you with planting and harvest dates.
Butler's favorite early spring vegetable choices are Brussels sprouts, broccoli, lettuce, spinach and herbs. "Tarragon overwinters very well here." Her favorite summer choices are beets, turnips, carrots, tomatoes and garlic. She suggests planting two cloves of a store-bought garlic bulb in the same hole as carrot seeds for an organic pest control. This technique can be used for all vegetables. (Note: The small garlic bulbs are not for harvesting.)
Gimmel, home canner and winner of several fair ribbons for his tomatoes, suggests a 'Goliath' tomato because it has very little core, is juicy and a good size, and can "wait to be picked." He also favors an heirloom variety found in the area where he grew up - the 'West Virginia' tomato. His favorite vegetables to grow are Swiss chard, an heirloom rhubarb bean, beets, yellow squash and cucumbers. Owens' favorites are eggplant, zucchini, squash, green beans and potatoes. His technique for root vegetables is to mound dirt into a hill and plant 12 to 15 seeds. After germination, he thins to 4 to 5 plants and keeps mounding the dirt to make a bigger hill. With this technique the soil is looser, which allows the root vegetables plenty of room to grow. It really is worth a hill of beans!
Local Gardening Buff: Shahla Butler
Inside her six-foot-brick-walled garden are raised beds filled with almost every kind of vegetable. She begins some plants from seed inside her climate-controlled, commercial-grade greenhouse. The excess vegetable production is shared with the Chesapeake Food Pantry and a shelter for abused women called Safe Harbor. She prefers to start her vegetable plants from seed because, she says, "It costs less, plus I like heirloom varieties." Her favorite seed companies are Redwood City Seed Company for peppers (www.userwebs.batnet.com/rwc-seed
) and Renee's Garden Seeds for heirlooms (www.reneesgarden.com
). Her soil-testing laboratory of choice is Logan Labs (www.loganlabs.com
). Her favorite way to preserve tomatoes is to slice, drizzle with olive oil and spices on a baking sheet, and leave in a low temperature oven for three hours. She then places them in freezer bags to use when needed. They re-hydrate very well for sauces, and take up less space than canned tomatoes.