|Unearth the goodness of vegetables|
|Monday, 20 February 2017|
by Jan Spann
Perhaps curiosity or a desire to try something new inspired gardeners. Regardless, vegetable gardening is no longer a trend but something found in private spaces and community places. Central Arkansas vegetable gardening includes warm and cool weather plants, and March is the perfect time to start warm weather garden plans.
First, start with what you want to plant and where. Nearly all vegetable plants require six to eight hours of sunlight. If you don’t have that in your backyard, consider your front yard and/or containers. Getting children involved in the process gives them ownership of the plants, which encourages them to eat what they produce. Lettuces are one of the easiest to start in containers, and as you harvest the leaves, it will continue to produce new ones.
Once you’ve found the sunny spot, prep it. The best weed barrier is cardboard; its density aids in blocking weeds, and worms love it. Earthworms are your garden’s best ally. They turn plant debris and kitchen waste into the perfect soil for your garden. Placing the cardboard on the garden plot in early March will ensure that it will be ready when it’s time to plant seedlings and sow seeds. Adding layers of kitchen waste (veggies, fruit and eggshells) covered by leaves will make the worms happy and keep them doing good work in your soil. Add moisture as needed.
March is also the right time to begin seedlings inside. Seed starter kits at your local garden center provide small peat pots in which to place seeds. Water and sunshine are all that’s needed for the next six to eight weeks. As the time nears for planting your veggies, remove the cardboard and gently rake out any large pieces remaining in the pile. In mid to late April, the soil will be sufficiently warm to transplant seedlings.
The best seeds to grow are the ones you want on your dinner plate! In Central Arkansas, the best warm weather crops include summer and zucchini squash, okra, peppers, cucumbers, eggplants, tomatoes, snap beans and lettuces. You can also branch out and try edamame, radish, southern peas, kohlrabi or cantaloupe. These plants also give you the biggest return per crop (if your family’s favorite fruit is watermelon, recognize that it’s a spreader).
Check the seed packet to determine when the seeds will mature, ranging from 40 to 90 days, at which time the soil will be warm enough to transplant the sprouts into your garden. Arkansas weather can surprise us with chilly temperatures in March and April, so check with your county extension office if you have questions about planting dates.
Consider planting herbs and flowers along with your vegetable seeds. Freshly cut herbs have much more potency, and flowers will attract beneficial insects and pollinators, lessening pesticide spraying.
Annual herbs include basil, which repels tomato hornworms and asparagus beetles, and dill, which repels cabbage moths and is a host plant — along with fennel — for the caterpillar stage of black swallowtail butterflies. Parsley is not just a plate garnish, but is also helpful for digestion and repels beetles.
Perennials that will provide flavor for years include rosemary, which needs sandy soil in a sunny location typical of its home in Greece. Thyme, marjoram and oregano are creepers, so plant them around the edge of a container or bed. Chives repel aphids, and it will spread when it goes to seed. Sage deters carrot rust flies and cabbage moths. Both winter and summer savory repel Mexican bean beetles. French tarragon is also a great addition. Plant one of the many flavors of mint in a separate container as it has vigorous growth.
Catmint repels aphids and squash bugs. Give it the same caution as other mints, as it will spread. Calendula, or pot marigold, deters the asparagus beetle and also attracts the beneficials. Its flower petals can be used to color soup, cookies and rice.
To promote a longer growing period, don’t let herbs or lettuces go to seed, where instead of producing leaves, the plant will form a crown and go dormant. Daily picking or snipping leaves at the top will encourage additional growth and allow you to find new ways to flavor meals.
Staggering your planting dates will also extend the production season. Plant in thirds in your plot, then add more plants weekly. Later into the growing season, some of the first plants may be depleted and should be removed. Many gardeners now favor a messier approach instead of defined rows of specific plants.
You can mix any favorite flowers in with the veggies. Some that are traditionally grown are marigolds, which deter pests like squash bugs, tomato hornworms and whiteflies.
Zinnias hold up well in our summer heat. Not only are they a great cut flower, they are also pollinator magnets, and hummingbirds like them, too. Nasturtiums are considered an edible plant and also provide some protection from squash beetles.
Cosmos bloom well and attract bees and green lacewings that are an eating machine, feasting on aphids and thrips, to name a couple. Sunflowers, larkspur and sweet peas are other flowers to consider.
If you don’t have enough space to plant a garden, consider connecting with one of the many community gardens popping up throughout Central Arkansas. If you’re not sure if there’s one near you, contact your county extension office. Faulkner County Master Gardeners constructed raised beds for vegetables in front of Freyaldenhoven’s Greenhouses on Siebenmorgen Road, and another group has a community garden at the McGee Center in West Conway. Going into its seventh year, an Arkansas GardenCorps member has worked with students and other community members at the Urban Farm Project, located behind the Conway branch of the county library on Tyler Street.
First Presbyterian Church of Conway and City of Hope Outreach (CoHO) have partnered to build a community garden on the west side of the church property on Prince Street and Farris Road. CoHO has built vegetable gardens in three neighborhoods and plans to use this garden as a way to connect other churches in town.
If you can’t find a community garden near you, check out these resources and start your own! The Arkansas GardenCorps website lists its current garden projects around Arkansas plus other resources: arkansasgardencorps.com. The Arkansas Sustainability Network (ASN) is a nonprofit education organization that is asking for input as its staff compiles an up-to-date listing of community gardens and urban agriculture opportunities in Little Rock and North Little Rock. When the list is compiled, it will be posted on the website. Find more information at arnetwork.org. Arkansas Grown, which publishes the quarterly Food & Farm magazine. You may also have some local suggestions at arkansasgrown.org.
Whether your household is a full house or an empty nest, whether you have lots of green space or just a balcony, you can be a vegetable gardener. If you need more hands to help, look for people in your community or neighborhood who might be interested. A garden feeds the soul as much as it produces for the table, so dig in.
A Conway resident, Jan Spann has been gardening for 20-plus years and has been involved with the Faulkner County Master Gardeners for 11 years. She and her husband, Randy, have five children and eight grandchildren.