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Smart Sprouts: edible garden plants

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I grew up on a small farm in rural Kentucky, and until I left for college my summers were spent working in two large vegetable gardens, which was a very important part of our family life. We planted, watered, weeded, harvested, and then canned or froze our harvest to be eaten later.

Now I live in the suburbs, and while I am still a farm girl at heart, my garden is small and very urban. I have an 8×16-foot raised plot where all my vegetables grow. It is just a small space, and I have to battle the rabbits that like to eat all my vegetables before I can harvest. I have room to grow my favorites like tomatoes, basil, garlic, lettuce, spinach, and kale.

The intrigue of the edible garden trend can be seen everywhere. You hear “farm to table,” “garden to table,” “eat local,” and “buy local.” So what’s different today? While our family farms never stopped gardening, our urban neighbors and local restaurants have all jumped into the garden, too. I think with our fast-paced lives and endless sports and activities scheduled every free moment, we are all just looking for something to bring us together—and it’s dinner. Food is an incredible motivator.

At one point, the home design trend was moving away from having a formal dining room on the floor plan; now they are coming back. Open concept kitchens and dining areas are all over the home and garden television shows. Either way, the message is clear: we have come home to dinner and we want to be together with our families and eat healthy, fresh, and tasty food. The edible gardening romance is here to stay.

Fifteen years ago, it was hard to find a diverse selection of garden seeds, vegetable transplants, and fruit trees or fruiting shrubs in the urban garden center. They were typically available only in farming communities and by mail order.

Today at my urban garden center, edible crops is our biggest growing department. We now have an entire area, including a small greenhouse, dedicated just to edibles. Years ago, the only transplants we could sell when we opened were tomato and pepper plants; now people are asking for transplants of
lettuce, spinach, bush beans, onion and garlic sets, and so much more. If we’d offered these back then, very few would have been purchased and experienced gardeners would have thought we were crazy for selling lettuce transplants.

Salt River Electric Co-op member Chris Coulter, who owns and operates Good Earth Farm in Bloomfield with his wife, Amy, has been farming “since I was old enough to toddle into the garden,” he says. “Customers like to try new or exotic vegetables, especially new varieties you can’t buy in the grocery store. New varieties that aren’t commercially viable are things you can only get through a farmers’ market. They taste different, their flavor is unique, and people are looking for that. Each year we get a little bigger, trying to give everyone good quality and good service. The demand is there; we have to turn people away every year.”

Today things are indeed different! Urban moms with children come in and buy all sorts of seeds and transplants for the garden and the whole family goes home to plant them. Owen Electric Cooperative member Jessica McQuade with Triple J Farm in Georgetown, a family farm she works with her husband, Matthew McQuade, and her father, Stewart Hughes, says, “The biggest interest with the younger generation is wanting to know how to cook what they purchase. We sell through local farm markets, our own farm stand, and our CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), so I spend a lot of time with customers. If something is new or different, they’ll often ask me how to cook it. I try to give them quick and easy recipes and cooking tips that fit their busy lives and are still healthy.”

Interest in growing fruit is also increasing. In a lot of the gardens I visit, people are replacing traditional landscape plants with edible ones and are now planting blueberries or raspberries as foundation plantings. They are filling their porch and deck containers with more herbs than flowers, and fruiting varieties of apple and pear trees are being planted in front and back yards instead of ornamentals or the traditional maples and oaks. Martha Davis of Louisville is a frequent patron of her local farmers’ market and says, “I grow fresh herbs but I leave the vegetable gardening to our local farms.”

Nearly every community has at least one local farmers’ market and many have several. Farmers’ markets now have live musical entertainment and food vendors selling breakfast burritos and frittatas. Where once farmers’ markets had only seasonally available vegetables, now they sell cut flowers, locally made cheeses, granola, farm fresh eggs, and free-range lamb, chicken, and beef. These farmers’ markets are as much of a social event as they are a local food source. They are the place to go to buy fabulously fresh and nutritious food, but most of all we go to have a sense that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves. We go to be a part of our community.
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Let’s face it: growing a vegetable garden is not easy and not always pretty. It takes resources, time, and energy. Gardens have to be weeded, watered, and fertilized. When your crops are ready for harvest, you have to be ready for harvest. This is why I plant only crops that I know I can grow successfully in my small raised garden and look elsewhere for the majority of our food. I find going out to my garden after a long day at work and cutting a big bowl of lettuce that I grew myself, washing it and spinning it dry, and serving a beautiful salad for dinner to be one of the most rewarding parts of my day.

Chris Coulter of Good Earth Farm agrees. “It’s great to make a living doing what you enjoy. The pay’s not very high, but the quality of life is good. We work with the seasons—we’re busy in summer, but we slow down in winter. It’s a more natural rhythm. It’s hard work, but there’s nothing like being your own boss, growing healthy food for your family and neighbors. It’s rewarding, it really is.”

For now, as a country girl who lives in the city, I am happy to have my small urban vegetable garden and my three blueberry plants. I love helping new gardeners who want to try growing something on their own. To them I say: keep trying. Any seasoned gardener will tell you they learned most of what they know from experience.

How to get started with edibles
Get the following publications from your Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service office or download them online at www2.ca.uky.edu/agcomm/pubs.asp. Both are extensive and serve as an excellent starting point and future reference.
Home Vegetable Gardening in Kentucky, search for ID 28
Growing Fruit at Home in Kentucky, search for HO 64

Seed and plant resources
These catalogs are an excellent resource and contain lots of growing information:
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds www.rareseeds.com
Dixondale Farms (onions) www.dixondalefarms.com
Johnny’s Selected Seeds www.johnnyseeds.com
Renee’s Garden www.reneesgarden.com
Territorial Seed Company www.territorialseed.com
Wood Prairie Farm (organic seed potatoes) www.woodprairie.com

Learning about new crop varieties

A catalog from a top seed company can be a valuable resource and is full of information on each variety. Location and climate are a huge factor in a garden’s success and productivity. Knowing your local community of gardeners and tapping their experience is my favorite go-to for recommendations.

Experienced gardeners: Even if you already grow all the fruits and vegetables you need, visit your local farmers’ markets and ask vendors what they are growing. Ask what varieties are their top performers and what new varieties they think are promising. It’s also a good opportunity to purchase a fruit or vegetable you have never grown or eaten and give it a try. If you like it, then challenge yourself to grow it in your own garden next year.

First-time gardeners: Contact your local Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service office (www2.ca.uky.edu/county), your local library, or even your local college. They may have an adult education program with a vegetable gardening class. There is lots of information online, but a local source like your local Cooperative Extension office, trusted local garden center, or experienced neighbor gardener may be a better resource as you embark on this new adventure. When things go wrong—they may—you can ask for advice or take a plant sample in to your local Cooperative Extension office to find out what happened.

Web Exclusive: Edible fruit
Growing fruit at home is one of the fastest growing areas of edibles. While tasty the fruit crops require a higher upfront investment and a long term commitment to be successful. Research is the key. Know what fruit you want to grow, what it requires to grow and what maintenance will be necessary before purchasing and planting.

The most common fruits grown at home in Kentucky are apples, strawberries, blueberries and blackberries. All are very different in mature size, have different requirement to produce fruit successfully and all require some type of annual maintenance and pest control. My best advice is to start out with one type of fruit at a time. Once you have successfully concurred growing an apple or a pear tree then consider planting a few a blueberries or blackberries.

Fortunately the edibles evolution has brought a lot more plant availability to us as homeowners. It use to be difficult to find fruiting plants like grapes or raspberries at the urban garden center, but not today. The choices of specific types of fruits are increasing each year. The following is a short list of a few of our favorites to consider planting in this area.

Apple: Gold Rush, Enterprise, Liberty or Williams Pride
Pear: Potomac. Moonglow and Kieffer
Asian Pear: Olympic, New Century and Chujuro
Blueberries: Patriot, Bluecrop and Darrow
Grapes: Mars and Reliance
Strawberries: Earliglow, Honeoye and Allstar

If a Pawpaw, persimmon or walnut is more to your liking they are becoming more available to. I can’t stress enough how important it is to fully investigate each crop before making the investment and the decision to plant. Check out the university of Kentucky Cooperative Extension service publication HO 64: Growing Fruit at Home and ID 21 Disease and Insect Control Programs for Homegrown Fruit in Kentucky before making your decision. Both are available on their website at www2.ca.uky.edu/agcomm/pubs.asp

Shelly Nold Tim Webb, Shelly Nold

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