Saturday, January 4, 2014

Garden Season Begins

No kidding. The 2014 gardening season has already begun. Seed catalogs appear in mailboxes and inboxes, and despite the howling cold wind outside, some people will be starting plants this month.

If you have a small greenhouse or an indoor space with plenty of light, some of the vegetable seeds that should be started later this month include globe artichoke, celery, leeks, and onions. Cool weather ornamentals, such as snapdragon and stock, should also be seeded now. All of these are slow-growing as seedlings, and all need to be ready to transplant by March. Just remember you will need enough room to accommodate the plants as they grow. I have made the mistake of starting too many seeds more than once, and then run out of room to grow them to transplant size. If you find yourself in this situation, one remedy is to move everything outdoors during the day, as long as the temperature is high enough, and then bring everything back in before dark.

I look forward to receiving the catalog from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange every year. While I rely on Knoxville's own Mayo Seed Company for many old stand-by vegetable varieties, I choose most of the seeds for heirloom varieties from Southern Exposure. The company also has a seed rack at Three Rivers Market, for those who prefer to browse in person.

Several varieties have captured my interest this year. Here is a brief rundown.

Greasy Beans--Although several varieties are not available this year, the ones that are should be worth a try. 'Cherokee Greasy' is best as a dried bean, while 'Red-Striped Greasy' can be used green or dry. Both are pole beans. "Greasy" beans lack hairs on the pod, giving them a shiny, slippery look. They keep much longer after harvest than most other beans, allowing you to accumulate a "mess" of beans over several days, if you only have room for one or two vines. The flavor is excellent. Greasy beans may also be available from Mayo.

Cabbage 'Savoy Perfection'--This is an excellent cold-weather cabbage. I am experimenting this year with overwintering a couple of plants. The idea is for them to form heads for an early March crop. It grows well as a fall cabbage, also, and the heads are almost too pretty to harvest.

Open-Pollinated Corn--If you want to taste what "real" sweet corn used to taste like, you'll have to grow these varieties that have not had their genes tinkered with by plant breeders. Two that caught my eye are 'Country Gentleman,' in which the kernels are arranged randomly, rather than in rows, and 'Golden Bantam,' an old Burpee introduction that bears well on small plants that can be closely spaced. With either of these, however, the window for harvesting at the milk stage is very narrow. These are the types of corn that inspired the old saying, "Have the water boiling on the stove before you go out to the garden to harvest corn on the cob."

Greens--Seems like Southern Exposure constantly expands their offerings of greens. Cress, kale, mustards, Swiss chard, and more for the greens lover. Many greens are great cool to cold weather crops for the Tennessee Valley. I plan to harvest 'Lacinato' kale from an outdoor bed this afternoon, as soon as the leaves thaw. Of particular note, "Winter Bloomsdale' spinach, which has been unavailable for a while, is back.

Okra--Another veggie where the selection of heirlooms seems ever-expanding. For those with limited space, try 'Lee,' a 1978 release from the University of Arkansas that bears well on 5-foot plants. You might also want to consider one of several red-podded varieties. The contrasting color makes them harder to miss when picking. Leaving pods on the plant to mature reduces production.

'Polecat' Pea from Southern Exposure
Southern Peas--Depending upon where you live, these may be called cowpeas, crowder peas, field peas, or black-eyed peas. They are actually not native to the Americas, like regular garden beans, but made there way here from Asia via Africans who were brought here against their will. Well-adapted to warm southern summers, the numerous varieties of southern peas result from four hundred years of selection. In some cases, as with 'Piggott Pea,' the family who developed the strain kept it to themselves for most of its history. The ability of southern peas to thrive in poor soil (red clay!) is remarkable.

Squash--If your zucchini is plagued by squash borers, try growing butternut winter squash instead. The borers leave it alone. Three varieties to investigate are 'Burpee's Butternut' (bush), 'Tahitian Melon,' and 'Waltham Butternut,' the latter two both vining types that need plenty of room to run or a sturdy trellis.

Tomatoes--For tomato enthusiasts, Southern Exposure offers nine pages of listings. Have fun, but bear in mind that heirloom tomatoes may not be as productive or as easy to grow as hybrid varieties with multiple disease resistance. Every time I grow heirlooms, I have some successes and some failures.

Those are the high points, but I have barely scratched the surface of this one catalog. Many more will soon arrive, each with some irresistible new seed to tempt me. Perusing them is a great way to spend time while the outdoors is in the deep freeze.

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