Garden fresh
Families look to homegrown foods to save

CONYERS - With rising gas prices and economic hardships helping to increase food costs and straining Americans' wallets - in addition to recent worries about salmonella poisoning in vegetables - many families are looking to homegrown foods as a way to save money and keep themselves safe.

Though having a home garden filled with fruits and vegetables may be a recent trend among some, many Georgia families have always had gardens, big and small.

Gene and Billie Taylor of Conyers have had a garden for almost 35 years.

It takes up about an acre of their property and includes such vegetables as tomatoes, corn, okra, peppers and a variety of beans, like many home gardens in Georgia.

Whenever the produce is ready - after weeks and months of tilling, planting and caring - Gene will go out in the garden to harvest the bounty.

Julie Macie, coordinator at the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension office of Rockdale County, said different vegetables have a different growing time.

"If they pick them too late, they will be mushy; if they get them too early, (the vegetables) will have no taste," she said.

Billie Taylor said it's taken them years of experience with farms and gardens to figure out the right time to pick the vegetables.

"I grew up on a farm," she said. "You just have to keep checking them."

Macie said the extension office has a free publication, "When to Harvest Vegetables," that will help area gardeners determine the right size, feeling and color most vegetables have to be in order to be ready to eat.

The extension office also suggests residents go a step further from having a garden to save on their grocery bills - by preserving the food they pick.

Cindee Sweda, family and consumer sciences agent at the extension office, said the three most popular ways to preserve food is canning, freezing and drying.

"People really are still doing home preservation," she said. "Canning is one of those things you don't realize a lot of people do, but they still practice it. Certain people who have always canned, can, and certain people freeze."

The Taylors do both.

Billie takes the foods that Gene brings home to store away. She cans the green beans and tomatoes in a pressure canner that she's been using for about 25 years that she doesn't think is sold in stores anymore; she freezes every other garden vegetable.

She said she doesn't have a preference between canning or freezing, and that the vegetables tend to last through a lot of the winter and could last longer if she didn't have such a big family to feed.

"If (family members) come and visit, which they usually do every Sunday, I share with all of them," she said. "And I make soups and sauces with it."

Billie Taylor said Gene handles all of the tilling and planting, but its worth it to be able to have homegrown foods and share with their family.

According to the extension office, costs associated with home gardening including tilling equipment, seeds and fertilizer, pesticides and water and preservation materials, in addition to time, energy and land. Sweda said it could still save money in the long run by not having to buy the food at the grocery store or having to drive to get it, as well as keeping families healthy.

Sweda said the extension office has several books and literature on food preservation, in addition to gardening and other related material.

The office, which is located 1400 Parker Road in Lobby A in Conyers, is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. The main phone number is 770-785-5952.

The Newton County Extension Office is at 1113 Usher St., Suite 202, and can be reached by calling 770-784-2010.

Michelle Floyd can be reached at michelle.floyd@newtoncitizen.com.