Farm Hands: Vegetable gardening growing in popularity

Photo by Tori Boone

Photo by Tori Boone

Louie Oliver grew up on a sharecroppers farm in Wheeler and plowed a field by mule as a youngster. Now at retirement age, Oliver is once again working the land, though on a smaller scale. He tends a vegetable garden that is 10 feet wide, 48 feet long.

Last year, he and his wife, Doris, canned 60 pints of tomatoes from their garden. They also grow kale, mustard, turnips, squash, peppers, carrots and eggplant.

"Whatever suits my fancy," said Oliver, who started the garden at his Newton County home 10 years ago. "It's something to eat fresh that you couldn't get no where else. Plus we save money. And it's a hobby."

Oliver is typical of many people in Georgia and across the country who grow vegetables not only for pleasure but also as a means to trim the budget.

Host of both a popular radio call-in show about gardening and the public television series "Gardening in Georgia," retired University of Georgia Extension Office employee Walter Reeves said he's definitely noticed a resurgence in people wanting to plant vegetables to save on grocery bills. He's fielded many a call recently from first-time vegetable gardeners.

"There's a tidal wave," Reeves said of interest in vegetable gardening. "I guarantee it's the economy. People are thinking 'If I'm out of work, at least I can provide a little food for the family.'"

Reeves said the key to a strong garden is soil conditioner. He recommends adding one cubic foot of soil conditioner, manure or compost for every gallon of plants put in the garden.

Another tip, which prevents Reeves from having to use insecticide, is placing wheat straw mulch around his plants. Spiders prefer the wheat straw and spiders eat other insects. Gardeners can also confuse insects by interspersing their vegetable garden with flowers.

Above all, when it comes to planting a garden, keep it simple, Reeves said.

"I would rather people just go and do then I would getting them strung up in what they ought to do," Reeves said.

Newton County Extension Office Director Ted Wynne said he's also experienced a greater interest in vegetable gardening.

"We have a lot more people calling. Most people are wanting to know how to fertilize, when to plant types of varieties of plants," Wynne said.

Wynne said there's plenty of time left to plant a vegetable garden. Because of Georgia's warm climate, the growing season can extend into the fall and people can plant a second crop in July.

"We are uniquely positioned in the U.S. to where we can have two crops in the summertime," he said.

Top consideration in planting a vegetable garden is sunlight, said Wynne, and a garden should have at least eight hours of full sun a day. The garden should also be located close to a water source and nearby the home to discourage wildlife from consuming the plants.

Avoiding garden pests, like parasites and insects, and diseases is a challenge, said Wynne, but it can be accomplished by removing the host's favorite food and moving it some place else.

"One of the biggest things is to make sure you rotate your vegetables from year to year. You don't want to put the same thing in the same place," he said, adding that gardeners can also choose disease-resistant plants.

Soil fertility is another consideration. People can take soil samples (about two handfuls of soil from 10 different locations in the garden) and have it tested by the extension office for $9 a bag.

The soil analysis provides pH levels and calcium, phosphorus and potassium amounts. Based on the results, gardeners can decide on what to add to their soil to make it more productive.

"Some call it the lifeblood. If you don't have your fertility correct, your garden may start out OK but then it dies and you can't correct it as it's going," Wynne said.

For those who don't have a sunny spot to plant a vegetable garden patch, Wynne said they might want to consider renting a spot in the newly established Porterdale Community Garden in Newton County. The cost is $25 per year and an orientation on the garden will be given on May 1 at 9 a.m.

According the USDA, said Wynne, for every dollar invested in a vegetable garden, you can count on $6 in return.

"Not only do the vegetables taste better and fresher, but it's also a savings of money," he said.