GREEN ACRES

For Weekly SurgeJuly 9, 2014 

Gothic_Garden

CHARLES SLATE — cslate@thesunnews.com Buy Photo

“What time did you tell everyone to come over, babe…we’re never going to get all this done,” said Kyle as he was cleaning up the backyard.

“Just relax, they won’t be here until four” replied Emily as she cut fruit for the Sangria. “Just put on the indie folk Pandora station, warm up the grill and we’ll put on the food when people get here,” she said.

Kyle and Emily are first-time homeowners, Gen-Xers (30-40ish) eagerly preparing to have friends over for a cookout, just as they are finish up, the doorbell rings. Old and new friends arrive with covered dishes and craft beer, dogs bark “hello”…hugs and handshakes are exchanged.

“We’ll have burgers and dogs and some other cool things, got you vegetarians covered too,” says Kyle as a Wilco song plays in the background. The appetizer table is loaded with fresh salsas, sliced watermelon, cherry tomatoes, feta and basil salad… a spectrum of tastes, colors and flavors. Amid the conversations of lawn mowers, daycares and now unthinkable college nights, everyone comments on how great the food is. Emily’s old roommate from the Coastal Carolina University days asks, “Where did you get all the veggies for the kebobs and stuff…the farmers market?”

The young homeowners smile and slide open the glass door of their suburban patio home and reply, “Let’s take a walk around the backyard, it’s not that big anyway…check it out.”

While this couple is fictional, the scenario described is not - a fabulous fresh meal constructed from bypassing the local mega-grocery chain around the corner or 24-hour sprawl-mart, and instead sourcing a bounty harvested directly from the Grand Strand soil in a postage-stamp-sized back or side yard - hell, even an apartment or condo balcony.

Horry County has a long historical tie to agriculture, but that former farmland that's been replaced by rows and rows of vinyl-box subdivisions, especially closer to the shore, is experiencing a new kind of farmer - a burgeoning 20-40-something population with green thumbs, shrinking budgets, distrust of mass-produced foods and a D-I-Y, or rather G-I-Y (grow it yourself), ethic.

Popular food publications and television shows have highlighted the resurgence of fresh ingredients and heirloom vegetables in recent years. Seasonal cooking is another hot trend among professional chefs and the so-called “Farm to Table” movement is in full bloom in high-end restaurants worldwide. The rebounding popularity of farmers markets across the country - including several that have cropped up along the Grand Strand - has made locally-sourced fresh vegetables more available to the consumer as well.

Of course we’re not suggesting we all move to the country and become farmers, that’s hard work. However, this article covers simple gardening strategies for the backyard scale gardener in the Myrtle Beach area. Even simple patio potted tomatoes can be a summer treat for the veggie lovers short on space or free time during the demanding summer months here on the Grand Strand. With a little planning and a bit of dirty work, you can soon the fruits of your labor (pun intended).

Growing that perfectly ripe tomato isn’t just for your grandparents anymore. Younger generations have become homeowners and are embracing the hobby and tradition of vegetable gardening. In larger cities the trend of Urban Gardening has been growing in recent years. A loose network of people transform a vacant or untended area into a flower or vegetable garden, either donating or sharing the results. Many along the Grand Strand have adapted that idea to small backyard suburban gardens that supplement their family kitchen in the freshest of ways.

From the Roots Up

This wasn’t always a hobby for previous generations; it was means of self sustenance both in the kitchen and the bank account. During World War II, Americans were encouraged by the government to plant family gardens called Victory Gardens to offset the costs of feeding the troops. In Great Britain, similar national measures were taken to supplement the extensive farmland damage suffered during the war. It was estimated that 40 percent of the produce consumed in America during this time came from Victory Gardens.

Horry and Georgetown County both have long agricultural histories, particularly rice and tobacco. Family-owned roadside produce stands have also supplied vacationing families for generations with all the boiled peanuts, sweet corn and watermelons they could eat. However, along the Carolina Coast, most of us don’t have acres of farmland. So, we’ll delve into the nitty gritty on how to grow garden fresh vegetables with little or limited space.

The Myrtle Beach area has one of the longest growing seasons in the United States. Most years (2014 was an especially cold winter) it’s possible to start gardens early in the spring. Late March to early April is an ideal time to plant your garden, though there is always the chance of a late frost that could damage the young plants. The traditional rule of thumb has been to wait until after Tax Day (April 15) before planting summer crops such as tomatoes or basil that are sensitive to colder temperatures. There are also numerous vegetables that thrive in the late fall and early spring with little upkeep, we’ll discuss those a little bit later in this article.

What Should I Grow ?

Of course you should grow the vegetables that you like to eat. That is the point after all. The satisfaction of a vine ripe Cherokee Purple tomato or blazing hot Habanero peppers picked straight from the bush has been a recurring theme in my house for many years now. Along with your personal tastes, two prime considerations for a small garden are sun exposure and space requirements.

Our summer sun in this area is intense, as you know, and even some plants typically suited for full sun conditions will take a beating in July and August. Typically, heat-loving crops for this area such as squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, eggplant and various peppers thrive during our summers. Cooler weather crops such as lettuce, spinach, broccoli and collards aren’t as well suited for the harsh sun, but will do well in your fall or winter gardens.

The requirements of space also vary by crop - melons and cucumbers for example are known for crawling vines that take up lots of space.

Other crops such as peas or beans require more plants and subsequently more space to create a decent yield. Corn grows slow and tall and is almost certain to piss off the neighbors or your HOA. Space conscious gardeners can get great mileage out of mid-sized planter pots and compact raised beds with proper plant selection.

Transplanted Surfside local Marsha Watson, who now lives near Charleston, says, “We get great results from a pair of 4-feet-by-four-feet raised beds, boxed in and enriched with compost and garden soil.” Ed Bowers of North Myrtle Beach, though living in a condo community, manages two neatly maintained four-feet-by-eight-feet beds teeming with Roma tomatoes and Poblano peppers that he likes to use in fresh salsas and summer dishes.

By concentrating on a few small beds or containers, beginning gardeners can focus their efforts and get a feel for things, gradually expanding each season. The gardens tend to get more ambitious each year once you get a taste of success. Google “square foot gardening” or “vertical gardening” for more clever ideas for maximizing your available space.

Digging in the Dirt

One reason that Conway was originally the agricultural and business center of Horry County was a richer soil content. The sandier soil near the beaches lacked nutrients suited to growing tobacco or other crops on a commercial scale. A cross section of backyard gardeners we spoke with use readily available garden soil, mushroom compost and fully composted cow manure (it’s not really that gross, just looks like rich dirt) to enrich their soil or fill contained beds.

Another issue in this area, especially closer to Georgetown County is a thick clay composition to the soil. This lacks some essential nutrients and also inhibits proper drainage and root growth. Melinda Merritt and her husband Jason Merritt, who live in the Socastee area, encountered this problem. They have a fairly extensive family garden including tomatillos, okra and numerous other vegetables. Important to their success was turning and nourishing the soil thoroughly before planting. The Merrits said, “We mix organic compost from various sources including their own kitchen scraps and those available at local home supply garden centers.” Also notable is their use of crop specific nutrients such as ground calcium (agricultural lime) and magnesium sulfate (Epsom salt) for optimal results.

The detail and effort in preparing the soil and beds is certainly an important step toward a more productive garden. Also it is one of the most labor intensive when done properly; you’ve got to put the hard work in early. You will feel tired and sore, but also accomplished and satisfied. My aunt and uncle jokingly refer to it as Yard Yoga. I have updated that to Yard Fit to describe my sweaty routine of turning soil and hauling bags of manure and mulch around.

Water You Talking About?

If you have lived in the Myrtle Beach area during the summer you know that rain comes in two varieties: a.) none at all or b.) all of it at once. This can make the garden a bit tricky to manage at times and the weather forecast can change pretty quickly this time of year. Sporadic deep watering is recommended for early root development and fruit production. During the particularly hot and dry parts of the summer, frequent watering is needed to keep the plants hydrated and healthy.

A good top layer of mulch will help your beds retain water and protect the soil and roots from the relentless mid day sun while also preventing weed growth.

Rain collection barrels are a great way to take advantage of natural resources and minimize the impact on your water bill. A word of caution though: left uncovered they will become a nightclub for mosquitoes, who are drawn to standing water. It is best to empty frequently and clean it a bit to prevent mold and algae from growing. Soaker hoses are another great method to keep the water close to the ground and the roots, minimizing waste and evaporation.

You’re Being Such a Pest

Eventually even the most careful gardener will encounter a variety of nemesis including ants, slugs, caterpillars, even hungry birds and other critters. The vast majority of the gardeners interviewed for this article prefer to use a variety of methods that don’t involve harsh chemicals or pesticides. This is purely a personal preference, but in small gardens, homemade alternatives and diligence are sufficient.

Local music fan and gardener, Matt Hazleton said, “I like to use an inexpensive mix of vinegar and cayenne pepper in a spray bottle on my heirloom tomatoes.” A mix of mild soap and water is also said to be effective. Also recommended by some of the people interviewed was the planting of marigolds and nasturtiums in the garden as a natural pest deterrent and to attract bees for pollination.

Some pests are best identified and removed by hand. The voraciously hungry Tomato Horn Worm, for example will devastate a plant seemingly overnight if not discovered. The large green caterpillars can be found blending in with tomato stalks where leaves have disappeared. According to one friend, they make nice bait for the bass and bream in nearby ponds.

Other insects are your allies in the garden such as Ladybugs and Preying Mantis, which feed on smaller harmful pests. They are often found naturally, but can be bought from garden supply shops and Web sites for the really serious gardeners out there. Garden Spiders are also common and do a great job of policing the area for bugs.

The Bounty

The reward of a carefully tended garden is an abundance of homegrown vegetables to enjoy throughout the summer and early fall. Because often the garden will produce in waves, it’s common to get too much of a certain crop at one time rather than a steady flow of produce. Aside from the classic ‘mater sandwiches and cucumber salads found on Southern tables, there are numerous ways to use and preserve your bounty.

Jarring and pickling have come back into favor for numerous summer vegetables such as okra and pole beans. Fresh tomato and jalapeno salsa can be jarred and sealed for wintertime enjoyment. Highly productive basil plants can yield numerous batches of fresh pesto, which can be frozen. These all make great inexpensive gifts for friends and neighbors. Other garden herbs can be infused into olive oil, the idea being to get the most flavor and uses for your garden efforts.

Another way to deal with a large harvest is to make friends. Give a few vegetables or small starter plants to people you know. Trading vegetables with other gardeners who’ve found success with different crops is another idea. Every garden is different even in the same area. Some people may have great success with squash, but none with tomatoes. Find out who on your friends list has crops growing successfully and see if there is anything they’d like to swap.

Fall on Me

Approaching Labor Day, summer gardens will start to show signs of fatigue and many plants may have run their course all together. The fall and early winter along the Carolina coast are well suited to varieties of lettuce, collards and greens, root vegetables and heartier herbs. All of these can be started in partially-shaded containers while you wait on free space to become available in your garden area.

Again, it is important to enrich your soil and take note of spacing suggestions for each variety. Winter gardens should be positioned to receive optimal sun exposure as the shorter days inhibit growth. Small containers are also useful in colder months as they can be repositioned easily or protected from a potentially damaging cold snap by pulling them indoors.

A food-producing suburban garden can be rewarding and good physical activity, but it does require time and effort. Time spent planning and organizing in the beginning will be time saved in the long haul. Apartment dwellers and homeowners under an HOA should make themselves familiar with community guidelines.

A good rule of thumb is to keep the front nice and tidy and your garden in the back. Sort of like a Mullet haircut. Tilling up your front yard or having an unkempt jungle in the back will certainly be an issue in most, if not all neighborhoods. Numerous home gardening forums can be found online, discussing virtually any situation in great detail.

It’s been my experience though to incorporate the many available resources with a healthy bit of trial and error. Communicating with other gardeners in your area can also be very helpful, they have the same climate and region specific issues. If all else fails ask a nice older person, often the old ways are simplest and work the best. After all, they were growing food before you were born in all likelihood.

Jeff Thomas, who grew up in Myrtle Beach, is a professional guitarist-singer and amateur suburban gardener.

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