Margaret “Phil” Campbell is no exception to the fact that long-practicing gardeners usually credit a beloved parent or grandparent for teaching them the joys of homegrown produce.
Campbell, 69, who owns Campbell Road Nursery in Raleigh, spent many hours helping her grandparents garden in Alamance County and tending her own garden at her childhood home off Western Boulevard in Raleigh.
When she added a retail store to her successful wholesale plant-growing operation about 15 years ago, Campbell envisioned including a demonstration garden to encourage and teach home gardeners.
“I’d like everyone to have the opportunities I was given growing up,” she said.
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But Campbell needed someone to help realize the dream of a demonstration garden to help educate her customers; that person turned out to be Gerald Adams.
Adams, 56, retired as head gardener at the Governor’s Mansion a year ago after more than a decade of growing beautiful ornamental gardens and continuing the long tradition of growing food crops for the governor’s table.
The mansion’s vegetable gardens became an increasingly popular attraction, growing from six to 30 beds under Adams’ supervision. That experience made Adams ideal to help Campbell, and she convinced him to cut his retirement short.
“Evidently I don’t really understand what retirement is,” Adams joked.
In February, Adams installed and planted the first spring and summer demonstration vegetable gardens on the corner of Campbell and Tryon roads. Now there are 44 garden beds plus dozens of containers of every size and type imaginable – including wheat straw bales.
Everyone with an interest in homegrown food will find excellent examples of the many varieties and many ways it’s possible to produce them in whatever space they have available – from those with acres of land to apartment dwellers with only a small sunny balcony.
My first guided tour opened my eyes to the garden’s educational possibilities. Adams ducked into a small shed and emerged holding a healthy but rather homely orb about 3 inches in diameter. The color was a blotchy mix of dark green and deep red. It was labeled ‘pink Berkeley tie dye.’ Knowing that mixing green and red results in a muddy brown, I hoped that the tomato would have a modicum of eye appeal when sliced.
“Give it a couple more days before you try it,” Adams said. His satisfied grin was enough for me to check my watch and begin a 48-hour countdown. Fully ripe, the outer appearance remained the same. The amazingly juicy interior was the color of rubies, and the sweet-tart flavor was addictive. I immediately wanted more.
Adams plans to grow a large variety of greenhouse tomatoes all winter and confidently said, “You’ve never had a greenhouse tomato like these.”
My wish is that the ‘pink Berkeley tie dye’ is one of the first of his winter crop, so I can serve the naturally sweet ruby slices in lieu of the ubiquitous, sugar-laden cranberry sauce on my Thanksgiving table.
Obviously, Adams already knows his new audience well. By selling the produce from his winter crops, he says people will be able to try different things and decide on their favorites. Then they’ll have a new understanding of how they might grow the same vegetables at home.
Cool season plants in his fall and winter garden include various cabbages, kales, collards, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, spinach, rutabagas, turnip greens, carrots, radishes, chards, fall cucumbers and what Adams calls “odd greens.” He’s referring to the plethora of Asian greens that are already familiar in other cultures, but little known in the South.
“Growing up we planted turnip ‘salad’ greens, collards, cabbage and sometimes a mustard green,” Adams said. “Now there are so many different Asian greens that I can hardly name them all. They are well suited for fall planting.”
Campbell, the garden center and nursery’s owner, opened the nursery to provide affordable plants. The addition of the demonstration gardens, she hopes, will show people how to grow the plants, rather than buying them and taking them home without instructions.
“My hope,” she said, “is that children of all ages learn how to grow their own food and have success with it.”
Carol Stein is a master gardener, artist, garden writer and teacher of organic gardening and bluebird conservation. Information about her upcoming Carol Stein’s Gardeners Forums at The Garden Hut in Fuquay-Varina is available on Facebook.
Gerald Adams’ Gardening Tips
Soil: “It’s the dirt, stupid! It’s the dirt,” said Gerald Adams, who oversees the demonstration gardens at Campbell Road Nursery in Raleigh. “Soil is the most expensive component of every good garden.”
First, have garden soil tested by the N.C. Department of Agriculture to learn what if any fertilizer or amendments are needed. For information on soil testing, go to nando.com/soiltesting.
When it comes to soil for a raised bed or container, steer clear of anything labeled Topsoil or Garden Soil, which contain sand or fillers with no detectable nutrient values. The last thing most gardens in our region need is more sand or dirt that increases the compaction of existing clay soils. The lighter bags of soilless mix or organic soil conditioner are preferable. You can make your own by combining 1 part soilless potting medium, 1 part organic compost or organic soil conditioner and 1 part composted cow or poultry manure per bed or container.
Campbell Road Nursery imports a peat-based one that the owner has specially formulated for growing flowering annuals and vegetables. It is sold at cost to both wholesale and retail customers, is cheaper than what can be found at most garden centers and is a good amendment to clay and sandy soils.
Garden beds: Adams suggests 12 inch x 2 inch treated landscape timbers custom cut to length. They are expensive, but Adams says they are so sturdy they will last several years.
Keep a garden journal: Take notes on everything from the distance between plants to frequency of irrigation and weather patterns. Making a chart of what’s planted where makes proper crop rotations easier.
How to choose a pot: A crowded root system equals lower yields. Choose containers and pots that are large enough to allow roots to spread. All pots and containers need good drainage to keep the roots from drowning. Water them more frequently than raised beds or garden plots.
Fertilizer: Adams applies water soluble fertilizer from a watering can to ensure each individual plant receives the recommended doses.