Midtown Raleigh News

Gardeners cannot live on zucchini alone

I love the thought of making dinner with items picked fresh from my garden. But I have planted a garden every spring for the past 10 years, and I have prepared a “garden to table” meal only a few times.

Those meals all involved zucchini squash.

Zucchini is really easy to grow – you just shove a couple of seeds in the ground and a huge plant grows and produces copious amounts of zucchini. But a family is only willing to eat so much zucchini.

If only I could be that successful with other crops.

I heard somewhere that we have the perfect climate for growing garlic, a crop that is planted in the fall and harvested in the spring. “Perfect climate” sounds like “easy to grow” to me, so I decided to investigate this idea further.

The N.C. Cooperative Extension has an information sheet on how to grow garlic online at: polk.ces.ncsu.edu/garlicproduction.

It was good information, but I needed a little more hand-holding than that, so I contacted NCCE Master Gardener Cris Clemons.

The NCCE Master Gardener Program offers training to gardening enthusiasts who agree to volunteer 40 hours per year to extend education to our community.

Clemons, an excellent vegetable gardener, grows a variety of produce on her 1/3 acre lot in a Wake Forest subdivision. She even donates surplus veggies and herbs to the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle.

It’s a good thing I talked to her, because I was ready to get out there, rip the straggly tomato plants and cucumber vines out of my garden, and plant row after row of garlic cloves.

Clemons burst my bubble when she told me that garlic shouldn’t be planted until late October or early November in our part of the state.

Instead, she told me to plant a fall garden. This is the perfect time to plant cool weather crops such as mustard, lettuce, arugula, cilantro and carrots. Soon the garden centers will have broccoli and cauliflower plants, too. She pointed me to the fall vegetable planting guide on the extension website, www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort/hil/hil-8001.html.

Some of the guide’s recommended cultivars are not available at the home improvement stores or in the garden sections of national chains, so I considered winging it with what I could get.

Not a good idea. Clemons said certain cultivars are hybrids bred to withstand our climate and pests. Big chains often don’t cater to specific regions. Clemons recommends buying seeds and plants from a local garden center with a knowledgeable staff.

When I asked Clemons for her very best advice to home gardeners, she didn’t hesitate. “Get a soil test” she said. “They are free in our state. It is so simple.”

You just pick up the boxes at the Extension office at 4001-E Carya Drive, Raleigh, or at the soil lab at 4300 Reedy Creek Road, Raleigh, and follow the instructions.

The report will give you the pH of your soil and tell you exactly what to add to make it more conducive to growing vegetables (or grass or shrubs or whatever you are trying to grow.) “Every farmer in our area does it, but for the home gardener it is really helpful,” Clemons said.

I will follow her advice for my fall garden, but I haven’t given up on my dream of a garlic crop.

To grow garlic, you just plant the same bulb that you would normally chop up to add to your pasta sauce. To find good garlic to plant, Clemons recommends going to a farmers market. “Talk to the farmer and ask what has done well for him, then plant it instead of eating it. I think that’s the most fun way.”

“It is just so much fun to have a garden,” Clemons said.

That’s easy for a Master Gardener to say. For me it’s only fun when I actually grow something edible. Besides zucchini.