Monday, January 13, 2014

Getting the vegetable garden ready for spring

The Merry Weather Garden Club met on Thursday 9th of January, 2014 at the home of Laura Underwood and in her garden, Country Road Farm, in Greenville. Members mingled and enjoyed host Jane Morrison’s “Redneck Caviar,” a recipe using black eyed peas she chose in keeping with the farming theme.  Sausages of wild boar, elk, and antelope were served with smoked Gouda and stilton cheeses and sandwiches. Host Toot Hobson brought an international flavor to the refreshments with stollen from Germany, shortbread cookies from Scotland, Italian cookies, and delicious fruity Glogg beverage from Sweden. Underwood contributed some of her delicious Greenville grown and pickled beets to the table.

A short business meeting informed members of the upcoming tourism tour to the county, and members signed up to host programs for the 2014 year. Sally Neal reported on meeting Neil Liechty who recently bought “The Castle” in LaGrange, renamed Bisham Manor, and its gardens will be available for the garden club to tour in February.

Neal introduced Laura Underwood and her friend Bobby Hamby who operate Country Road Farm and raise natural produce and flowers on the half acre property Underwood inherited from the property from her great aunt Louise Herring. Laura was born in Meriwether but grew up in Winder then attended UGA. Her work in Florida with trees and park services soon made her realize her love and talent for growing plants.

In Greenville, she has had three full growing seasons to perfect the produce business. Currently she sells at the LaGrange and Columbus Farmers Markets. The LaGrange Market operates May to October but Columbus is open on Saturdays year around. Underwood’s garden starts producing heavily in March at which time she begins to sell at market and also locally to citizens who contact her.  She washes, bags, and has the fresh produce ready on Fridays for purchase.

Currently much of her garden has a cover crop of rape, rye, and clover but there is evidence of kale, onions, and garlic.  Left over or cold weather damaged produce feeds the chickens, ducks, and geese on the property.

Hamby and Underwood are not certified organic but clearly grow that way using natural remedies for problems.  She has lady bugs to solve any aphid problem; she plants yarrow, marigolds and feverfew plus sunflowers to keep the natural predators away.

Their time is spent doing a lot of weeding. When asked if she uses straw or hay for mulch she said no because almost all hay today has Graze On sprayed on it and the residue kills the vegetable plants. Without mulch she has the nuisance of nut grass though.  She does not use pine straw which makes the soil acidic and in need of lime.  She does use it on strawberries but admits to not growing strawberries well.

Everything they grow, the remains get composted unless there is disease or bugs. The potatoes especially like mulch and she grows red, white, and gold varieties that she plants in March. She uses Johnny’s Seeds some but reminded the club that Johnny’s is in the far northwest so not entirely suitable for our area. Southern Exposure Seed Catalogue plus the farmer supply store in Imlac are her prominent seed sources for Southern seeds.

Country Road Farm grows heirloom varieties of produce and everything comes from seed.  She creates plugs and blocks of germinated plants.  She refrains from using plastic pots because of the cost and instead uses plug trays or makes her own soil blocks with a neat tool that can be purchased. The soil blocks leave the root exposed somewhat but then the plant undergoes no transplant shock.

Plugs are used for small herb seeds like dill, basil, parsley, and lettuce.  She uses a heat mat for germination and then they go in the ground around 6-7 weeks. She uses an innovative tool to get the small plugs out of the trays-the broken end of a plastic spoon!

Some of her favorite lettuces are mini-Romaine with its pretty head and tendency not to bolt, red and green butter lettuce, and the popular oak leaf salad variety. Heirloom tomatoes she likes are Cherokee Purple and Georgia Streak but she grows the common beef steak and Big and Better Boys too.

The club toured the greenhouse she and Hamby made from discarded windows. The greenhouse allows them to start seeds earlier and get plants in the ground earlier than most gardeners.  She starts the seeds three ways: plugs, blocks, or in a large pan and then separates the plants. She uses Fafard Promix, peat moss, and cow manure for her soil and she enriches it with worm castings and liquid fish emulsion. She fertilizes with Organic Plant-tone 3-3-3.

Underwood told her bad luck stories with one being about pumpkins that were developing beautifully when she discovered mice holes in them.  Her dogs are trained to stay out of the beds, but she cheerfully turned them loose in the pumpkin area.

The month of January is time off for Underwood who enjoys curling up on the couch with a good book as the cold and wet preclude much gardening chores. Members happily left their email addresses with her for communication when the growing season produced harvests available for purchase.