Time to plan garden and save dollars

Article Published: Mar. 3, 2011 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011

By joining a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), you may invest in a farm that grows fruits and vegetables, and perhaps meat for you from May until October. But if the customary seasonal charge of $500 or so exceeds your food budget, consider growing your own.

A $70 investment in gardening yields $600 in produce for the year, according to the National Gardening Association. To get those savings, a gardener has to have some basic knowledge. Many of us did not grow up around a family garden, but it's never too late to learn gardening skills. If you are interested in this increasingly popular undertaking, now's the time to plan for the growing season.

First step is taking a soil test. The mountain soil is acidic, and vegetables require a pH of 6.0 to 6.5 to thrive. You will receive information about how much lime you need to add, plus how much fertilizer or amendments your plants will need. Free soil tests are offered to North Carolina residents, and the boxes and instructions are available in my office, 971 W. King St. in Boone. It takes a while to get the results back this time of year, so the sooner the better.

If this is your first garden, start small. Being too ambitious may make your first garden your last. Staying ahead of the weeds in a large site may become overwhelmingly frustrating. A small garden is a smaller science experiment, which is easier to learn lessons from.

Think about a location that receives at least six hours of full sun, with more being better. Then consider if you will use the existing soil (which is the least expensive choice), are going to build raised beds, or use containers. If you are planning a garden at a newly constructed home site, raised beds may be easier to start with, since the soil is usually compacted. Raised beds can be any length, but 4 feet is the maximum width, with 3 feet being even easier to reach across.

If you are limited in space or really want to start small, consider container gardening. You may use almost any container that has good drainage, including whiskey barrels, plant pots or old buckets to grow vegetables.

Here is an excellent publication about container gardening, put out by Texas Extension: http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/publications/guides/E545_vegetable_gardening_containers.pdf
While the official date for planting in the High Country is May 15, some cold-hardy plants, such as carrots, kale, lettuce, mustard greens, collards, sugar snap peas and potatoes, may be planted as early as March 15, with beets, broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower tolerating a planting date of April 15.

If you want small plants for your garden, March is the time to get those seeds started inside. Seedlings are also available at the farmers' market in May.

To assist those who have gardening questions, N.C. Cooperative Extension has put together excellent on-line gardening resources. We also have some publications available in our office.

This site has numerous fact sheets covering flowers, shrubs, trees, vegetables, houseplants and other horticultural topics.

This website brings you to NCSU and NCCES Horticultural Publications, available as PDF documents.

The NCSU Horticulture Department has compiled information on various types of plants and garden topics at this website.

For a combination of lecture and hands-on instruction, an Organic Gardening 101 class will be offered June 6-9, from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. each day, at the ASU sustainable development farm in Valle Crucis. To register, call (828) 264-3061. For more information, visit http://watauga.ces.ncsu.edu/index.php?page=events&event_id=21046.

Spinach is a cold tolerant crop that may be grown year-round in a green house or under a tunnel. While craving Indian food last weekend, I tried this spinach recipe, which was a real winner. Good served with rice or couscous.

Palak Tofu

1 pound spinach leaves, shredded in food processor or finely chopped
14 oz. water-packed firm tofu, drained and cut into 1 inch cubes
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and chopped (optional)
1 teaspoon minced ginger root
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
¾ teaspoon salt
1 cup whole milk plain yogurt

Drain the water off the tofu and blot dry with a paper towel. Place 1 tablespoon of olive oil in skillet over medium heat and add tofu. Sauté until golden, stirring occasionally. Place in a bowl and set aside.

Sauté the onion in 2 tablespoons or so olive oil for 4-5 minutes, add the garlic, ginger, jalapeno (if desired), cumin and coriander, and cook for a few more minutes. Add the finely chopped spinach and stir, bringing to a simmer. Cook until the spinach wilts, 4 to 5 minutes. Add salt, yogurt and tofu. Remove from heat and serve with rice.
Serves 6

Margie Mansure, M.S., R.D. is a registered dietitian/nutritionist and extension agent with N.C. Cooperative Extension. She offers personalized classes to improve the health of citizens in Watauga County through worksites, schools and community groups and is the local food coordinator for Watauga County. To contact Margie, e-mail margie_mansure@ncsu.edu or call (828) 264-3061.

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