These days, I seem to prefer pursuits that continue to teach me something over the course of time and gardening has certainly been one of those. I’ve been a serious vegetable gardener for close to ten years now, and I think that I’ve learned something significant and new during each growing season. Of course, gardeners used to learn primarily by living in families and communities where other people had gardened as well and were able to share the deep knowledge that comes from long experience with a particular land and climate. I haven’t had that in my life, so I’ve had to seek out my own gardening community through books and the internet.
A problem I have found in reading about gardening is regional bias. For whatever reason, many American gardening experts have historically focused on the Northeastern part of the country and, to a latter degree, the Pacific Northwest. On the surface, it’s easy to see why this should be so. There is, I think, a popular perception that the mild winters and ample year-round sunlight we enjoy in the Southeast render gardening completely problem-free. You’ve only to try your hand at growing English peas or cauliflower to understand that this is hardly the case. Advice, useful to many but not to me, abounds. “Wait to plant until the soil can be worked easily.” Well, around here the soil can be worked all year round, so when do I plant?
Some statements just flat-out don’t apply to this part of the country at all. “In August, an absolute bumper crop of tomatoes will start rolling in. You’ll barely be able to keep up with the abundant harvest. Talk about seeing red!” While I’m sure that’s true in many places, in my zip code the heat in August can be almost unbearable and my tomatoes tend to shut down and wait it out. In August, my primary tomato concern is keeping the plants from dropping too many blossoms so that they’ll start producing again when the weather finally cools down.
Growing lettuce in July? Forget it! I am an inveterate lover of salads as well as all things tomato, so you can imagine my elation when I discovered The Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast by Ira Wallace. If you too are a Southern vegetable gardener, I cannot recommend this book enough. The book addresses general gardening concerns such as soil quality and watering methods (and quite completely too, I might add) then moves on to provide an extraordinarily useful guide to what you should be doing, planting and harvesting every month of the year. It turns out that even lettuce can be grown through the summer with some thoughtful techniques (refrigerating seeds, cooling the soil with cardboard and planting in the shade of larger plants are some of these). The final section of the book addresses individual vegetables and makes recommendations about which varieties do particularly well here. Plus, rather than lumping “the South” into one homogeneous mass, Wallace makes distinctions between the Upper South and the Lower South. This is a good thing because the growing conditions in a place like Cucumber, West Virginia are bound to be very different from those experienced in Bayou Cane, Louisiana. Ira Wallace is a Master Gardener in Virginia and helps to run the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. She is well known in the seed saving community and her book includes useful guidance on how to save your own vegetable seeds.
Seed saving in itself is a fascinating subject which carries a great deal of history. Saving Seeds, Preserving Taste: heirloom seed savers in Appalachia by Bill Best is an absorbing history of Southern Appalachian heirloom varieties of beans, corn and tomatoes and of the people who have cherished and preserved them through time. I find the the names alone – Greasy Pod Pole Bean, Bloody Butcher Dent Corn, Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter Tomato – enchanting.
Of course, if your vegetable gardening goes well (or your vegetable shopping for that matter), you’ll have a lot of produce to cook up. Here are a few resources available from DCPL that can help you do just that.
Local (ish) chef, Hugh Acheson is known for his award-winning restaurants in Athens, Atlanta and Savannah as well as his cookbooks. His latest offering, The Broad Fork: recipes for the wide world of vegetables and fruits is full of seasonally appropriate ideas for using garden bounty any time of year. Not only will you find recipes incorporating the South’s beloved tomatoes and peaches, you’ll also find some great ideas for using veggies that may be less familiar such as kohlrabi and ramps.
Steven Satterfield is chef at Atlanta’s celebrated Miller Union and has been called a “vegetable shaman” by no less an authority than The New York Times. Root to Leaf: a southern chef cooks through the seasons is Satterfield’s homage to the vegetables that he clearly loves. The excellent text works beautifully with the stunning photographs and the recipes appear to be delicious without being overly fussy. Check out this Miller Union vegetable plate as featured in a Southern Living magazine a few summers back.
Mastering the Art of Southern Vegetables by Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart deals with vegetables and only vegetables and the southern spin here is undeniable. Dupree and Graubart, James Beard Award winners and long time collaborators, have organized their book by vegetable rather than season – a plus on those days in the kitchen when you’re faced with an acorn squash or a dozen zucchini. In any case, you have to figure that any cookbook featuring lady peas (my personal favorite) along with nine recipes for okra and four for sweet potatoes must mean serious Southern cooking business.
How about you? Do you have a favorite southern vegetable? Are you thinking about a garden of your own?