A couple of my empty beds awaiting seeds and starts (with shell peas growing adjacent).
I’m not adept at decision-making, so when it’s time to decide what seeds go into my limited garden space, life can get difficult. I have over the years, however, developed a formula that helps me decide.
Please let me share…
Consideration 1: Tastes
I believe I learned more about all the different vegetables that can grow here in the mountains by participating in a local CSA. I did for the first 3 years I lived in the area, and as a result experienced new flavors, colors, and kinds. I also attend at least 2 local tailgate markets a week, often 3, and acquaint myself with the range of fruits and vegetables that are grown. Farmers know how to invest their labors wisely, and what DOES grow well will be in their stands at the markets. Do you see artichokes at our local tailgates? I don’t, so it’s likely they’re not a reliable crop in the mountains. Have I tried to grow them anyway? Of course, I LOVE artichokes! One year I had a successful plant that yielded seven chokes, but I haven’t been able to repeat that success. (I’m trying again this year.) What you DO see at the markets are Jerusalem artichokes, or sunchokes, and though completely different from those leafy globes with hearts of yum, they’re delicious in their way and are easy-to-grow perennials.
Jerusalem artichokes. Photo from eatdrinkpaleo.com.au
The best beans I ever bought at a tailgate market were Romanos. Now I grow them every year. Same with greasy beans which I just saw at market for the first time last year—but home-growers in WNC have known greasies for generations. When I buy a squash that blows my mind, I find the seeds (you can’t save them and be sure you’ll get the same squash, but you can try) and grow it the next season. There are so many awesome heirloom tomatoes available now at the markets, when I taste one that I love, I save the seeds and grow it myself the following year, and so on. If you love particular vegetables, make space and try to grow them.
Romano beans. Photo from pinchandswirl.com
Greasy beans. Photo from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
Consideration 2: Space
I have 21 box beds that are 3.5’ x 3.5’ x 8”deep, each of which is usually dedicated to a single vegetable or companion pairs. I use the Square Foot Gardening method to figure out how much I can plant in them. Peas, carrots, radishes, leeks, and beans can be crowded 8–9 plants to a square, beets and turnips 4 to a square, but peppers, tomatoes and brassicas only 1. Squashes and melons occupy 2 squares and trail over the edges of the box into the yard, and that’s when my husband starts to object because it complicates mowing (yeah, still have some of that pesky inedible grass…), though he never minds eating the squashes and melons. The point of this is that there is limited space, and I usually have to narrow my choices to fit it. Planting 2 kinds of potatoes, 3 kinds of beans, and the indispensable okra takes over a third of my space, so I may have to sacrifice something. One way of figuring it out is by price.
My box beds.
Consideration 3: Dollars and Sense
Because I attend the markets, sometimes just to wander through and see what’s there, I keep casual track of what things cost. A big winter squash can run well over $10 at $2 per pound and tomatoes are usually $3–4 per pound. Beans have gotten pricey because they’re cooler than ever (cool beans, get it?). So I try to grow the veggies that are more expensive, and buy the ones that are less so. That makes my limited space pay off, in a sense. Oh, I don’t garden to save money, I’m sure I DON’T save money by growing my own food in terms of the initial infrastructure, time invested, the cost of plant starts if I don’t get mine going in time, and soil amendments once a year. On the other hand, the satisfaction of growing my own food is priceless. But the cost of what I buy to round out our meal plan is a way of helping me narrow my choices of what to grow.
Consideration 4: Success Counts
I have not yet mastered the art of insect control, though I understand the principles from taking many workshops on the subject at Spring Conferences over the years. I just can’t seem to keep flea beetles from inhibiting my eggplants, so I don’t grow them anymore. The brassicas I’ve planted in spring required intensive daily grooming of cabbage worms and harlequin bugs, so I only plant them in the fall; chard, which grows relatively pest free, has become my summer green. I choose varieties of tomatoes that are blight-resistant or short season growers so that they can beat the onset of blight. In these ways, experience and past failures guide what I plant.
My garlic (left), Egyptian walking onions (foreground), and empty beds awaiting seeds and starts.
Every year I try some new things. The year I tried sweet potatoes, I was thrilled with the yield, but curing them was so intensive and energy consuming—the only way I could provide the high heat and humidity required was in my steam shower with a space heater—that I had to give up growing them. Fortunately, I know the farmers who grow and cure the best sweets in the area and buy several cases to get me through the year till their next harvest. I learn from my mistakes and don’t plant them again.
We’re so blessed here because there’s almost always a grower at market to fill the gaps in our gardens, giving us the opportunity of supporting our beloved local farmers. And if we must buy produce at the grocery store, we have good options here for that, too: more organics are available than ever before, and the prices are not as high as they used to be. We’ll never get banana palms to fruit here in the mountains, “but if you try sometime, you just might find…” you get an artichoke.
Another angle of my garlic and Egyptian walking onions to show you my sugar snap peas (far left).
Ellen Rubenstein Chelmis
Ellen Rubenstein Chelmis retired from manufacturing to start her fourth career as wife and mother at 37. Now at 67, she enjoys dabbling in various voluntary efforts to “save the world.” She’s a self-trained creative cook and lover of ethnic cuisines, and her consistent passion for food has evolved to embrace the Local Food movement—so much so that she grows food in her front yard (can’t get more local than that!). If Ellen can do this, anyone can. Ellen is an 18-year transplant to Asheville via Tampa, Washington DC suburbs (most of them), and Charlotte.