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Gardening winds down for another year

October 5, 2012 12:10 am



GARDENING season is about over. It won't be long now until frost hits, especially in the Piedmont, and the last of the tomatoes and beans will be history.

Fall gardens, however, could last right on up until Christmas, depending on whether we get a hard freeze. Fall greens, turnips, cabbage and broccoli do especially well in this area, if you plant them in late August or early September.

My garden is finished; I haven't planted any late crops for several years. My tomatoes (I plant the early varieties) were gone by the middle of September, at which time I brought out the brush mower.

By the end of this month, hopefully after some rain to soften the ground, I'll plow my gardens and let them freeze and thaw all winter. Then they'll be ready when potato planting time comes in late February.


Speaking of potatoes, a reader asked about burying potatoes to keep them all winter. Potatoes kept in a basement will usually start sprouting by Christmas and be useless (except for planting) by the end of January.

I bury my potatoes, and one year I ate them until the following July. I took a 3-foot-high plastic trash can, cut the bottom out and buried it until only about 8 inches of plastic was above the ground.

At the bottom of the trash can, on the bare ground, I put small rocks (or large gravel) about 3 inches deep to provide drainage and allow the ground moisture to get to the potatoes. Lack of moisture is what makes potatoes shrivel up and sprout when they are kept in a basement.

Then, about the middle of November, I place potatoes in small plastic bags, the kind you get at Walmart, and lower them into my homemade kiln. I put about as many potatoes in each bag as I think I will use in two or three weeks.

When all my bags are in the ground (I keep some potatoes in the basement for convenience), I put about a 6-inch layer of old rags over them for insulation and put the trash-can top on to keep the rain and snow out. Even in the coldest winters, I have never had potatoes freeze.

Then, when I need potatoes, I just take the top off the buried trash can and pull out a plastic bag.

This arrangement cost me no more than a trash can that I was going to throw away and some small rocks that I removed from my garden during weeding.

You can also use this arrangement to keep turnips and beets, although I much prefer canning beets. It's kind of an outside root cellar.

You can also keep cabbage by burying it. Dig a small trench in an area that drains well, about as deep as the cabbage head is high. I like to put a 6-inch board on the bottom of the trench to keep the heads off the ground, but that isn't necessary.

Pull the cabbage up by the roots and leave all the big leaves in place. Then turn the cabbage heads upside down (the big leaves will drain off rainwater), place them in the trench, insulate the sides with a few inches of straw and then pile on dirt, allowing the bottom of the roots to stick out of the ground. Just line those heads up one next to the other.

In the winter, you can just find a root and pull out a cabbage head. Like potatoes, with a few inches of straw and dirt for insulation, I've never had heads freeze. They will last well into February.


Another reader had a problem with watermelons rotting at the blossom end this summer.

I consulted with Mason Hutcheson, one of the most knowledgeable growers around, and he seemed to think that either the dry weather or a lack of fertilizer could have been the culprit.

I have had this problem during some dry seasons--especially with the Charleston Gray variety--but also when I plant in the same place two or more years in a row.

Watermelons are voracious feeders, and they can suck nutrients like boron and magnesium out of the soil quickly. If neither of these elements is added before the vines bloom, second-year melons can rot at the end or become pointed and deformed.

Crimson Sweet melons aren't nearly as particular, although they need minerals, too.

The best idea is never to plant watermelons in the same area two years in a row.

Colonial tobacco farmers ruined the soil in this very way--planting the same crop over and over in the same area--two centuries ago.


Charlie Gentry, who lives near Spotsylvania Courthouse, may have claim to this year's record sweet potato. According to his wife, Gentry harvested one that weighed 6.1 pounds and another that weighed 5 pounds.

Those are whoppers in any season.

Finally, a lady said she had a bountiful crop of crabapples that disappeared. She said she had noticed a squirrel in the area.

Well, that squirrel probably called all his buddies and the crew picked the tree clean in a few days.

Squirrels will also make off with small green tomatoes at an alarming rate.

On the other hand, fried squirrel that was fattened on crabapples or tomatoes is rather tasty.

Donnie Johnston:

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