This is My Heirloom Seed Story. What’s Yours?

My family hails from deep in the Appalachian Mountains. My mother’s ancestors came with Daniel Boone’s family through the Cumberland Gap and into what is now Breathitt County, Kentucky. My father’s family settled in Pike County, Kentucky, where he grew up at the back of church house holler. I am a McCoy from Hatfield and McCoy fame and like most people from Appalachia I have an heirloom bean seed story.

Beans in these mountains have been grown and handed down for centuries. Most Appalachian beans are cornstalk beans, meaning traditionally they were grown along with tall, open-pollinated corn. The tall corn stalks supported the long, bean vines. As time went on and hybrid corn stalks became shorter, people grew the beans on poles for support and they became “pole beans.”

As commercial beans became popular, large growers bred their beans for a tough outer shell or pod. The tougher shell meant that the beans could better stand mechanical harvest and handling. Appalachian beans are prized for their softer shell and full bean kernels. They have names like Lazy Wife Greasy Bean and Turkey Craw Bean. Eaten fresh or dried for winter dishes, they are family legacies. There are festivals honoring the Appalachian bean all across the mountains where seed swaps take center stage.

My bean seed was given to me by my Aunt Tillie. She received them from her mother who got them from her mother, and so on. My Jonah Beans are more of a bush bean than a cornstalk bean. In my north Georgia home, I can get three plantings of Jonah Beans each season. I generally grow enough for my family to enjoy and to put up a few canned jars. Of course I save seed year to year.

Jonah Beans in the May Garden

Beans are harvested, strings are removed (usually while sitting on the front porch) and prepared fresh. They are best cooked with a strip or two of bacon and a side of skillet cornbread. Happily, bush beans are a great addition to a community garden plot. They can also be used in school gardens with timely planting.

I am honored to be a keeper of this seed, of this mountain tradition. Planting, harvesting and preparing them is more than just growing beans. It is a way to connect with my heritage and to share that heritage with the next generation. If you are interested in Appalachian heirlooms Bill Best’s book Saving Seeds, Preserving Taste is a fantastic resource full of stories.

That is my heirloom seed story, what’s yours?

Soil Temperatures in Your Georgia Garden

Soil Temperatures in Your Georgia Garden

With the recent warm temperatures it is easy to be seduced into planting your summer crops now.   It is tempting to plant our vegetable transplants and seeds; we can’t wait for that first juicy tomato are a crunch pepper!  Be aware that soil temperatures are very important for success with your early summer plantings.

Soil Temperatures in Your Georgia Garden
Pepper Seedlings

Soil temperatures need to be 60-65 degrees F and rising at the 4 inch soil depth before you plant your summer crops.

If you install a transplant too early the roots won’t grow and the plant will just be sitting in the soil.  If we have a large amount of rain, which seems to be the norm this year, your new plant will just be sitting in wet soil.  This could mean early disease issues.

This morning the Ballground weather station, near my home, indicated a 4-inch soil temperature of 54.6 degrees F. In Griffin the 4-inch soil temperature was 56.8 degrees F while Valdosta reported 63.5 degrees F.

If the soil temperatures are not warm enough for seed germination, early seed plantings could rot.

The roots need to be actively growing to absorb water and nutrients.

If we plant and fertilizer summer vegetables too early we will be wasting fertilizer.  The plant roots simply can’t absorb it.  This fertilizer could get washed away, wasting your time and money. Also, this leached fertilizer could be problematic for our watersheds.

Determine your soil temperatures.

To determine your soil temperature at the 4 inch depth visit www.georgiaweather.net.  Click on the station nearest your garden.  Or, you can see a summary of soil temperatures across the state.

Soil Temperatures in Your Georgia Garden
Newly planted tomatoes. Waiting until the soil temperatures are warm enough is one step to success for your summer garden.

Remember the rule of thumb is play it safe and wait!

Happy Gardening!

Indoor Seed Starting-Part Three

Now that your seeds have germinated the fun begins! When most of the seedlings have germinated and look strong, think about removing the top dome. You can do this gradually by placing it askew on the seed tray for a day or two before totally removing the top.

It is important to keep the light just above the seedlings and to move it as the seedlings grow. If the light is too far from the seedling, the seedling will become “leggy” as it grows towards the light.

Keep the light source close to the seedlings.

At this stage the seedlings are very fragile. When you need to add water, add it between the pellets. The flow of water can actually displace the seedling and/or damage the stem. Also watering from the bottom will help your roots grow longer. You want to avoid diseases such as damping off, so let the seedlings dry out before re-watering.

Fungus is your enemy here.

As the seedlings put on a few true leaves, they will outgrow the pellet and will need to be repotted in a larger pot with soil. After repotting you can keep them under the lights until the weather cooperates for transplanting in the garden.

As the seedlings get closer to that point, run your hand across the plants moving the stems slightly. The goal is to toughen the stems a bit so that they will be able to handle wind outdoors.

These seedlings are a bit leggy but they can still be good producers. Hardening-off is an important step.

When the weather is ready for transplanting you will need to harden off the transplants. If you take plants that have been living in a cozy, protected environment and move them into a place with full sun and wind they will suffer. You can avoid this by moving them out slowly. The first few days place them outside in the shade just for the day. Next, put them outside in the shade for the day and night. Then move them into full sun for a few hours. Finally, they are ready to be put in the ground. This type of hardening-off is the ideal way. You may not have all the time for all of these stages, but do the best you can. Your plants will reward you!

Happy Gardening!

Indoor Seed Starting – Part Two

All of this rain has me very excited about getting back to our seed starting project.

I have one note about seed starting media. If you choose to purchase bagged media for starting seeds indoors, do not choose something with fertilizer in the mix. This will be too strong for seedlings. There are plenty of bagged mixes specifically for seed starting so choose one of those.

We are ready to expand our pellets. Notice the seed pellets are fully expanded with no standing water:

Seed pellets are not too wet but moist all the way through.

Next, take a fork and open up the top a bit and fluff the media. I like to take this time to make sure that the moisture is uniform all the way through with no dry spots:

Fluff the planting media with a fork to ensure uniform moisture.

Now you are ready to plant your seeds. If you are mixing seed types in one tray, make sure that they will emerge and grow at about the same rate. I like to use plastic forceps to exactly place the seed where I want them. Some seeds, like lettuce and herbs, are very small and easily lost in the tray. Know how deeply to plant the seeds. Most of the ones you will probably plant just need to be lightly covered with the planting media.

Plastic forceps can be your best friend!

It is worth the effort to do some research on your seed types. For example, cilantro seeds don’t germinate easily when exposed directly to light. Also, there are some seeds that just do better planting directly into the soil, beans and corn are good examples.

At this point it is a great idea to label your seed tray. Sharpie markers on masking tape work well. The tape sticks to the tray but can be removed later. Do not be tempted to label the lid. You will be removing the lid later and you don’t want to forget the original orientation. Finally, put the lid on the tray, making sure it fits tightly.

Do not forget to label your seed trays.

Do not place your seed tray near a window and hope for the best. You will be disappointed. You will not get enough light for healthy seedlings and the temperature fluctuation at the window will be problematic.

Use a light system. The system does not have to be complicated. I have a light fixture with florescent bulbs attached to a structure with moveable chains. This setup was originally housed in a bathroom tub but it is now in my grown daughter’s bedroom. Very simple. You need the chain to move the light so it stays just above the seed tray. To produce robust seedlings you need the light no more than an inch or two above the tray. This will be imperative as the seeds germinate and grow.

If you are germinating seeds in a place that is reasonably warm you do not need a heating mat. Those were designed for outside greenhouses and places like Michigan. By using a heating mat when you don’t need one, you risk drying out your planting media.

So far this is pretty simple, right? If you have any questions or concerns you can comment or email me at beckygri@uga.edu. Send photos! Next week we will discuss seedling care.

Happy Seed Starting!

Is Your Garden a Winter Mess?

With the long-lasting cold winter temperatures and snow (snow!!) this winter how does your food garden look and can it be salvaged? According to Home Garden Vegetable Specialist, Bob Westerfield, we are better off just pulling up spent broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and leafy greens. Leaving them in the garden creates a harbor for disease and insect pests. Brussel sprouts is an exception. If your Brussel sprouts look good, you can leave them and they may still produce.

A mushy winter mess!

Since playing in the garden is limited consider soil testing now and making your Spring garden plan. You will be able to plant new cool-season plants soon enough!

Happy Gardening!

Deciding on Raised Beds or In-Ground Gardening

Dr. David Berle and Robert Westerfield of UGA have created a series of publications on community/school gardens.  One of the most popular circulars is Raised Beds vs. In-Ground Gardens.  It is an excellent resource when determining whether or not raised beds would work for your garden.

The height of these beds is helpful for the senior gardeners at Tobie Grant Manor garden.
The height of these beds is helpful for the senior gardeners at Tobie Grant Manor garden.

Raised beds are defined as elevated boxes that are manageable in size and are filled with enough soil to support plants without using the soil underneath the box.  The height of the boxes can vary.  Tall boxes can be very beneficial to senior gardeners who are more comfortable working while standing instead of knelling down.  When dealing with native soil of questionable quality, raised beds with imported soil are an easy solution.

Some other advantages of raised beds are:

  • Prevention of soil compaction- raised boxes can limit foot traffic on the soil
  • Less weeding and maintenance
  • Reduced conflict – raised beds are very defined and easy to assign to participating gardeners
  • Better drainage
  • Extended garden area – raised beds can be placed on slopes, compacted soil, and even parking lots
The in-ground gardens at Woodstock Community Garden make it easy for a tiller to work the soil.
The in-ground gardens at Woodstock Community Garden make it easy for a tiller to work the soil.

There are advantages to in-ground gardens.  Raised bed materials can be costly for a garden group just starting and in-ground gardening can allow a tractor or tiller to easily help prepare the area.  Other advantages include:

  • Use of existing soil
  • Less permanent – if the landowner deems the garden temporary or for good crop rotation
  • Easier irrigation
  • Less start-up work
  • Clay soils do have benefits that are not found in man-made soils

As you start, or change, your garden carefully consider which arrangement will work for your group.  Consider your current and future needs and decide how much time and resources you all are willing to commit.  Your local UGA Extension office is a great resource for help.

Happy Gardening!

Making Use of Seed Catalogs All Year Long

The seed catalogs have started arriving. In my household that is cause for excitement. I save them until I have time to properly enjoy looking through them. What do you do with your seed catalogs after you have looked through them and placed your orders? If you throw them into the recycling bin you are missing out as these gems are full of useful information.

If you are a school gardener, or a community gardener that works with youth, the seed catalogs can be used throughout the year! To start with you can laminate the beautiful photos to use as plant markers.

You can use the information provided in the catalog for lessons:

The seed spacing guide can be used for students to create a garden bed design.

The days to harvest information can be used for students to determine the planting dates of their garden design so that all the produce is ready at the same time.

The cost of the seed packages can be used to calculate the cost of the garden design.

All of this information can be used to calculate how much produce can be grown per square foot (inch, meter).

Students can look through the catalog and pick a vegetable they have never tried before.

Students could look through the catalog, find a favorite vegetable, and re-write the plant description.

Happy browsing!

Collard Greens Recipe from Mary Mac’s Tea Room

Collard Greens Recipe from Mary Mac's Tea Room

It seems many gardeners plan on preparing collard greens for their holiday tables and have asked that I re-run this post from 2014. Enjoy…

Community gardens all over Georgia are filled with beautiful, dark green collard greens. See the August 20th post on growing collard greens.  Once we get a few good frosts they will be ready to harvest.  Being such a Southern vegetable it is wonderful that the very Southern Mary Mac’s Tea Room in Atlanta has shared their famous collard green recipe.  Richard Golden is the Assistant General Manager and he says that the collards are his favorite of all the vegetables the restaurant serves.  Just in time for Thanksgiving this recipe is a real treat worthy of a special occasion.

Collard Greens Recipe from Mary Mac's Tea Room

Collard Greens

Collard Greens Recipe from Mary Mac's Tea Room
Very tasty with cornbread!

Serves 6-8

  • 2 1/2 pounds of collard greens, stalks removed and cut into 2 inch strips
  • 2 gallons of water
  • 6 ounces of fatback
  • 1 smoked ham hock
  • 1/3 cup bacon drippings
  • 1/8th cup salt

You should be able to find fatback and ham hocks at your local supermarket. Just ask the butcher if you have trouble finding them.

Collard Greens Recipe from Mary Mac's Tea Room

Wash the cut greens in cold water and 1/8th cup salt.  In a large stock pot, on high heat, boil the water, smoked ham hock, and fat back.  Let boil for an hour.  Add collards and bacon drippings to the pot.  Let come to a roaring boil and then reduce heat to medium.  Let cook for 40-45 minutes.  You may need to add additional water if the water starts to absorb past 1/3 of your original liquid.  Remove from heat and take out the fatback and ham hock.  Serve warm. Goes well with corn bread.

If you are not used to cooking with fatback or ham hocks, they are easily found at most grocery stores.  Just ask your butcher if you have trouble finding them.  Also, plan ahead so you can save your bacon drippings.  Your Grandmother would be proud, your fitness trainer not so much!

Mary Mac’s is such an Atlanta institution it was honored by the Georgia State House of Representatives with Resolution 477 declaring Mary Mac’s to be Atlanta’s Dining Room.  The menu includes fried okra, tomato pie, hoppin’ john, butter peas, and turnip greens.  All of these contain ingredients grown in Georgia!

Mary Mac’s opened in 1945 when Mary McKenzie wanted to use her cooking skills to make money in the aftermath of World War II.  In those days a woman couldn’t just open a restaurant but a “tea room” was acceptable.  The current owner, John Ferrell purchased the restaurant in 1994 and carries on the traditions.  Recently they catered Governor Nathan Deal’s birthday party.  If you decide to visit Midtown for a meal at Mary Mac’s, don’t forget the cobbler.  Trust me!

Happy Eating!

Making Your Own Applesauce for Hanukkah

If you serve potato latkes as part of your Hanukkah tradition why not try to make your own applesauce accompaniment? Many community gardens grow apples but if you don’t grow your own, there are plenty of fresh apples in Georgia to choose from.

Making applesauce is basic and according to the National Center for Food Home Preservation the apples you choose and the spices you add will make it your own special recipe. Select apples that are sweet, juicy, and crisp – very fresh. You can mix tart and sweet apples to get your desired taste.

The book So Easy to Preserve revised by Elizabeth Andress and Judy Harrison in 2014 gives great instructions on making applesauce. Wash, peel and core your apples. Put the apples slices in an 8-10 quart pot and add 1/2 cup water. Heat quickly, stirring occasionally, and cook until the apples are tender. This could be 5 to 20 minutes depending on apple age and variety. Press through a food mill or a sieve if you want a smooth sauce. At this point add any sugar and taste.

To preserve the applesauce, reheat sauce to boiling and pack into hot jars leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Remove air bubbles and wipe jar rims. Adjust lids and process in a boiling water bath.

For more information on food preservation contact your local UGA Cooperative Extension office.

Happy Hanukkah!

Gardening Gifts for Holiday 2017

For past holiday seasons I have gotten gift ideas from you all and shared them with the group. You all have given us fantastic book and tool ideas. For this year’s Christmas or Hanukkah why not give an experience?

Our state is full of wonderful public gardens and we all know one way to get inspired or to find new plant ideas is to visit different gardens. Giving a garden membership or a day trip is a wonderful experience for the gardener or for someone who just appreciates beautiful plants.

The State Botanical Garden of Georgia in Athens is full of trails for a long walk or run. Behind the main building is a garden display about the history of Georgia in plants. One of the best parts of the garden is the native American garden. Signage explains the native plants and how they were used.

Row crops are planted at the State Botanical Garden

In south Georgia the Coastal Georgia Botanical Garden in Savannah is a gardener’s destination. It is a beautiful garden with wonderfully cultivated specimen plants. You must visit the historic Georgia trustees garden replica. It is amazing to see what the earliest Georgians tried to grow. I am also fond of the garden for all abilities. It is a raised bed area to demonstrate how planting areas can be modified for gardeners of all types.

Norman Winter takes fantastic photos of the Coastal garden.

A hidden garden wonder is the rooftop garden on top of Atlanta City Hall. Located off of the cafeteria it is a great place to eat lunch. This garden takes into account the microclimate of being on a roof in the sunny south. It is a whole different ecosystem.

A rooftop garden in the heart of Atlanta

Other favorite gardens include the Smith-Gilbert Gardens in Kennesaw, famous for their rose collection, and the Reed Creek Nature Park in Columbia County with their beautiful wetlands trail.

Reed Creed Nature Park

Of course, the Atlanta Botanical Garden is a popular gem in the city. The plants are carefully labeled for your reference and workers around the garden are always cheerful about answering questions. The food garden is a great way to see what food types will grow well in the city. They also have a tea plant area and in the past they have grown rice. Food cooking demonstrations are offered using crops grown in the garden.

We could probably create a year’s worth of posts about the beautiful public gardens in our state. If you have favorite please share in the comments section!

Happy Holidays!