Gardening in the Carolinas

When I lived in Denver a hundred years ago or so (well actually in the 1970's), I always had a nice garden.  As soon as the ground had thawed in the spring I would haul in a few cubic yards of manure, rent a tiller, and begin to work the soil.  Broccoli, corn, beans, tomatoes, and strawberries, were a few of the things I grew each year.  I discovered that the joy was more in the planning, the digging, and the growing than in the harvest and subsequent eating of the food.  To someone who is not a born gardener, I am sure this makes no sense, but I was fascinated from an early age with growing things. 

I guess it was partially an inherited thing; my mom always grew beautiful flowers and my grandparents tended abundant gardens as far back as I can remember.  Later, after I moved to California and again to Florida, I turned to other interests.  But it seems that in cooler climates there is an appreciation for the warmth of spring and the verdant growth that comes forth from the ground after months of brown and gray and frozen soil, much more than in places that stay warm year-round.  I can remember vividly starting a couple plants of corn when I was in second grade.  We grew them in cutoff milk cartons and later took them home to plant in the ground.  I was elated as they grew and ultimately produced several ears of delicious corn, all this from a couple small seeds.  I was hooked. My dad was constantly pulling up seedlings of peaches, cherries, apples, and avocados that grew from seeds I planted all over the yard.

My grandparents helped me plant my first garden in about 1971.  It wasn't too large or too productive, but from it I learned what worked and what didn't.  In the frozen months of late Colorado winter, as many did, I would spend hours looking through the seed catalogs I had ordered and compiling orders from those things that caught my attention.  As the garden grew in size, I learned about tillers, those tools that would vibrate and jump around, and twist the body this way and that, but in the long run would save hours of hand digging and the related sore back.

As my gardens became larger and the quality of the soil improved, the harvest yields grew.  Soon I was producing more than we could eat or give away and as I watched the vegetables rot away in the garden and in the refrigerator, my enthusiasm waned.  And so I turned my attention more to growing flowers and finally orchids, the best of the flowers.  Upon moving to North Carolina, the cooler climate and Flora's enthusiasm for canning rekindled my interest in vegetable gardening.  The first year I grew just a few things, but in subsequent years, I increased the area of my garden to about 800 square feet. 

The work begins each year with tilling of the soil.  I purchased a front-tine tiller, the style that works the soil more and the operator less.  The soil here is rocky and pure clay.  If I had a potter's wheel, I could throw great pots using with this stuff, but growing a garden in it takes more work.  Each year I dig in as much horse manure, leaf mulch, and other kinds of organic matter as I can find, but still it seems like pure clay.  Early on I made a big mistake.  I generally have always grown organically, favoring natural nutrients to chemical types of fertilizers, but that year I had a 50 pound bag time-release 14-14-14 fertilizer that I was using on the orchids and I thought that since the clay was so dense, some extra fertilizer might be required.  As I will explain later, this was errant thinking and I paid a big price for it, especially with the tomatoes.



It took several sessions with the tiller to get the clay broken up, and in the process I removed several wheelbarrows full of five-pound rocks, enough to line the borders of several flower beds.  Finally, I gave up and things were as good as they were going to get this year.  I had started seeds for many things (peppers, tomatoes, squash, watermelons, etc.)  in the greenhouse, so I planned the layout to best utilize the limited amount of sunlight that filtered through the oak trees and I planted the early spring crops.  We had a very dry windy spring and many of these things did not germinate too well.  Next year I will mulch better and earlier to help correct this situation.

And speaking of mulch, applying some kind of mulch is one of the most important things to do to a garden.  Mulching helps to keep the soil from drying out and if an organic mulch is used, it will add nutrients to the soil as it is decomposes.  I have access to quantities of hardwood mulch, so that is what I normally use.  In the past, I have also used straw, leaves, and even weed-stop fabrics.  The hardwood mulches are nice because they last through the season and then when they are plowed under, they provide much needed organic material to help break up the clay. 

Another soil amendment much need in this heavy clay is ground limestone, which can adjust the pH of the soil.  Without this addition, blossom-end rot is common in tomatoes and peppers.

I have also been using asphalt shingles to mulch around the growing areas. Nothing can grow through them and they can be used year after year.

In 2002 we had extreme drought conditions and outside watering was not allowed for much of the growing season. Heavy mulching became a high priority to keep everything from dying of thirst, and even with that, many things failed.



Cukes are planted on a fence, which generally proves to be an excellent method of keeping them off the ground and away from the slugs.  As the years go by I plant more and more crops on fences including beans, tomatoes, and peppers.

We prefer the size and firmness of English cukes to the traditional cuke, although we do have some trouble finding seeds.  We can grow more cukes than we can eat for most of the summer from only three or four vines, enjoying them in salads and taking them to work in our lunches. Many are also given away.  

In most years Flora is able to make pickles and relish from the abundant crop.  Overall, cucumbers are one of our biggest garden successes.




Another vine crop that generally does well for me is winter squash (the hard-shelled kind - as opposed to a summer squash like zucchini.)  Our favorite variety is called buttercup  (a round and dark colored squash with an indented pocket in the bottom.)  Not to be confused with butternut, which is commonly found in the supermarket, the buttercup squashes have a great flavor and will keep for several months on a cool, dry shelf. During the drought years this is one plant that often does not live, and in 2002, we lost the whole crop.
The winter squash plants grow up to 30 or 40 feet in length, so they need to be planted where they can grow toward the periphery of the garden. During the summer they must be directed away from the other plants so as to not pull them down or overshadow them.  From two or three vines, we are able to harvest maybe a dozen of these gems, many of  which Flora cooks and freezes for the winter. 



Tomatoes are the next large category of vegetables we grow each year.  I have planted several varieties, but ultimately grow mostly Romas or plum tomatoes and usually one variety of cherry tomato.  This is where the use of chemical fertilizers turns out to be a real problem.  I start my plants in the greenhouse, so by the time the soil in the garden is warm enough to plant tomatoes, the plants are usually over a foot tall.    I had always heard that excessive amounts of nitrogen should be avoided with tomatoes and initially I thought that a 14-14-14 fertilizer would work well, given that the nitrogen is in a timed-release form, but I was wrong.  The first year I tried this, for weeks the plants got bigger and bigger.  They started crowding each other, even though they had been planted 3 feet apart and then they started to crowd everything around them but still, not a tomato in sight.  I had to keep pruning back the growth and still the tomatoes grew over the pepper plants and everything else in sight.  Late in the summer, I finally got a good harvest from them, but not until they had sprawled all over the garden, unable to support even the weight of their own growth.  Now I know know to avoid even a balanced nitrogen blend. 


The one thing that is more of a success than any other is the pepper crop.  The first year I grew peppers I ordered every kind of pepper seed I could find and started the plants early in the season in the greenhouse.  By the time the ground was warm enough to begin planting them, I had 28 plants of about a dozen varieties.  None was really too exotic, but I had a good selection ranging from the mild Ancho to the scorching Scotch Bonnet.   We enjoy cooking spicy foods, so the goal was to grow some varieties to use in daal, chili, and with omelets, and also to be able to make chile rellenos.  I planted four rows of seven plants, spacing them three feet apart.  Because of the nitrogen, they too grew and grew before they started setting fruit, but by midsummer we began getting a few peppers and by August I was harvesting them by the five-gallon bucket full.  We discovered the joy of grilled peppers, although it is important to select varieties that won't blow the top of your head off.  We also began putting sliced hot peppers on our homemade pizza. In 2002 I made huge batches of delicious chili rellenos (from the pablanos) and my annual batch of Bob's Zesty sauce (from Habeneros).


This picture shows the harvest of September 8th, a nice combination of hot and mild peppers.  Other pepper pictures include: Scotch Bonnets, Habeneros, Serranos, Anaheims, Jalapenos, and various hybrids of the type we like to grill.


This is a bird's eye view of those same peppers:

This is a mixture of hybrid peppers, none too hot but all very flavorful and wonderful grilled.  They also make great salsa.  One variety is in fact named 'Salsa Delight'.
These are Jalapeno peppers.  They have been allowed to vine ripen, which is why they are red instead of green.  Because they were allowed to ripen on the plants, they are much more flavorful than the green ones found in the stores.
These are Cayenne hybrids.  I grow multiple varieties of these and they tend to vary some in size.  These are the ones that are ground up to make red pepper and they are pretty spicy.  We slice a few of these onto our homemade pizza each Friday.
These are Serrano peppers, also vine-ripened.  I usually see them in the store in a green, unripened  state.  These are substantially hotter than Jalapenos. 
These are vine-ripened Anaheim chilis.  They are generally yellow or green in the stores and are only moderately hot, but again we prefer the flavor after they have fully ripened to a nice red color.
These are the famous Habenero peppers.  They are typically about 30 to 40 times as hot as Jalapenos, too hot to use in many dishes but great to brag about or give to those people who insist they can eat anything.  A few years ago, this was the hottest pepper around.
This is the Scotch Bonnet, 2 to 3 times as hot as a Habenero.  These make fabulous pepper jelly and smoky hot sauce and add some heat to the salsa. Each year I use these and Habeneros to make the famous "Bob's Zesty Sauce", which we use throughout the year to spice most of the dishes we prepare at home. See Bob's recipes to learn how to make this wonderful condiment.


And so I am already making plans for next year's garden, saving seeds for those varieties I grew this year that were a success, looking for new kinds of peppers to try, and scheduling delivery of more manure and mulch so that I won't have to load it all by hand in the summer heat!

Happy gardening!