When my friend Diane Middleton invited me to go along with her to Palmetto Bluff for a look at the new vegetable and fruit garden there, it didn't take a second's thought. I'd not been there for a couple of years, which is too long to say away from the oasis of green combined with buildings of interest.
Simone Maclellan, garden liason at Palmetto Bluff, and Doug Jones, property manager, met us for lunch at Buffalo's where the chicken salad was as good as the conversation. Simone picked vegetable guru Diane's brain about the Hilton Head Plantation farmers' gardens, where Diane and her husband Cord have had a large plot for 17 years.
I listened, though I was still in recovery mode from sights along the drive from the Palmetto Bluff gate to the first signs of civilization. All that green, miles of it, filled with magnificent trees and native plants. The groundsel trees with their soft, fluffy flowers, the flashy red-berried chokeberry shrubs -- both were once a part of the fall show much admired along the roadways near my home.
Simone led Diane and I through the circuitous route to the garden, which is a show-stopper. There are eight raised beds owned and worked by the resident farm members. It's formal; England comes to mind when you see the arrangement of fruit trees of lime, lemon, blood orange and fig. There are blueberry bushes and a strawberry patch. Gravel paths lead past the vegetable gardens and to the herb and perennial gardens. There is luffa -- a vine that produces fruit in the cucumber family -- grown from seed from India. Soon to be planted are 40 daffodils, and there's talk of a rice field.
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After our visit, I met Diane at her farm plot that is noteworthy both for the size -- 50 feet by 50 feet -- and the variety of plants. And, there's the look of it all. Unlike the gardens of many other farmers, the Middletons' plot is never closed up for a season or a rest. I was there for two hours asking questions.
Q. Diane, because of the time you spend and the huge amount of knowledge you've acquired, I know that new farmers and gardeners come to you for answers to many questions. Can you share some of that knowledge with us?
A. Sure. When I get to the garden, I first pick and cut and place produce in ice water in the car. If I've something to plant, that comes next. Cord has just planted the baby Vidalias you see; tomorrow, I shall plant garlic bulbs that I've bought at the grocery store. A month ago, we planted seeds of radish, carrot, and plants of Swiss chard and savoy cabbage with curly leaves. The English peas on the fence were planted late; we are hoping there won't be an early frost. The bed of sweet potatoes were not planted this year; they've come back. A farm mate told me that once you have sweet potatoes, you'll have them forever.
Q. You still have bell pepper plants growing with peppers on them. Will you pull them out soon?
A. No. Bell peppers are perennial if you want them to be. Just pot them up, take them home, and give them some protection. Replant in spring.
Q. Your flowers are beautiful. How many varieties are you growing?
A. More than two dozen. I was lucky to find the tall variety of Pentas this year, and they have a long blooming period. There are a few Celosia, and the yarrow is threatening to take over. The Zinnias have re-seeded; there must be 100 plants. Larkspur is a winter flower here. The Salvias, black-eyed Susans and coneflowers will flower through the fall.
Q. Your rose garden is beautiful and very fragrant. Is there anything special you do to keep the plants flowering?
A. This has been the best year for roses, and I don't know why. They've been relatively insect- and disease-free. I throw handfulls of 10-10-10 (fertilizer) twice a year on all flowers and vegetables, including tomatoes and roses. We've planted a few fall tomatoes for the first time. They are growing well; we hope there's not a November freeze.
Q. You've got daffodil bulbs up. When will they flower? And is that asparagus shoots growing in your asparagus bed? A. The daffodils should be flowering for Thanksgiving. I've not seen asparagus shoots come up this time of year; I'm going to dig and transplant.
Good-byes are always better when your arms are full. I went home with the largest broccoli head I've seen, and a fat, fragrant orange rose. Thanks, Diane.
Sixty-year master gardener and environmentalist Betsy Jukofsky has spent three decades on Hilton Head Island learning the peculiarities of Coastal Lowcountry gardening.