Eating well starts in the garden

What with the upsurge of interest in eating well, coupled with the interest in growing your own vegetables, one can't help but feel kind of smug: We live where we can grow a vast variety of fruits and vegetables, and grow them using little or no chemicals.

Fall, winter, spring, summer; in the ground, in raised beds, and in containers; preparing supper will find us picking beans and berries, digging potatoes and turnips, and putting together a sauce that might use just-snipped thyme, rosemary and chives.

Yesterday I planted Swiss chard plants in large containers. Swiss chard is a four-star Lowcountry plant. It sailed through last winter's low temperature of 22 degrees without a spot or wrinkle on its colorful leaves of green and gold. It was given a feed of organic fertilizer every six weeks. It produced new foliage until the heat got it in June.

Although I do not, as a rule, plant the same vegetable variety in the same place in consecutive years, I've found that if I dig out most of the used soil from a container, and replace it with new soil, the plant will remain healthy for life.

Most vegetables grown in the fall need about 14 extra days to mature compared with spring-seeded crops, due to fall's shorter days, cooling soil and less intense sunshine. Our average first frost date occurs the first week of January if you live near water. If not, it might be in mid-November. Look at the seed packet for the number of days until maturity. Add 14 days to that, then use that figure to calculate back to seed-starting date. Spinach, lettuce, garlic, onions and their family might be seeded as late as November.

At Heritage and Seabrook farms on Hilton Head Island, gardeners with farm plants are sowing flowers with their food crops for a blindingly beautiful garden come spring. Cord and Diane Middleton, who have a large plot at Heritage Farm, are careful to let their annual flower plants go to seed and drop on the ground to produce new plants next winter. The perennials will be cut back to grow and flower again.

Come March, the flower show begins with delphinium, larkspur, hollyhock and sweet pea. Later there will be candytuft, bachelor's button, angelonia, pincushion flower, statice and sunflower.

In the Lowcountry, it's a snap to have a vase of colorful, homegrown flowers on your dining table all year long. If you lack sun in your yard as I do, there are varieties that will flower with a few hours of sunlight filtered through trees. This week on the kitchen table we are featuring wildflowers picked in the yard: skullcap, wild ageratum, swamp sunflower, tickweed, Eupatorium, Carolina crown beard and beautyberry.


Many gardeners who love flowers are tree-lovers, too. Finding plants to provide color to an otherwise all green yard is challenging and often disappointing. In a recent issue of a popular garden magazine that featured 22 pages of shade perennials, I found only eight that will grow successfully in our Hardiness Zone 9. Most disappointing was the dry shade perennial list of four that I'd grown and loved in New Jersey and tried to grow here and could not.

With more then 40 trees competing for water, I've had to stick to growing the natives. And of these I give high marks to spiderwort for its flowering habit. Unlike most wildflowers, it will bloom more than once a year.

And the eight shade perennials are: bear's breeches, bergenia, bloodroot, columbine, Corydalis, Ligularia, Solomon's seal and toad lily. Aye, but here's the rub: Of these, bergenia, bloodroot, toad lily, Solomon's seal and Ligularia require damp, moist soil. OK, then what do you plant under a tree? The short answer is ground cover and flowering bulbs; the last, notorious for needing good drainage to grow successfully.


November and December are best times in the Lowcountry for buying and planting shrubs and trees. A few varieties to look for or ask for that are new in 2011 are "Ruby Falls," a lavender-weeping form of eastern redbud; "Delta Jazz," a crape myrtle that features bright, medium-pink blooms contrasting with its unique dark burgundy-cupped leaves; shrubs "Snow Fairy" caryopteris, with striking green and white foliage that's drought tolerant, and Rose of Sharon in "Helene" and "Aphrodite" varieties.

Note to area gardeners: Our below-freezing temperatures last winter destroyed the foliage on our popular shell ginger. Many thought we'd lost the plant; we had not. The tops were cut off and the plant was slow to recover. Unfortunately, the flowers bloom on old wood. Best to cover and protect during cold snaps.