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FRONT PORCH MAGAZINE

Me & my farm: Garden-fresh fare year-round

5/27/2014 at 3:12 p.m.


Photo by Hortus Ltd.

Growing a vegetable garden provides many benefits.

By P. ALLEN SMITH
Special to Front Porch magazine

One of my favorite things about living on my farm is I can eat in season almost year-round. Not only is the food good for me, I enjoy numerous other benefits by growing a garden.

For instance, planting and harvesting vegetables offers more exercise than you might think. Depending on the size and requirements of your garden, you could spend several hours per day tending it. The time outdoors is not only good for the physique; it can also help relieve stress. Studies show planting and working in a garden can improve one’s perspective and may even help to ward off dementia due to the planning and creativity that come into play. 

What’s more, you can enjoy these benefits while saving money. Fresh produce from your garden will lower what you spend at the grocery. And there’s a sense of pride that comes from growing and providing your food.

That’s good news enough to get a garden of your own growing. That only leaves one question: what to grow each season? Luckily, there are a variety of cool- and warm-season vegetables easy to grow and delicious tasting when harvested at their peak. Here are a few of my favorites.

Spring

There are numerous cool-season vegetables you can plant either while there’s still frost on the ground or as soon as spring arrives. Radishes, spinach, broccoli, turnips, carrots and cabbage all can be planted before the last frost of the year. Other options, including beets, arugula, lettuce and onions, can go into the ground as soon as the soil is workable after the last frost. Be sure to check the seed packet or plant tag on transplants for exact planting times. You’ll see these spring delicacies showing up in your garden in time for an Easter Sunday feast. 

Summer

Before you even harvest your spring garden, you already need to be thinking about summer plantings in order to eat in season year-round. The most popular of all growing seasons, summer promises the bounty of traditional garden delights such as tomatoes, okra, corn, eggplant and squash. As a general guideline, all of these will need to be planted after the last frost. Because there are numerous plants that thrive during the summer, I recommend assessing your space, your local growing conditions and what you and your family enjoy eating. You can plan a garden from there. You can find growing tips at your local nursery, on seed packets and on websites, including PAllenSmith.com

Fall

Many of the same cool-season vegetables you planted in the spring can have a second growing period in the fall — meaning you can get a double dose of your favorites. Plants such as broccoli and rutabaga need to go in the ground 10-12 weeks before the first frost. However, other fall vegetables, including cabbage, cauliflower and mustard greens, only need to be planted six to eight weeks before the first frost. Brussel sprouts are especially great for fall gardens, because they thrive in cooler weather and actually taste best when they are allowed to mature in it. You’ll want to set these out early, because they take about 90 days to mature. 

Speaking of maturity, no matter what time of year, I recommend planting a variety in your garden. Because different plants have different maturity periods, this provides a continuous food supply throughout the season. 

What about winter, you ask? I suggest eating your stockpiled vegetables during the cold winter months when the ground is frozen. With the proper preparation, you can freeze your spring, summer and fall harvest to enjoy during this dormant period. 

To freeze vegetables, you’ll want to blanch them and then place in freezer-safe bags. You also can use a vacuum sealer if you prefer. Whatever you bag the vegetables in, be sure to label with the name and date. Again, I recommend searching online or in one of your trusted garden or cooking resource books for blanching times. For vegetables such as squash and eggplant, go ahead and make it easy on yourself by chopping them into thin slices, and then freezing. They’ll be ready to use in a casserole or to sauté when they thaw. 

Fresh herbs also can be frozen. When the herbs at my farm are at their peak, I like to pick them, chop the leaves and place 1 teaspoon into an ice tray compartment. I fill the tray with water, and when the ice cubes are frozen, pop them out and put in a freezer-safe plastic bag for storage. When needed, simply add the cubes to your soup or sauce recipe. Having these frozen vegetables and herbs close at hand means enjoying the flavors of your garden any time.



Put Arkansas food on your table

Eating in season doesn’t mean personally growing everything in our gardens. It’s also a great opportunity to support local farmers. Arkansas Grown, a program run by the Arkansas Agriculture Department, brings food from the farmer to the market and to your table by connecting local producers with buyers.

Because food tastes best when picked in season at its peak, and because buying locally means it takes less time for food to go from the garden to your table, it makes sense to support Arkansas farms. What’s more, it feels good to buy from our neighbors and support our local economy. Want to get involved? If you’re a farmer or own a restaurant or grocery store, register at www.ArkansasGrown.org or call (501) 683-4851.
 
Editor's Note: This article was originally published in the Spring issue of Front Porch magazine.

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