Winter plants

Felder Rushing is tucking useful winter plants into former summer plant holes.

Garden space is precious, as are the time, effort and expenses required to grow stuff there. So, unless you garden for therapy, occasionally think about minimizing inputs and maximizing outputs. And grow what you need.

Sounds pretentious, but it’s bottom line with old-hand gardeners. I’m practicing it now by tucking useful winter plants into reworked summer stuff holes.

I’ll never forget the moment when I was giving a talk on cool-season vegetable gardening, stuff that grows best in the fall, winter and early spring, when an attendee started laughing. When I asked what was up, she asked “Beet? Who eat a beet?”

And she had a point. Not everyone likes to eat the same veggies, so why waste space, energy and time to grow them, or stuff that’s cheap to buy at the store or produces very little in the way of nutrients?

Those thoughts were on my mind this past week as I prepared a lecture for landscape architecture students at MSU working on a low-input community garden design project. Doesn’t matter if we’re talking Mississippi school gardens, guerrilla gardens in abandoned lots of New York City, well-organized set-aside “allotment” gardens across Europe and Japan, or resource-meager orphanage gardens in Africa and South America. Been there, worked in all those and noticed that all the successful ones have certain elements in common.

All apply to the little veg plots scattered around both my small Jackson landscape and tiny terrace house garden in northern England. Unlike large-scale horticultural farm operations, most successful home and community garden plots end up being done in small raised beds with or without sturdy sides, and containers.

And by the way, most long-term gardeners, both private and community, have compost bins or a big leaf or bark pile nearby, making organic matter for soils and mulch cheaper and more convenient than having to run to the store for stuff. And they use mostly hand tools because expensive big equipment can be borrowed, shared or rented cheaply.

Anyway, experienced vegetable and flower gardeners typically dig, mulch, plant, tend and harvest as needed, making gardening less daunting by spreading chores and challenges over a nearly continual year-round process.

This little-at-a-time approach of tending individual beds as separate gardens is easy to get started. Scatter them around with other plantings, or break a moderate-sized garden space into smaller square, rectangle or curved areas with walking paths between. Then rotate crops so pests and diseases don’t build up.

Other than a few fading flowers, scraggly but still-producing peppers, tomatoes, okra and sweet potatoes to be dug next month, my summer veg garden is wrapping up. So, this week I started working up small spots here and there, pulling composting old summer plants and digging old mulch and fertilizer into their vacated holes, and planting for fall and winter. Without a tiller. Biggest chore was working around errant sweet potato runners, which I allow to grow underneath other plants as a “living mulch” that can be added to the dirt next time around.

Wasting very little space on beets, carrots or Brussels sprouts, I opt instead for lettuces, Swiss chard, cabbage, broccoli and different kinds of kale, which are pretty and easier to digest than collards and require less bacon grease to taste good.

Next week I’ll tuck some pansies and snapdragons here and there for extra smiles, and next month I’ll plant garlic.

Main thing is, my gardens are several small, easy-to-manage boxes, beds and pots that are also pretty enough to keep my interest and harvest going all year. So, planting for winter translates to “ain’t no thang.”

• Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to rushingfelder@yahoo.com.

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