Daily Progress, Jacksonville, TX

March 18, 2013

How Does Your Garden Grow? Fresh fruits and vegetables come into season in Cherokee County

Jo Anne Embleton
Jacksonville Daily Progress

JACKSONVILLE — Be they large are small, summer gardens offer a great way to connect with nature while lowering grocery bill costs.

“By and large, we have a wonderful fertile soil with a good amount of rainfall (although) we sometimes need to take special consideration due to heat and drought in the summer or acid pH in the garden,” said Cherokee Co. Extension Agent Kim Benton.

Texas A&M AgriLife Extension –  for whom Benton works – offers a wealth of information to those interested in home horticulture, which includes grass, trees, ornamentals and gardens. Established in 1915, it serves as a statewide education agency that addresses needs at the local level using technology and practice. County offices provide information through workshops, literature and consultation, as well as provide tools like soil sample kits to help gardeners better prepare their sites.

“The extension office can answer a great range of questions – take blackberries for example – anything from raising them to canning them to killing them, including children’s learning (identification, etc.) through 4-H,” Benton said.

Big Plants, Small Spaces

She will teach a container gardening class from 6:30-8 p.m. Tuesday (MARCH 19) at the Woodmen of the World Lodge in Jacksonville. The class gives individuals interested in trying their hand at gardening a way of doing it on a more manageable level.

“It's a new topic being offered here locally, but there is a strong desire by most of the people within Cherokee County to grow their own vegetables, and since many don’t have a large plot of ground to work with, container gardening is the next best thing,” she said, describing several reasons why people are drawn to the idea.

Then there's the appeal of growing certain vegetables that often taste much better homegrown than they do store-bought.

“People love tomatoes. They absolutely love to grow them, and sometimes containers are the only way they can do this,” she explained.

And, she added, “the best way to teach kids is to do things hands-on, and kids love nothing more than picking fruit off of a vine that they grew themselves. 

“It might not get them to eat it, but it will certainly put a love of gardening into their hearts” while encouraging the development of healthy, lifelong eating habits, Benton said. “(Container gardening)  provides people with knowledge that can be a tool for growing their own healthy veggies.  Growing it yourself means you are more likely to eat and enjoy it.  Also you have the added bonus of being in control of what is sprayed on it and what it is fertilized with. If the right varieties are picked, and put in a location that works for the plants, production can be prolific which gives cost savings at the grocery store.”

The March 19 class will show participants the best types of produce to grow in a container – herbs for areas that receive partial sun and vegetables for more sunny areas.

She'll also discuss the cost involved in producing a container gardening, as well as types of container and fertilizer needed and “how to set them up to grow for you,” she said.

Sharing the Fruits of Their Labor

If container gardens are meant to serve a people on a smaller scale, community gardens – like the one done for the past six years by Jacksonville's Our Lady of Sorrows Parish – share the fruits of labor on a larger scale.

Last year, the parish garden yielded an estimated 3,500 pounds of peppers, tomatoes, zucchini and okra that was distributed among food pantries operated by the local First United Methodist and Catholic churches, as well as the H.O.P.E. Kitchen.

With such a garden, “everybody shares in the ministry of providing for others,” said Father Mark Kusmirek, pastor of OLOS. “We started it years ago, it just seemed the right thing to do (and it was) a way for people to get exercise and save money, and work in the earth, too.”

Volunteers will help prepare the ground soon, taking various plants and burying them in a plot located behind the parish office.

Already, a handful of families have signed up to help tend the garden, but the priest said the challenge is that “the garden needs constant attention.”

“If we could find people to spend a couple of hours a week to weed, rake, water,” it would be a great help, he said.

Over the years, the project has attracted help from local residents, with volunteers generously offering their time and experience, while the ag department from Jacksonville High School helped the first or second year by donating a large number of tomato plants students had nurtured.

“That turned it into a true community effort,” Father Kusmirek said.

Still, the project is popular with his parishioners because it encourages them to be outdoors, “in the sunshine, getting exercise” while helping “people to know that food does not appear magically, that someone somewhere has to make that grow, has to harvest it, transport it,” the priest said. “And there's the good of helping people develop a sense of self-esteem by being able to feed themselves and others by the work of their hands.”

Shop Local

Down the road, about five miles outside the city, Jo and Tony Hall have found a way to turn their love of gardening into a livelihood that brings the bounty of their harvest into the homes of others.

Thirteen years ago, they opened Hall’s Produce stand, located on U.S. 69 South.

 “We've always grown vegetables, and when we worked at the state hospital we used to sell them over there to people who worked there,” she said as her husband worked behind the building, plowing up their three-acre lot where they will plant their gardens.

Onions and potatoes already have been planted, “and we're fixing to put out tomatoes, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, probably put all that out today. Later on, in the next week, we'll be planting beans and peas, watermelons, canteloupes …” Mrs. Hall said.

Their selling season generally runs from mid-March to late October, although last year the stand remained open through late December before closing for a three-month hiatus. Even though they don't expect the first of the produce to be available until about the beginning of May, “we got some items and just kind of put it out for sale,” she said.

On the shelves inside the screened-in stand, one can find offerings of jellies and jams, homemade pickles, salsa and fresh items like pineapple, eggs, watermelon, cucumbers and tomatoes.

At the beginning of the season, they bring in produce from Florida and the Rio Grande Valley at the beginning of the selling season, but “when our growing season is here, we provide what we grow or what we buy from other local people, (especially if they) have something that we don't, or if we don't have enough of what we need. Then we buy from local people,” Mrs. Hall said.

The stand draws a lot of repeat customers, as well as folks passing through. “We have them from  Beaumont, Houston, Louisiana ... if they stop, well, most of the time when they come back through here, they'll stop again,” she said.

Local or out of area, customers stop for the same reason: The availability of fresh, garden-grown produce.

“I'm not going to say we're any higher or lower (in cost) than (the stores) but you're going to get something that's more fresh, even if it is coming from somewhere else,” she said.

The most sought-after produce? Tomatoes and watermelons.

“I wouldn't open my stand if I didn't have (those),” Mrs. Hall said, “they are the two things that I sell the most of.

“Whenever we get local tomatoes, the Jacksonville tomatoes, that's what everybody wants. They usually come in the last of May, first of June – sometime around the Tomato Fest we'll still have green and ripe tomatoes. That's what everyone waits for. That and Noonday onions. And I'd have to say Grapeland watermelons are something else that people are real interested in.”

The couple's biggest challenge, her husband said, “is keeping enough stuff.”

People want produce that's fresh “and don't have all these chemicals in them,” he said, describing how they let nature dictate the maturity of their produce.

“Have you ever bought a tomato that's been hollow? They grew it too fast … they put stuff on it that makes it grow fast,” Hall said.

Over the years, he and his wife have relied on extra hands to handle their gardens, but the Halls – longtime farmers – still enjoy raising food for others to enjoy, exemplifying something Benton said: “There is no age limit to the fun of getting your hands dirty and enjoying the fruits of your own labor.”