Throughout southern West Virginia, Appalachian backyard gardeners are planting seeds for a sustainable future. Over the years, however, in some areas, family farming and gardening have become less profitable, limiting the access to healthy, affordable food.
A new trend suggests just the opposite nowadays as growers seek to solve food insecurity issues by restoring the relationship between both country and city folk and the land, even if it’s only a few square feet in back of the house.
Why are many local residents turning suddenly to raising a garden? “For a number of reasons,” explained David Richmond, WVU Extension agent for Raleigh and Summers counties. “Mainly, it’s because of the fresh vegetables you can harvest for your family throughout the summer, and you can even preserve the bulk of them with canning to see you through the winter months.”
As late as the 1950s, most West Virginians raised a garden. That changed after convenience foods came in. By 2000, only about a third of West Virginians raised any kind of garden. The gardens were also much smaller, according to the American Gardening Association.
Now the number is rising again.
“People are starting to understand how harmful processed food can be to your health,” said Richmond, who directs the local arm of West Virginia University’s Master Gardener program. “People are trying to save money too, and they’re finding out what a great stress-reliever gardening is.”
What’s more, if you find yourself in a living space with little lawn area, raised bed gardening is a great option. It enables growers to have unusual shaped yards or growing areas that allow them to have a beautiful garden in any shape that a box can be built.
And they can plant more vegetables in the same amount of square footage used in old-style gardens because there is no need for rows. Plants grown in a raised bed also tend to enjoy a longer growing period than plants grown in traditional garden rows.
Another advantage is that raised bed gardening is easier on the back and legs. Because raised beds are several inches above ground, they are easier to access for planting, weeding and harvesting, according to county agent Richmond, who noted that West Virginia’s Master Gardener program is fueling a gardening boom in some communities.
The Extension Service trains master gardeners for free. In Greenbrier County, more than 70 people were trained master gardeners by the end of 2013. Statewide, there were 1,200 certified master gardeners in 2011. “The number’s a lot higher now,” Richmond said.
West Virginia enjoys a climate that varies from the humid to temperate and generally has mild winters in the lower-elevation areas of the state.
The Mountain State is in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s hardiness zones and you can plant vegetables in the ground, in beds, in raised boxes filled with dirt, or in other containers in early spring across the state after the last frost has passed. Summer and fall plantings are also possible in many regions.
In fact, planting a vegetable garden is often thought of as a rite of passage in spring and early summer for many local residents, according to Ronnie and Susan Richmond of Grandview.
“You can begin early-spring planting after the last frost has passed,” explained Ronnie, who starts his vegetable seeds in early March in the greenhouse near his backdoor.
Planting some crops such as beans, squash and cucumbers can continue through late September and early October, or even later if the vegetables are covered with plastic when temperatures drop during the night, he said, noting that this kind of gardening can mean a lush fall vegetable harvest that is nearly as prolific as the spring garden.
Ronnie’s seasonal planting strategy means modifying the soil in his raised box garden to make it ready for him to plant asparagus, carrots, snap and lima beans, beets, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, corn, cucumber, lettuces, onions, peas, peppers, zucchini, summer squash and tomatoes.
Late summer and fall planting is a perfect time to seed a second and third harvest of regular spring established vegetables including cucumbers, lima beans, lettuce, beets, green snap beans and squash. Late summer and fall planted vegetables can be grown specifically for preserving by canning and freezing for use during the winter. Some ideal candidates for preserving are beans of all kinds, tomatoes, spinach, pickling cucumbers, beets, carrots, celery and turnips.
The 2014 WVU Extension Service Garden Calendar celebrates the organization’s 100th anniversary while providing daily tips and reminders to gardeners across the Mountain State.
“Gardening has always been an important part of the lives of West Virginians, and the WVU Extension Service is here to help ensure gardeners across the state have the knowledge they need to be successful,” county agent Richmond explained.
“For the past 100 years, WVU Extension Service has used trusted research and the knowledge of experts to assist our citizens in many areas of gardening, and continually adapts to bring up-to-date, useful gardening advice and information to people across the state.”