By Michael Jaenicke
New Yorkers John Dormer and his wife Patty Cucco were once city slickers with the street smarts to navigate their way through any metropolitan landscape.
But when the couple, who now live in Hope Mills, moved to Lumberton in 2002, they had an opportunity to fulfill a lifetime dream — growing a garden that would supply their needs in the kitchen.
Doerner is a drama teacher at Reid Ross Classical School, a director and actor who has performed on stage in more than 100 productions. Cucco, a professional actress, has even more credits, including numerous curtain calls at Cape Fear Regional Theater, the Temple Theater, the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival and she has frequently graced stages big and small in the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
Yet neither could act their way into part-time farmer roles.
“My only experience gardening was growing jalapeño peppers, tomatoes and herbs on a fire escape,” Doerner said. “But having a garden was something I’ve always wanted to do.”
Cucco had slightly more of a background in tending the land: as a teenager she reluctantly worked in her father’s garden.
When the transplanted Big Apple natives started planting seeds for a vegetable garden they both experienced an amazing revelation — it’s relatively easy and a somewhat natural experience that brings them not only a bountiful harvest but a tremendous amount of satisfaction and inner joy.
“The yield for the work you do is incredible,” Cucco said. “Gardening is not difficult and almost instinctive to human beings. It’s got a really short learning curve. It’s not like learning to play the guitar or piano and then being able one day to perform in a recital. With a little research, a little work and attention and care you get results that season. And the payback is incredibly normal. If we can do it, anyone can.”
Experts in the field agree, starting a vegetable garden is a hobby, vocation and possibly a rite of the spring and summer seasons that does not require a horticultural degree.
“Our name,” said Whitney Allen, co-owner of Green Side Up Gifts and Garden Center, “comes from a joke old nurserymen used to say when customers asked them, ‘How do you plant this?’”
Tim Owen, who co-owns Owen Garden Center, agrees.
“For about 90 percent of people it’s not a long learning curve,” said Owen, who suggested many people don’t know the savory enjoyment of freshly picked produce. “I snip off a piece of lettuce and let them nibble on it and frequently hear, “That’s what lettuce tastes like?”
Even so, there are some basic requirements and you-better-darn-well-do duties that will ensure success for anyone who feels they have black thumbs or is leery of failure.
The first is having a soil test. The majority of soil in the greater Cumberland County area has a sandy quality. A free soil analysis is available from the Cumberland County Extension Service. The analysis will show the soils content level of major nutrients, such as potassium, phosphorous, calcium and sodium; levels of micro nutrients, such as copper, zinc, manganese and sodium; saturation and absorption rates; and make recommendations as to how to prepare the ground.
But don’t get hung up on these chemical names.
“Get a soil sample, but keep your gardening simple,” said Jay Dunn, owner of Dunn’s Nursery. “Ask someone who knows if you are having a problem or unsure what something.”
A soil with too much clay also needs attention. Cucco said a test of her soil showed the ground needed lime and calcium. She also said they quickly learned the value of adding compost to the soil; another element most experts agree is beneficial.
Dunn said any new gardener should take advantage of learning vehicles, which include the Extension Service, basic garden classes at Fayetteville Tech, advice from established garden centers and information available via the Internet.
“A little knowledge goes a long way,” he said.
Relatively easy crops to grow in the Cumberland County area include: tomatoes, carrots, peppers, squash, beans, okra, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, garlic and many herbs.
Know your climate
Vivian Smith, a certified Master Gardener from Fayetteville, said knowing what crops grow best in your soil and the climate is vital.
“We’re in Zone 8A and there are simple guides that tell you what kind of results you will get for various plants,” Smith said.
Sun exposure and knowing how far apart to plant are also key. Vegetables generally require a minimum of six hours of full sun. Cucco and others say eight hours of full sun achieves better results. Avoid planting too close to trees or a building structure.
While it may sound odd, purchasing dirt and adding it to the compost is the best way to start your garden. Be sure to mulch well. Attempting to save money here will affect the quality of your harvest.
Figuring out size of your garden is an imperative. The old axiom is that it is better to be proud of a small garden than frustrated with a big one. Beginners should start small. Owen suggested for newcomers to start with a 4-by-4 foot garden. Others say go no larger than 16-by-10.
“I’d say most people who haven’t done it before should make their garden no more than 10-by-10 feet,” said Smith, who has been gardening for 42 years.
Be sure to have the tools necessary, including pair of gloves, spade, garden fork, soaking hose, hoe, hand weeder, bucket and wheelbarrow.
Another important concept to work out in advance is whether you will have raised beds or will till the soil. Raised beds offer the benefit of keeping weeds and grassy plants from spreading into the garden.
Owen said he finds a soil mixture that is one-third peat moss, one-third vermiculite and one-third cow or chicken manure or compost works quite well. He is also an advocate of vertical growing.
“Grid off square foot sections to some length and treat each one like it is its own acre,” he said. “Using this mix in the soil makes it completely organic and the material used is sustainable. Then there’s generally no need for lime, although you might sometimes need fertilizer. But you’re not dumping chemicals and fertilizer all over the place.”
Planting, maintaining and harvesting
Information is available on how deeply and how far apart to plant seedlings. Tomatoes, for example, should be planted about 18 inches apart, while plant beans should be planted about an inch apart. Be sure not to plant any seedlings until after the last frost.
Dunn said it is not wise to plant everything at one time.
“People plant six, eight or 10 tomato plants and then find there’s not way they can eat them all,” he said. ‘The best way is to buy two plants and plant them. Then in two weeks buy two more and in another two weeks buy and plant two more.”
Plants and seedlings can be started indoors before this time and then transplanted into the ground.
Mulch holds in moisture. Most vegetables need at least one-inch of water a week. Vegetables require good, loamy soil. Rainwater cuts through sand rapidly, 20 inches per hour or faster. Most experts suggest that a good soaking, specifically in the early morning or late afternoon is better than frequent lighter watering, but beware of over-watering. Over-watering plants could leave them with shallow, immature root systems, incapable of reaching down deeply to find water of their own. A drip irrigation system will save water in the long run.
Will you know when the day arrives to pick your harvest? While you may think it will be obvious, Doerner said he learned not to trust his initial instincts.
“Sometimes it’s better to pick some things early, knowing they will continue ripening when they are off the vine or bush,” he said.
Understand that weather, insects, disease and other problems may surface as problems, and that even the best gardeners cannot know or anticipate some situations.
Pitfalls are territorial rites of passage.
“Everyone makes mistakes, even a Master Gardener” Allen said. “I’ve been doing this for 34 years and I’m still learning. But that’s when you go to your resources. Ask someone in the field. Check it out on the Internet. You’ll find you did things wrong, but some times you’ll find you had no control over the situation at the time.”
Sometimes a common sense approach is not immediately the thought of a first-timer gardener. Even experienced gardeners seek advice and have open dialogue with fellow tenders of backyard farms.
Many miscues can be avoided by paying attention to early signs.
“I lost a whole squash plant last year by not being aware of blossom rot, which started out quite small,” Cucco said. “I could have easily picked it off. You can usually catch things before a problem gets out of control. Sometimes problems from one plant affect another. It’s not so much constant attention or work as it is being aware of what is going on.”
Ridding weeds from your garden when they are small is best, but be sure to pull out the roots of the invaders.
Stepping into the agricultural world reaps savings on your grocery bill, intrinsic rewards and accolades from your friends and family.
“To eat what you grow ties the whole world together, especially when young children see it,” Owen said.
Doerner, who started slowly and now has six raised beds, feels exhilarated talking about the benefits.
“The gratification is incredible,” he said. “People come over and see the garden and are simply amazed. What they don’t understand is that God grew everything. I’m just the caretaker. I spend a lot of time going over successes and failures, but those always balance out so far in my favor that I see no downsides to it. It’s always such a positive and productive experience.”