The first days of spring this year were disheartening: 30 degrees some days and strong gusty winds that chilled us to the bone. Spring and summer seemed like they were a lifetime away. I had planned to take Rolley Len and Cason to see their grandparents during spring break, but even the temperatures in Florida, in the 40s and 50s during the daytime, were well below normal. Both of the kids had been looking forward to their visit with Nana and Pawpaw, so we packed warm clothes with a "just-in-case" pair of shorts and hit the road.
Driving south on I29, I was quickly reminded it was definitely springtime in Alabama. We passed many fields where the red mud had been turned, and some rows already had green sprigs and sprouts bursting up through the dirt. Whether you are planning for acres of corn or a few bushels of okra, late March is the time for planting. Planting and cultivating a garden of your own can be rewarding in so many ways. Besides giving you and your family a chance to work on a project together, the food you grow can be a tremendous asset to your family throughout the year.
Planning ahead by properly preparing the beds will keep you from having to weed your garden constantly. To do this, you can either get weed cloth or silt fence to help keep the weeds out. Silt fencing is the material used by construction crews to block off areas and to keep dirt from washing away. Using silt fence in a garden is a great way to repurpose it rather than throwing it out. First, cover your plot with good soil. Then lay silt fence or weed cloth over the dirt. Cut small holes in the material where you want to place your plants, then cover the cloth or fencing with hay or pine straw. Family friend Stanley Baker and his son Chip plant their garden in rows and add silt cloth in rows so they don’t have to weed it as often saving a lot of time and energy.
Irrigation is important, especially if we have a long season of drought. There are several options that don’t have to cost a lot of money. You can use a cheap black pipe, a soaker hose or pop holes in a hose pipe. All of these can be found in any hardware store. If your city or county water has a lot of chlorine or other chemicals in it, the water may evaporate faster than if it didn’t have those chemicals. That means the plants may not be able to absorb as much water as they need. To compensate for this, some gardeners, including Jason’s cousin Steve Kirk, collect rainwater in barrels to use in their gardens. Steve leaves them out year-round to collect water then puts a top on it to keep mosquitoes from breeding. This may not be practical for some families, but you can always use something smaller like a bucket or pitcher. Of course, you should always water at night to increase absorption.
To be able to provide your family with food you grew yourself, you don’t need to make a huge garden, just choose your plants wisely. In the Southeast, some of the easiest plants to grow are also the healthiest and heartiest. Beans, peas, Irish and sweet potatoes, squash, peppers, tomatoes, eggplant and onions are all easy to plant and harvest. They also are extremely versatile in recipes. Jalapeño peppers, rooster peppers and red bell peppers are colorful additions to your garden that will add lots of flavor and good nutrition to your diet.
Mix and match your vegetables in soups, casseroles or keep it simple with a four-vegetable plate. One of our school librarians Amanda Massey brought a hearty soup for lunch that I could not stop looking at. It had white beans, tomatoes, sausage and greens. The colors of all the ingredients and their various scents mixed together made me want to make it. Amanda had gotten the recipe from a relative and changed it a little to suit her and her family’s taste. The recipe below is my own adaptation. This bean soup is great because everyone who makes it can adjust it to their needs and appetite. You might leave the sausage out and add celery or potatoes instead. You can also add hot sauce for extra spice.
If you work a few plants properly, you can have a tremendous harvest to feed your family. For example, if you planted tomatoes in April, then plant more in May. Spreading them out over time means you will have continual growth throughout the season. With a little planning, your garden can provide healthy meals for your family until the next planting season.
Hearty Spring Soup
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 cup onion, diced
½ cup carrots, diced
8-12 ounces smoked sausage (I used Conecuh Original)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 bunch kale, torn into bite-sized pieces
1 can (14.5-ounce) diced tomatoes
1 can (15-ounce) white beans
4 cups chicken broth
Salt and pepper to taste
Hot sauce as desired
Heat olive oil in a large pot. Put onions, carrots and sausage in pot. Sauté until the onions are tender and the sausage is heated through. Reduce heat. Add kale and garlic. Cover and let simmer for 2 minutes. Add tomatoes, beans and broth. Bring to a boil and then simmer for 15-20 minutes. Serve with cornbread or crackers.
Christy Kirk is a freelance writer who lives in Little Texas.