Wherever you garden, the climate determines how you go about it and what crops and which varieties you plant. Timber Press has set out to help you with the details by publishing guides specific to different areas of the country. Ira Wallace has written their Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast. Ira is the ideal person to write this book. Not only does she live in Virginia and is part of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, but she has lived other places, including growing up in Florida. Southern Exposure is a seed company cooperatively owned by the members of Acorn Community. It serves customers across the U.S. and Canada, however it emphasizes varieties that perform well in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast.
To be more specific about what is included in the Southeast region of the U.S., Ira distinguishes between the Upper South and the Lower South. There is a map in the book showing which states are included in each designation. The Upper South has long hot summers where the temperature might reach 100˚, but not for long, with the nights being relatively cooler. The lows could reach to 0˚, but usually not below. The Lower South has long hot humid summers and shorter winters. Although in much of the U.S., gardeners welcome the summer heat, in the Lower South it can be a bit much and gardeners look to avoid the heat in August. The southernmost part of Florida where the temperature never goes below freezing is not included in this book.
I’ve found that even though I’ve been gardening for many years, there is always something new to learn. Ira’s book is good for someone starting out new in vegetable gardening and for someone new to gardening in the southeast. It is also a good read for those of us who have been gardening in this region for a long time. She brought heat zones to my attention. I didn’t know that the American Horticultural Society publishes a Plant Heat Zone Map which divides the country into twelve zones indicating the average number of “Heat Days”. A Heat Day is one which reaches a temperature over 86˚. The amount of heat you are getting is important to consider in the southeast, particularly when, as Ira points out, pollen for tomatoes, bell peppers, lima beans, and snap beans is killed at temperatures above 95˚ and the stigma dries up. The plants recover when cool weather returns. I experienced that when I grew peppers in a small greenhouse, thinking that it would be a good thing. In the height of the summer they were not productive at all, however, once it cooled down they flourished.
Phenology was another thing Ira covered that I’m not as well versed on as I’d like. Phenology is the study of recurring plant and animal life cycles and their relationship to weather. She has a list of some natural gardening signals taken from the records kept at Acorn and Twin Oaks Communities. Pam Dawling, author of Sustainable Market Farming, heads up the garden at Twin Oaks and has mentioned phenology in her book and in her blog. Long ago I had heard that the time to plant warm weather crops was when the lilacs were blooming (one of the signs on Ira’s list). We had lilacs so I thought I would pay attention that year. I started tomatoes in the window, as usual, but realized that I had another sign altogether that I could use. When the leaves became so big on the maple trees in the backyard that they shaded the window, it just happened to be the right time to plant out the tomatoes! From Ira’s book I discovered there is a National Phenological Network. Heat Days and phenology seem like good topics for future blogs, so stay tuned (but don’t hold your breath).
Water is a recurring topic throughout the book and she suggests ways to increase water efficiency. There is an easy to understand description of why you would want to garden organically and suggested organic amendments. Ira strongly suggests you get your soil tested because if your pH is off, the nutrients won’t be available to your plants. I recently heard Clif Slade from Virginia State University say the same thing in a talk about his 43,560 Project.
This book is about growing to eat out of your garden all year. After the Get Started section, there is a section devoted to each of the twelve months of the year, each with a to-do list. The third section is Edibles A to Z showcasing vegetables you might be growing in the southeast, complete with separate planting and harvesting charts for the Upper South and the Lower South. Those are general charts, however, and Ira encourages her readers to look to their local cooperative extension service and experienced gardeners in their areas for more specific dates. When to use floating row covers is mentioned in the crop descriptions. They are used for protection from both insects and frost.
With so many varieties of each crop offered in seed catalogs, the suggestions in the book for varieties for this hot, humid region are helpful. Last year I welcomed Ira’s help to review varieties of staple crops that I listed on a regional chart for my Mother Earth News article Best Staple Crops for Building Food Self-Sufficiency. Of course, there are seed saving tips in this book. Seed saving is an important skill for gardeners to learn.
If there is a gardener on your Christmas list, Ira’s book might be just the gift you need. The scheduled release date for Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast is December 11, however it is already available in Southern Exposure’s online catalog here. If you want to buy it directly from Ira, this is the place to do it, unless you find her at an event somewhere. She does get around. If you live somewhere outside the southeast, keep your eyes open for Timber Press guides for the other regions. The guide for the Pacific Northwest is already out and the ones for the Mountain States and the Northeast are due out in January. All are written by people knowledgeable about their region and all have the same format as Ira’s, with sections for Get Started, Month-to-Month, and Edibles A to Z. Embrace your regional climate with information just for you.