Going Native


| 8/29/2017 12:00:00 AM


Tags: native gardening, native plants, food diversity, low-maintenance crops, Sherry Smith, Barefoot and Dirty,

Heirloom vegetables are the hottest thing in gardening right now. Passed down from generation to generation, heirlooms have proven themselves in both production and quality in their native regions. With good reason, these old favorites are enjoying their time in the spotlight once again, and they are becoming widespread as more and more people want to know where their food is coming from. I grow as many heirlooms as possible in my own gardens every year and many are a favorite staple in our garden. Every year, we grow the big red ripper cowpeas in our summer garden, and every year, we can count on huge harvests from these heat and drought-loving plants. They clamber over everything producing thousands of long pods full of dark red peas, oblivious to pests, weeds, heat or drought. They are a fail-proof crop for us.

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Big Red Ripper Cowpeas

As the trend continues toward revisiting the “old ways” in gardening and agriculture, I’m often excited at the various projects I see taking place across the world in terms of providing communities with good healthy food created by Mother Nature as opposed to a group of scientists. One area that I think needs to be revisited, however, is native food. Yes, people forage for mushrooms and wild berries, but what I’m talking about is the act of consciously cultivating those plants that are native to the area that our ancestors enjoyed. Studies have already shown that the diversity of foods has decreased at an alarming rate with the introduction of monocrop agriculture. No, we can’t control the crops that farmers choose to grow, but we can control the crops we choose to grow ourselves.

Many people who come into my garden shop lament failed crops, poor harvests, pest problems, disease problems, weather issues, the list goes on. I always give them the best advice I can, suggest modifications to their growing practices where warranted, and commiserate with them. I mean, as gardeners, we’ve ALL had failed crops. Some years are just better than others. When embarking on this fulfilling, and often frustrating, hobby, we embrace the idea that failure is not only an option, but is, in fact, a strong possibility. I mean, every single mortgage lifter tomato we planted this year was struck with blight. We didn’t get a single tomato. Our tomatillos, however, exploded and we got thousands of those. Okay, so instead of tomato sauce, we made salsa verde. This winter, we’ll eat more enchiladas and less pasta. It’s all good. The point is, in gardening, we are trying to tame Mother Nature and she doesn’t always cooperate.  There is a way around that, though.

Native plants are plants that have evolved in a particular area, naturalizing, adapting to every aspect of that climate. These are tough plants that are fail-proof. I live on the Texas Gulf Coast where the gumbo we have for soil consists of hard clay and rocks. We enjoy floods all spring and drought all summer. Our humidity levels soar as high as our temperatures. We have nothing but super weeds because we experience no freezing temperatures to kill them off, and the only things more unpleasant than the fire ants are the mosquitoes. Many garden plants refuse to grow here without a lot of pampering and hard work. I’m more than willing to put forth that effort, but it is also nice to grow some natives just because they’re easy. Loquats and dewberries have naturalized here and require no maintenance. They faithfully produce fruit every year and keep us stocked with jellies, jams, preserves and pies. Best of all, once established, these natives require nothing from us – no extra watering, no soil amendments, no pruning. They just happily grow and produce. We have both planted in our yard.




elderberry, echinacea, bee hive

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