BLACKSBURG — Floyd County garden writer Barbara Pleasant starts her talks with three good reasons for growing your own organic vegetables: They taste better, they dodge the pesticide load, and gardening gives the gardener a zest for life.
“Gardening makes me happy,” Pleasant said. “One thing I know for sure: we are meant to enjoy each day we spend on Earth, which happens quite naturally when you nurture a garden.”
The author of more than two dozen books on gardening and food preservation began her career working in child welfare in Alabama. The things she saw broke her heart again and again.
“Some days my garden seemed like the only sane place on Earth,” she said. “Gardening restored me.”
Pleasant began writing gardening articles and books 35 years ago and never looked back. Now considered one of North America’s leading writers on organic gardening by Mother Earth News, Pleasant has written for Organic Gardening, The Herb Companion and Southern Living’s “Gardening Guide Series” as well as other publishers. She’s been a contributing editor at Mother Earth News for the past 15 years and is a two-time winner of the Garden Writers Association’s silver award.
In her terraced garden near the Blue Ridge Parkway, she grows enough vegetables to provide her household with home-grown food every day of the year.
Pleasant shared her enthusiasm and a wealth of tips for home gardening with the New River Valley Master Gardeners recently in Blacksburg, drawing upon information in her most recent book, “Homegrown Pantry.” Her gardening year seems joyous, full of small celebrations — first garlic scape, first Swiss chard, first purple carrot, first Asian pear, etc.
In addition to vegetables, Pleasant urges gardeners — and everyone — to grow native plants attractive to beneficial insects. These include oregano, garlic chives, catnip, sedums and asters. Insect populations are declining dramatically in many parts of the world, recent studies show. Researchers say various factors, from monoculture farming to loss of habitat, are to blame for reducing the numbers of insects that are essential to agriculture.
Unlike many homeowners, Pleasant welcomes the appearance of ground-nesting bees and wasps. Without the squash bee to pollinate squash blossoms in early July, the plant won’t fruit, she says.
“If you’re growing cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, kale, broccoli and collards, yellow jackets are your friends,” Pleasant said. “They eat cabbage worms.”
Pleasant is especially fond of vegetables in that family, citing the odd-looking “upside down turnip,” kohlrabi, as the easiest to grow. Once you’ve tasted organic, fresh-out-of-the-garden vegetables you can’t settle for less, she says. Of course home-grown sweet corn and tomatoes have no rival, but even Master Gardeners were surprised to hear how Pleasant craved garden carrots when she left home for book tours.
“Would you believe that even home-grown cabbage tastes noticeably different and better than the hybrid store variety?” she asked.
Pleasant’s absolute favorite home-grown food is a sweet paprika pepper smoked on the grill. She’s also fond of sprinkling her salads with “raisins” made of dried beets and Asian pears. Dulce basil tea is the drink of choice in her household, and mint, apples and black raspberries figure prominently in homemade wine.
In Pleasant’s most recent book, “Homegrown Pantry,” she covers 28 vegetables, from tomatoes to rutabagas. She takes the mystery out of determining how much to plant and how to grow, harvest, store and preserve them. She explains fermentation, drying, canning, and even includes tips for storing vegetables, like sticking beets in sawdust.
When she talks about spring planting in the New River Valley, she doesn’t recommend being an early bird. Plants that require pollination should be timed to flower in tandem with their pollinators. Potatoes can be planted in early July or March or both. When she starts tomatoes, her seeds don’t even touch the soil of an indoor pot until March 15.
“Sure, you can set your tomatoes in the ground before May 10 — our last frost date in Floyd — and they may not be frosted. But the ground doesn’t warm up that soon,” she said. “Tomatoes like the warm soil of late May to really start growing. So don’t hurry.”
For direct seeded crops including carrots, beets and turnips, Pleasant likes to sprinkle the seeds into rows of purchased garden soil laid over newspapers. The newspaper will degrade over the summer and the seedlings will get a good start without having to compete with weeds and soil-borne diseases.
She’s got another tip for lazy or beginning gardeners: make an instant garden in a bag of topsoil.
“Just pick up a 40-pound bag of garden soil, slash drainage holes in the bottom, and lay the bag over the area you want for your garden. Then tear open the front of your bag and start planting. You can pull away the plastic at the end of the season,” Pleasant said.
For the ultimate in low-energy gardening, she recommends growing shiitake mushrooms in oak logs. Like a sourdough bread culture, a good strain of mushroom will keep going when given the right growing conditions.
“All it takes is one good work session drilling the holes and filling them with spores and you could have mushrooms for the next three or four years,” she said.
Despite her penchant for recommending easy-to-grow food, Pleasant is no slacker when it comes to her garden. While she gets lots of vitamins and minerals from her greens, she estimates she burns more calories on them than she ingests.
“With weeding them, watering them and going out to check on them just because I love to see them growing — well, I burn the calories in an enjoyable way,” she said.
To learn more about Pleasant or read her blogs, check out her website at www.barbarapleasant.com.