Gardens can be popular activity to whip inflation

by Sean Dunlap

Backyard gardening has the potential to become more than just a hobby for many Franklin Countians as the cost of food continues to rise in conjunction with national economic fears tied to inflation.

Mississippi State University Extension Service Agent Keith Whitehead said individuals gardening actually ramped up during the coronavirus pandemic and has shown little signs of slowing.

“There should be plenty of plants and seeds out there in getting ready for spring,” Whitehead said.

“I have not heard anything specific in regards to supply chain issues, and the cost of bulk nitrogen fertilizers has gone down — getting a little more reasonable than the highs we saw. When bulk prices fall, it takes a little while for the bag prices to follow and we’re starting to see that.”

Whitehead said gardening — like most aspects of everyday life — has been drastically impacted by international markets and situations.

“We produce nitrogen and phosphorous in the United States, but almost no potash, so that is imported,” he continued.

“The lion’s share of that came from Canada and the second largest supplier for us was Russia, which mined it in Ukraine.”

Whitehead said potash is the common name given to minerals that contain potassium, which is a basic nutrient for plants and an important component of most fertilizers.

“The Russia-Ukraine War impacted about one-fourth of our potash imports putting an extra load on Canada to meet our needs,” he went on to say.

“It became a simple supply-and-demand issue because when demand goes up, supply goes down and costs rise. That’s why there was such a steep rise in the cost of fertilizer.”
Whitehead said compounding this problem has also been transportation concerns — primarily getting supplies of raw materials from foreign lands into the United States for eventual use in gardens and on the farm.

Still, for those wanting to try their hand with the soil, now is the time for individuals to think about what they want to plant and learning the best ways to have a productive garden.

“Some of the things we plant around here later in the year tend to do better in the spring,” Whitehead said. “One example of that is carrots, which are ideally planted in February in this part of the country.

“The rule of thumb is that just about anything that you can plant in the fall can do well in the spring — so long as you get beyond freezing temperatures. Plantings can include things like broccoli, cauliflower, beets, Brussels sprouts and greens.

“Peppers, tomatoes and other plants that are sub-tropical in nature do well once we are past the frosts that we often see headed into spring.

“If you have the ability to cover those kinds of plants (to limit frost damage), I recommend starting a few, but for those who are going to have rows and covering is not an option then it’s probably best to wait awhile — say around April.”
For Franklin County gardeners, the most popular crop is tomatoes, according to Whitehead and that’s based on the number of calls he gets from residents.

“Everybody wants to grow the biggest tomatoes and wants to out-do their neighbors,” he said with a laugh. “They also want to have bragging rights of bringing in the first tomato.

“Also popular around here is squash along with peas and butterbeans as well as string beans and green beans.”

On the other hand, plants like onions, shallots and scallions tend to be less popular as they are a little bit intense due to having to plant at just the right time and seeds that are often very small.

“Also, onions are still one of the more relatively cheap items at the store and it can be easier to buy them than grow them,” Whitehead. “That comes down to a question of how much of an effort you want to put into it.”

He pointed out the same is true with potatoes and said there were a number of locals who plant them, but this is another example of a vegetable that can be bought about as cheaply as they can be grown.

No matter what each gardener wants to plant, Whitehead said something that should not be overlooked is soil sampling.

“I hear from people all the time asking what (fertilize) they need to put on their garden, but the only way to tell that is through a soil test,” he added.

“Getting a baseline soil test about every other year will give you the information you need in regards to caring for your soil so that it produces healthy crops.”

Sampling information can be obtained from the Extension Service office in Meadville and by bringing in a pint-sized box of soil along with a $10 fee.

“The gardener can ask for whatever recommendation he or she wants or for multiple recommendations for specific plantings,” he said.

“In the spring, a lot of samples from across Mississippi are going to the lab and could take anywhere from 10 to 14 days to come back.”
Another consideration for successful gardening and weed control is soil temperature, which Whitehead said is just beginning to move in the right direction for both considerations when it reaches at least 65 degrees.

“We encourage anyone with questions about their garden to call us,” Whitehead said. “The Extension Service has lots of resources and publications that can answer just about any question that might arise.”

In fact, he encouraged residents wanting to plant a spring garden to consider picking up a free copy of the full-color “Mississippi Vegetable Gardener’s Guide.”

This publication features details on container gardening, composting, transplanting, watering, vegetable pests and diseases as well as weed control.

Additionally, Whitehead said he is planning a series of at least three “Best Gardening Practices” meetings starting in late February and running through March.

On Thursday, Feb. 23, a program is planned on fruit trees — specifically peaches, plums, apples and pears — and will involve topics such as planting, fertility and spraying.

On Tuesday, March 7, a general spring gardening workshop will he held and a program for those wanting to raise backyard chickens — particularly caring for the birds and learning about predators — is being planned for Tuesday, March 21.

More information will be forthcoming on these meetings.

Those with questions related to spring gardening or Extension Service assistance can call 601-384-2349.