by Adeline Goodman // Photography by Jamison Mosley
As the warmth of a Southern summer thickens, the draw for juicy burgers and sweet corn on the grill only grows stronger. It’s a household fact that summer meals — salted watermelon, roasted tomato with balsamic glaze, grilled chicken with savory herbs, fruit salads and more — are just better fresh. For some, the preparation for a mid-summer dinner on the grill consists of a trip to the market to meander through the vegetable coolers and fruit bins. However, it can be easier than that.
The answer is simple: fruit and vegetable gardens.
The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture offers a Cooperative Extension Service (CES) that serves as the connector between agriculture, communities and families, offering extensive trustworthy research on vegetable gardening in Arkansas. In fact, the service has extension offices available in each of the state’s 75 counties.
Randy Forst, staff chair for the Pulaski County office, tells AY About You that when it comes to growing gardens — whether that be a structured kitchen garden, a humble vegetable garden or a fragrant herb rack — it’s best to start small and grow from there, both literally and figuratively.
“I tell all beginners to start with a 4-by-8 raised bed,” Forst says. “This is the perfect size to start, and it actually is still big enough to feed your family.”
He notes that all gardeners looking to grow their own food should make sure they cross off a few steps of preparation before planting the seeds. For example, Forst reveals that one of the most important resources to maintaining a healthy year-round garden is to invest in a frost cover — a simple tarp-like material that protects your garden throughout the winter months. With this, Forst says, you’ll be eating fresh 12 months a year.
An important tool offered through the CES is its free soil test, provided through county offices. What many don’t realize is the complexity of soil directly impacts the success of your plants. Soil is home to billions of microorganisms, such as bacteria, fungi, nematodes, insects and earthworms. Each microorganism has a job; for example, bacteria and fungi actually break down dead animal and plant tissue, which then becomes nutrients for plants. Therefore, Forst recommends those looking to start a garden this summer to send a sample of their air-dried soil to the county extension office. This will provide a better understanding of what kind of fertilizer your garden needs.
“Getting your soil tested will reveal various nutrients, macronutrients, pH levels — all things vital for a good garden,” Forst says. “And it’s a great and easy resource offered through the CES.”
In addition, the CES provides calendars of planting dates, mapping out when fruits and vegetables will be most successful according to Arkansas’ seasons. These calendars, organized by spring/summer or fall planting, are put out by the University of Arkansas in Pine Bluff.
While some staples, such as asparagus, potatoes, onions and watermelon have earlier plant dates, summer plant dates produce groves of early fall delights. If planted in July, vegetables such as southern peas, summer squash, Irish potatoes, tomatoes — which Forst says are “in virtually every garden,” as they love Arkansas’ hot summers — and sweet corn can be expected to be ready for the dinner table within two to three months. In preparation for planting in August, gather seeds for carrots, broccoli, lima beans, cucumbers and spinach. You’ll have picked cucumbers and grilled veggies by mid-October.
As for fruit, a lot of the beloved sweet harvests are grown on trees, which may seem daunting at first. However, options like the common fig tree have proven to be successful in Arkansas soil. The two most common types of figs found in the Natural State are Celeste and Brown Turkey, and they can even be grown in containers, allowing them to reside indoors for the weekend.
Another summer garden option is the classic melon. The UA Division of Agriculture recommends planting around April 15 to May 1 in the southern half of the state and between May 10 and 15 in the north. While this time frame has passed this year, mark your calendars for next summer’s Crimson Sweet.
Imagine it now: Firing the grill, basking in the sweet night of a warm summer, ripe red tomatoes and chopped lettuce from your backyard on the table. Summer doesn’t get any fresher than that.