February 10, 2014

Points East: Starting a garden in winter

By Ike Adams

LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — Every year, just before the winter holidays, for the past 12 or so, Loretta and I have been getting a big country ham from Jimmy Robinson at Robinson Premium Meats in East Bernstadt.

Cooking and baking a country ham is a three-day job, the way Loretta goes about it.  We used to hire Loretta’s now-retired coworker, Adella Stevenson there in Lancaster to do up our seasonal ham, but Loretta finally decided Adella had divulged all her secrets so she’s been doing it herself over the last decade or thereabouts. 

Don’t be asking me how she does it. I have neither the time,  space nor inclination here to write a book. I will say the process involves many, many hours of soaking in such things as vinegar and Dr. Pepper and several hours of boiling in a canner and then hours of skinning, trimming and deboning before it finally goes into the oven.

We eat on it for days and then stash bags of it in the freezer to season beans and mustard greens from now until next year.

 Last summer at the height of gardening season, I dried half a bushel of white half runners into shuckey beans.  I didn’t properly string them up with a needle and twine and hang them out to dry on a clothes line, the way we had to growing up. I simply broke them up and sun dried them on cheese cloth that I’d placed over an old window screen. 

I’m the only person in our household who loves them, because Loretta is afraid that a fly may have lit on them while they were drying.  Please don’t tell her that rabbits probably peed on her green beans before she picked them.

Anyway, shuckey beans are not fit to eat, in my humble opinion, unless they’ve been simmered for several hours and then cooked down with a big chunk of country ham.  Ditto for turnip and mustard greens.  I buy a lot of canned greens in the store.  I like to drain the water they are packed in into a microwave safe bowl, add a chunk or some ham trimmings to it and nuke it for about 5 minutes.  Then I pour the water and ham back over the greens in a kettle and bring it to a hard boil on the stove.

Shuckey beans and greens served with a pone of hot corn bread, a good sweet onion, and a tall glass of buttermilk is as good as eating gets in February as far as I’m concerned.    

Speaking of onions, I am proud to announce I started gardening in January again this year.  I found both Walla Walla and Texas Sweetie seed on the Internet and ordered them several weeks ago.  Neither keep very well for any length of time once they are mature, but you can eat them like apples and both do very well and grow to  very large sizes in our climate.  So called Vidalia Onions will also grow here, but they are not nearly as sweet as the aforementioned varieties because we have too much sulfur in our soil. 

The Georgia State Legislature passed a law called The Vidalia Act of 1986 declaring the name Vidalia could not be applied to any onion, commercially grown outside a 13-county area of Georgia that has a peculiar, low-sulfur, soil base.  The truth of the matter is Vidalia onions are actually a common and readily available variety of plants and seeds called Granex. You can get them any place that sells seed, sets or plants, but unless you are willing to go to considerable time and effort neutralizing your garden soil, they will not be very sweet in most locations.  And even if you do grow them, they won’t keep in storage.

Walla Wallas and Texas Sweeties taste to me like they’ve been grown in sugar and both grow three or four times larger here than Granex.  Trouble is, plants and sets are very hard to find unless you grow your own and that is oh so simple and easy to do.

I simply take an old plant tray/flat, fill it with good potting soil, sow the onion seeds on top of it and barely cover them with more soil or sand and keep them dampened/lightly-watered. I am fortunate to have a side room off our kitchen with lots of windows that I can use as a greenhouse when I catch Loretta with her back turned.

When the plants are about 5 inches tall, I shear them back to about three inches and put them in the garden.  Last year, the going price for onion plants was around $3 for a bunch of 50.  I can grow well over 500 for less than two bucks and then brag that I started gardening in January.