Going Green With Leftovers

By Dan R. Miller, DVM

Freelance Writer

Our family has always planted a big garden in the spring (200 tomatoes, 150 peppers, etc.), but we’ve never been ones to do much gardening in the fall. This year, Texas Gardener convinced us to try again. We, like a lot of Americans, are on a tight budget now and are learning to “love” leftovers (with six kids, you don’t have much choice). My experience as a large animal veterinarian hardly qualifies me as an expert on horticulture, but I wanted to submit a few ideas about leftovers for this fall. Here goes.

When you mention leftovers to any gardener worth his salt, the first thought that comes to mind is the compost pile. I wanted to use some of the things bound for the compost pile one more time while they were still standing in the garden. The first “leftover” I’d like to address is dead plant material (future compost). My trouble with fall gardening in Texas has almost always been shade-related. Not enough of it to protect tender seedlings, and not enough willpower to build new structures upon which to hang shade cloth. This year I decided to put my cattle panel trellises (and the dead plant material they contained) to work as shade providers. These trellises are left standing all year and I till around them as needed. (As a side note, I was pretty sure that I had invented this type trellis until I saw it in Texas Gardener). Instead of completely cleaning the trellises in August or September, I left the spent vines (leftovers from the pole beans this spring) on the top third and only cleared the sides. This provided a nice dappled shade for my cucumber starts. I also left my staked tomato vines, long-since dead, standing in every other row to shade this fall’s crop of bush beans. In October, when the heat’s not so brutal, I’ll pull up the rest of the tomato vines and plant broccoli or collards in the remaining spaces.

As shade is also an issue in the spring and early summer here, I routinely plant giant sunflowers on the western border of one of the gardens. The birds love the seeds in the fall, but the plants were not readily visible from the house, so I harvested the leftover dry stalks and moved them to another location in the yard. I bundled them in sheaves with used baling wire and attached them to a post driven in the ground. It’s not the prettiest bird feeder in the world, but, like I said, the birds love it.

Our second course of leftovers involves plowing/tilling. Once again, my lack of willpower in the Texas heat led me to use some of my leftover rows that were fairly clean to plant no-till peas. One of our neighbors gave me some “crowder” peas that had been in her freezer for 12 years, so when I pulled up a row of summer squash in July, rather than tilling the row and making new furrows, I just planted the peas in the space left by the squash. Very little row preparation was necessary — pull back the compost and scratch out a furrow for the seeds — and nearly every one came up.

Third on our list of leftovers: potatoes and okra. This is my first year to try pruning back my okra and I have been pleased with the results. I have always gathered okra with hand pruners and I routinely remove most of the leaves on one side (north or east) of the plants to facilitate harvesting. I also find it helpful to separate the okra by size as it is picked (frying vs. boiling). This year as the plants began to “play out” (I told you I wasn’t a horticulturist), I cut them off about a foot above the ground. A few of the plants died back completely, but most sent off 2-3 new shoots and continued to bear nicely (while the plants planted for fall haven’t even begun blooming).

My leftover potatoes were small ones from this spring’s crop that were starting to sprout in the kitchen. I checked my fall planting guide and got them in the ground during the first week of September. This was also done in no-till fashion, using a grubbing hoe to create a 10”-deep trench, dropping in the whole sprouted potatoes and covering them with about a foot of compost.

Finally, I’m still not convinced that I’ll ever learn to love leftovers. But maybe, with the help of a few “leftovers” from my efforts in the spring, I’ll become a more enthusiastic fall gardener.

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