Texas Extension specialist teaches home gardening

A home-size garden might not be the traditional workplace for a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service plant pathologist, but Dr. Ron French is spending some extra time this year with his tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables.

French, who traditionally helps farmers analyze the diseases and pathogens in the commodity crops, is working with a variety of sizes and styles of gardens on the grounds of the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center, 6500 Amarillo Blvd. W., Amarillo.

French has scheduled four two-hour workshops on gardening and plant health. The two  morning workshops will start with registration at 8:30 a.m. and run from 9-11 a.m. on Aug. 8 and Aug. 15. The two evening workshops begin with registration at 5:30 p.m., with the program following from 6-8 p.m. on Aug. 7 and Aug. 14.

There will be a $20 fee per person at each workshop, and attendees will receive handouts on nutrition, crop diseases and crop production and receive some tomatoes from the garden to take home, French said.

“What we are trying to do here in this garden is to not only grow different vegetables, but to monitor diseases, pests, constraints such as sun scalding and fruit cracking, and other abnormalities and obstacles to growing vegetables here in the High Plains,” he said.

“My interest goes beyond just looking at diseases,” French said. “Some vegetables are highly nutritious in terms of vitamins, minerals, lycopene or calcium, so growing them in a small garden may be ideal for many homeowners who may not have a lot of space or income.

“Because vegetables can be very expensive, growing them at home, whether it is tomatoes, peppers or zucchinis, can actually save not only dozens but hundreds of dollars that can be used for other purposes at home.”

French has some small container gardens, raised-bed gardens on stilts and a sizeable tomato garden.

All are built with economy in mind, said Jamie Wheeler, an AgriLife Extension plant pathology assistant. In the raised-bed garden, almost all the ingredients are free. The wood chips came from the municipal wood chipping pile. Under that is a layer of cardboard, newspapers and compost, all of which are also free.

“We tilled the soil and weeded it and then applied these ingredients. Now there are almost no weeds in the garden; this layering effect helps control them,” Wheeler said. “Also, as time goes by, this type of garden will get better and better. It takes time for some organic material to break down, but this is what a lot of organic growers build.”

French said the wood chips serve as mulch, and at 3-5 inches thick, not only help with weed control, but will help conserve moisture. Additionally, he said they are using a drip irrigation system, stakes and string to hold the plants up, and have built mounded beds that are helpful in tomato production.

In the tomato garden, he said six varieties of tomatoes have been planted, including cherry, grape and Roma types, and several of the traditional round varieties ranging from the 2-3 ounce size all the way up to 7-8 ounces.

“We don’t want to try growing anything too big, because sometimes those are the hardest tomatoes to grow,” French said. “You can grow tomatoes in this region; just some are more difficult than others.”

Some of the tomatoes, depending on variety and type, will be first harvested in 50 days and some up to 80 days after planting, French said.

“We are offering these workshops to allow people to come by and see what we’ve done, and maybe sample some of our tomatoes and try tomato gardening next season, or even this season still,” he said.

French also has a solanaceous bed where all the plants are related to one another in the nightshade family of plants – tomatoes, egg plants, bell and chili peppers and potatoes.

“The important thing we are trying to show here is in order to have a good vegetable garden year after year, you need to have a crop rotation program to keep from building up any pathogens and the diseases they cause, which can cause problems in time as their numbers multiply,” he said.

“So you don’t want to follow tomatoes the next year with potatoes or peppers or anything from the same family of plants. Look at planting something totally different like beans, lettuce or zucchini. We can help you with those decisions.”

Another aspect of the gardening project is showing visitors how to grow vegetables such as jalapeno, bell and chili peppers, and yellow or zucchini squash in raised-bed gardens on stilts.

“This type of construction allows individuals with illnesses or age who cannot bend and have difficulty tending a traditional garden to still enjoy the gardening process, exercise and eat what they grew themselves,” he said.

Writer: Kay Ledbetter, 806-677-5608, skledbetter@ag.tamu.edu
Contact: Dr. Ron French, 806-677-5600, rdfrench@ag.tamu.edu

See the original release for videos.

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