That twenty years away from the South was just enough time to really make me appreciate what the southern part of our country has to offer.
Perhaps one of the things which I enjoy the most about living where winter never really gets a strong foothold is gardening.
I grew up with a mother who could almost make flowers grow in concrete. I have thought a lot about the three plants that really make me feel southern, and I have come up with tomatoes, pansies, and hydrangea.
While others might come up with different choices, I suspect that tomatoes might make most of the lists. I think I knew what a tomato plant looked like before just about any other plant.
At our house at the intersection of Shallowford Road and Styers Street in Lewisville, NC, mother had tomato plants growing at two of the corners of the house. The bounty that they produced always made summer special.
Even when I lived in Canada, the tomatoes which came in during late August were a little touch of the South.
While I have been growing tomatoes for years, this year I decided to grow my own tomato plants from seed. I got my seeds ordered late, but I still managed to plant the seeds on February 11. The first seedlings stuck their heads out of the soil on February 20. It was only a little over a month later when I put my tiny seedlings into the ground on March 23.
My seedlings were so small that I was able to cover them with a small plastic cup when we had a late frost that was somewhat uncharacteristic of the Crystal Coast. To keep the cups from blowing away, I had to buy a bag of rocks since rocks are not native to Carteret County.
Even with the late start, we got our first ripe tomato around June 10. I have gotten them very close to June 1 in previous years.
Tomatoes have been a bountiful crop this year. One day I picked nearly 100 tomatoes. We actually packed those up and carried them to our relatives in the Piedmont area of North Carolina just after the July 4th holiday. They were still waiting for their first tomatoes so our ripe tomatoes were a treat to hold them over for a week until their plants started seriously producing.
We've had tomato sandwiches of all types and a number of cooked tomato dishes. My wife has also frozen some tomatoes for next winter. It will be especially nice to have a taste of summer during the winter months.
Tomatoes are a great crop, just about anyone can grow them, and almost everyone who grows them ends up with more than they can use so tomatoes end being shared. What nicer gift could you give someone than a few juicy homegrown tomatoes?
There are years when tomatoes just won't seem to quit. One year I harvested my last ripe tomato on December 19. You can follow the progress of my tomato crop from the planting of seeds to the current pruning of our tomato monster in the Picasa web album, Tomatoes, Vegetables, and Plants of 2011.
If tomatoes are the vegetable of the South, perhaps pansies deserve to be the flower of the region.
I can still remember my mother in her late eighties reading at the breakfast room table in her home at 347 West Pine Street in Mount Airy, NC. It was her favorite spot in the morning sunshine because she could watch her winter pansies grow.
We have a special place that we plant our pansies each winter. My wife likes to see just how small a pansy plant she can use and still come up with stunning pansies. She out did herself this year.
The pansy plants were tiny when they went into the ground in November, but the pansies filled in the space by spring and were truly unbelievable. We enjoyed them through the winter snows and well into spring where they served as a cover crop for a few tiny tomato plants. We got almost six months of enjoyment out of my wife's pansies this year. That's pretty hard to beat for just a few dollars.
I think I might have uncovered the secret of my wife's fantastic pansies by leaving one tomato plant growing at the back of the pansy bed. That tomato plant is now over seven feet tall and still growing. We call it the tomato monster. I think someone has made the pansy soil very rich.
What I really love about pansies is their spirit. They never give up. You can cover them with snow, and all they need to recover is a little North Carolina sunshine. You can follow our pansies through the year in the album, Pansies 2010-11.
For my final southern garden treat, I just have to choose the hydrangea bush. There is nothing more beautiful that a good sized hydrangea blooming by a house. It adds so much color to a home while it is blooming. The flowers are often dried and used in decorations inside. Dried hydrangea blooms are a great decorating touch.
Once our children were grown, dried hydrangea blooms were some of their favorite things to take home from Grandma's house.
This year we finally found a spot for a hydrangea at our coastal home. We had given up growing them and pansies at our Roanoke, Va place because of the local deer population. Our near the beach hydrangea is tucked in between two of our palm trees. So far it seems to like the spot.
Perhaps next year I will have an album of hydrangea pictures. You can be certain that we will be planting pansies and tomatoes once again. It wouldn't be the South without them.