More turn to home gardening during pandemic

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Dana Gray of Grays’ Nursery and Garden Center summed up Northeast Texas’ vegetable providers in a word. “Overwhelmed,” she said. “The 30-40 providers in Northeast Texas that we purchase from are simply overwhelmed.” 

Certainly the wet March had a lot to do with the seedling shortage, but the skyrocketing demand created by the pandemic has outstripped supply. Across Wood County, families have started small vegetable gardens, in what is one of the few positive outcomes from the virus. 

Gray has seen many seasons of planting come and go, as the family started East Texas Feed in 1979. Some 20 years ago, they transitioned the business to a nursery and garden center.

“These have been some of our biggest days ever,” she explained. “I feel a bit guilty when the business prospers as so many people struggle,” she continued, “so I just keep searching out the best quality seedlings and plants we can find for them.”

A casual drive around the county, or even through Mineola neighborhoods, illustrates just how many neighbors have put in small gardens. Small is a key word in beginning a vegetable patch. 

As Mineola native DeeAnn Ferguson commented, “You don’t need a lot of space. You can use square-foot gardening or box gardening,” she added.

Ferguson has been advising clients at Gray’s for the past eight years. In addition to starting small, she often offers two other bits of wisdom to vegetable gardening enthusiasts: 1) it is all trial and error, and 2) all our soil is different. 

The trial and error wisdom is timeless. When confronted with so many options – what to plant, where and how much – the advice to try, observe and try again with small changes to the process is central to effective growing. 

The constitution of the local soil is a tricky issue. Wood County sits astride the transition between the coastal plain and the claypan soil regions. Acidic sandy-loam soil in the eastern part of the county transitions to a clay subsoil and sandy surface texture in the western reaches. 

At a more personal level, as Ferguson pointed out, “Your soil is going to be different than the soil of whomever you are talking to about soil.”   

Composting is the method used to fertilize soil so that it will be more productive. Compost is available for purchase or can be a collection of specific home and yard waste. For larger scale jobs, compost is available through two local firms: Texas Organic Soil of Tyler and Vital Earth of Big Sandy.

Tucked beside and around a tidy home just down Farm to Market Road 49 is the vegetable and herb garden of Mitchel Bowles. Bowles’ first comment about his long-standing garden was, “it’s a big ol’ learning process.”

Bowles attributes his passion for his garden to the childhood he enjoyed at Sand Springs. He marveled at the muscadines, plums and persimmons he found in the local woods. His father, Floyd (Chunky) Bowles had a huge influence on his life and passed on a green thumb.

“My Dad grew everything” stated Bowles.

The family bloodlines were indeed green. Nursery and flower shops were run by two aunts in Alba and Edom, while Grandma Nina Oxford ran a nursery in Birthright, just north of Sulphur Springs. 

Years of gardening trial and error have resulted in a productive addition to the dinner table for Bowles and his wife Becky. “We try to have something from the garden in all our meals,” he stated. 

He explained that it doesn’t take years of practice to grow produce. Bowles recommended starting with the easiest vegetables to grow first – squash, tomatoes – and build from there.  

Growing vegetables, flowers and even trees from seed might be considered an advanced course in gardening, but Bowles sees it as both a challenge and a connection to his past. His small holding includes a white peach tree and two rose bushes which are second generation within the Bowles family.

Bowles summarized his description of gardening by explaining that everything was in God’s hands. As gardeners, “we take something small and with our own hands nurture it into a mature food-producing plant; it just tastes better.”

Dana Gray echoed Bowles’ sentiments regarding families and gardens. As she framed it, “We learn from our elders and build great experiences for our children.” She added it is, for many reasons, simply a wise thing to do. 

While on the road driving between suppliers, Gray shared a story from her childhood. One year just after Easter all the grandchildren were directed to “grab your Easter baskets…we are going to the garden!”

In today’s times that is an outstanding idea.

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