Southern Agrarianism and the culture of the Old South

What’s In The Garden Now? June 1, 2016

Eggplant in the foreground and tomatoes in the background.

Eggplant in the foreground and tomatoes in the background.

I’m always interested in hearing what others are growing in their gardens, so this post is about what is in my garden now. But first, a note about what my priorities are and how I choose what to grow:

  • Sustainability – Everything that I plant in my garden is open pollinated. Savings seeds is just as important to me as the vegetables that go on the table. Hybrids are not even considered when picking varieties.
  • Resilience – Rather than start with “What do I like?” and then try to make it grow here, my strategy is to ask “What will dependably grow here?” and then find ways to prepare it so that I enjoy it. (See the section on Squash below for any example).
  • Organic – I avoid the use of any chemical pesticides or herbicides. I’m not fanatical about it, but it’s been many years since I used any chemical pesticides on the garden. When needed, I use BT and Neem Oil, which are both organic pesticides that are safe to apply immediately before picking and eating.

Eggplant – This is a hot-weather favorite that keeps on producing through all but the very hottest summer days. In the past, I have always gone with Black Beauty, but this year I am growing the Florida High Bush variety. My hope is that, based on the description I read, the plants will be stronger and less likely to be blown over in a wind, yet still have the good taste and texture of the Black Beauty. This variety was developed in the 1940’s for commercial fields, and the objective was to keep the fruit up off the ground. So far, so good.

Tomato – What’s a garden without tomatoes? Several years ago, I did some fairly extensive testing for taste, quantity, and general quality. I grew several varieties and kept careful records. I counted the yield from each individual plant, and I wrote a number on the individual fruits and gave them to friends and relatives and asked them to rate them by various criteria. The overall winner was Homestead 24. That has become my standard tomato variety and I see no reason to change. There will be some other varieties that may taste slightly better or have other desirable qualities, but – all things considered – the Homestead 24 beats them all.

Bell Peppers – I’m trying a new variety this year: Chinese Giant. As the name implies, these are a very large fruited pepper. I have read that if thinned (something I haven’t tried yet), they can reach 5″ – 6″ in length and width. My previous variety was California Wonder; they were good, but I wanted to try something new.

Okra – Another great hot-weather producer. This year is a test of a strain of Clemson Spineless called “Heavy Hitter”. In the past, I always went with regular Clemson Spineless, but when I read about Heavy Hitter, I had to give it a try. Heavy Hitter has a different branching pattern which results in more branches – and thus more fruit – from each plant. It was developed by Mr. Ron Cook in Oklahoma. If it works as I think it will, I’ll be doing whatever I can to help promote this strain of okra. This was planted quite late since I wanted to put it in some new ground that had been lawn up until a few months ago.

Squash – I suppose this one doesn’t really belong here since I turned the entire crop under two days ago. In previous years, I decided “No more squash” because they were always ruined by worms boring holes and ruining the fruit. Stubbornly, I wanted to give it one more try. The first few were great, but then the worms came (I avoid the use of pesticides wherever possible). Not wanting to feed the worms, I used my BCS tractor with the roto-tiller attachment to turn that part of the garden into dirt. Next year, I’ll go back to planting Seminole Pumpkin and use it as a squash.

Cotton – I like planting cotton every once in a while just to have it. This year, I planted Red Foliated White Cotton that I got from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. The stem parts of the plants are red – an interesting color in the garden – and it produces a short staple white cotton. What do I do with it? Not much. It is just interesting to grow, and there are plenty of folks who have never seen cotton growing.

So – what do you have in your garden now?

Cotton blossom, Red Foliated White Cotton.

Cotton blossom, Red Foliated White Cotton.


  1. Darlene

    Being in the extreme south (south Florida), most of my spring garden is done. However, since I am hooked on growing SOMETHING, I have Chinese long beans, sunflowers, and Seminole Pumpkins in my raised beds right now. In the permaculture area, I have bananas, payapas, and grapes. I tend to take it easy around here in the summer, covering most of my beds with plastic and 6 inches of mulch until October!

    • Stephen Clay McGehee

      I lived in south Florida (Miami Springs and Kendall) until I graduated High School in 1971. I remember growing okra in the garden, and it always did well as I recall. How do you use your Seminole Pumpkins? In the past, I’ve grown them just to see how long they would last on a shelf without spoiling (a long time!), but never really used them. My cousin has used them in soups and stews, but I’m always looking for new ways to prepare it. Any suggestions?

  2. Judy

    Here in southern Oklahoma we’ve got several rows of okra, maybe 20 tomato plants, a few dibs and dabs of cucumbers, radishes and melons, a couple of Tabasco peppers for homemade Tabasco sauce and one of the red foliated cotton. Potatoes seem to be ready and we pulled all the garlic about a week ago. Haven’t had much luck with eggplant. Flea beetles always make a mess of it. No squash this year. We hope to slow the squash bug cycle. We’ve had probably our best production from the Seminole pumpkin and an unnamed “Indian pumpkin” that is probably an Oklahoma adapted version of the Seminole.

    We’re “Big Turtle Creek” on Facebook for now.

    • Stephen Clay McGehee

      Thanks for stopping by, Judy. I’ve seen Big Turtle Creek on FB, but hadn’t really taken the time to go there and look at it. Very nice!

      The Seminole Pumpkins are small, but they will store on a shelf for a long time. I have gotten almost a full year from them (I write the date picked on them before putting them on a shelf). Next Spring, I’ll be planting them again and my wife, Laura, will be trying out different ways of preparing it for supper. My plan is to use them in sort of a Three Sisters garden with dent corn, Kentucky Wonder pole beans, and Seminole Pumpkin. I’ve grown sweet corn before, but I want to experiment with growing field corn to store, grind, and use for duck feed.

  3. Carol

    Here in western NC we’ve got all kinds of tomatoes – about 7 varieties, cukes – homemade pickle, corn – bantam sweet carrots – tender sweet, watermelons and white potatoes from last year. Starts of eggplant, peppers still to plant. Herbs, calendula flowers and always adding more grapes, raspberries and blueberries from starts. Got three Fig trees and seven Apple of all different old time varieties. Do miss that Homestead FL weather and tropical produce though.

    • Stephen Clay McGehee

      Carol, you’ve got quite a variety there. Are the eggplant and pepper starts some that you bought or did you start them yourself in trays?

  4. Jane Vaughn

    I am new to this blog and new to gardening–as in, I haven’t started one yet. Since I live in the same area as you, Stephen, my ears and eyes and mind are on full alert as I take in all of your information and tips. I was oh-so-sure that I could never have a garden here in Central Florida in the summer. You and your photos are proving me oh-so-wrong. And that’s a good thing. I am now open to perhaps experimenting a bit. I will have to tend to the garden in the early morning hours, though. The heat here gets to me. Maybe I am the one who doesn’t do well in the summer, NOT the plants. Ha.

    I love everything you planted in your garden. Yum. And the cotton blossom is absolutely beautiful. It looks like a rose bud! Lovely.

    What I have in my garden now (which is really just pots) is herbs. Basil, oregano, rosemary and spearmint. I use them all.

    • Stephen Clay McGehee

      Jane, I was just reading your reply on NextDoor when this came through.

      We’re looking forward to the cooler months, too. The summer heat and humidity just drains the life out of me, so outside work is just what I can get done in short blocks of time. We’re looking forward to a visit sometime after it cools off.

      You mentioned spearmint – have you also tried Chocolate Mint? That’s my favorite, and there are a LOT of different types of mint. We’ve had apple mint, pineapple mint, Moroccan mint, and a bunch of others that I can’t recall at the moment, but chocolate mint is our favorite. The annual Master Gardener Plant Sale that is held at the county Ag Center is a great place to find plants you never knew existed or that you’ve heard of but never seen. That’s where I got my collection of mint.

  5. Judy LeRoux

    We grow catnip around the garden beds and the flea beetles go elsewhere .
    We also grow in large raised beds and in the ground.
    Recently I cannot believe it took so long we started using a broad fork, wow what a difference 100 feet totally weeded and turned in 2.5 hours.
    This is a stupendous growing year everything seems to be happy.

  6. Brett Stevens

    Okra is a wonderful crop, pretty too. Your garden looks wonderful.

    • Stephen Clay McGehee

      Thank you, sir. Okra is one of those things that can either be something close to disgusting to eat, or so delicious that it’s like eating potato chips – you can’t stop at just one. It all depends on how it’s prepared. I was talking with a cousin about this new strain of okra yesterday at our family reunion (which will be the topic of my next post).

      For any who might not recognize the name, Brett Stevens is the publisher of – a part of my regular reading list. Highly recommended!

  7. John

    “my strategy is to ask “What will dependably grow here?”

    Now this is a good thought. One that’s never crossed my mind. Currently, I’m only growing peppers. A Cajun Bell, which I’ve found to grow excellent in my neck of the woods. A Habanero, which I’ve learned that as hot as it may be, requires a bit of care and lots of water. Dragon Chili peppers, which seems to be as well as the Cajun Bells. A Hot Banana pepper which I’ve never grown before and seems to be require a good bit of care and might be a late producer. Lastly, a regular Bell pepper which seems to be doing well.

    In my browsing, I’ve found an interesting thing, while I wouldn’t grow these in a container throughout their lives, I would think it would be best to start them off in a pot and maybe transition them to the ground once they’ve reached a length of 2-3″. In my opinion, a worthy buy that could have a ton of potential.

    • Stephen Clay McGehee

      I’ve gone through plenty of different varieties to see how they do here, and I’ve settled on just a few. I would rather work with plants that are well adapted to this area than try to fight and force them to grow here.

      When it comes to experimenting with different varieties, I have a real advantage – we have turned over a section of our garden to a young couple from our church who live in a small apartment. They want to learn to garden, but don’t have any place to do it. They like trying different things that I don’t ordinarily grow, so they do the experimenting for me. They have both spent time in Asia as missionaries, so they have accumulated a taste for things I wouldn’t ordinarily eat – that’s what is often in their section of the garden. More to my taste, they planted an interesting variety of watermelon this year, and it seems to be doing very well. Since my objective is basic food production rather than a “treat” like watermelon, I’m not planning to devote the kind of growing space that watermelon requires, but it’s good to know it does well here.

      My brother enjoys hot spicy food, so he’s the expert on hot peppers in our family. I stick with the sweet or bell pepper. I like the Chinese Giant variety that we’re growing now, but it doesn’t seem to produce as much as the California Wonder that I’ve previously been growing. On the other hand, it is a sturdier plant and doesn’t fall over under its own weight like the California Wonder does. I’ll have to see how it goes through the rest of the year.

  8. Arthur Ownby

    Mr. McGehee, I’ve enjoyed your website for a long time now, it is consistently excellent. Thank you for it.
    I started my first garden in upstate SC this year. Growing carrots (already harvested), tomatoes, cucumbers, okra, green beans, corn, and potatoes in small space, maybe 40×40′. Only thing that didn’t come up was tommy toes – we tried to start them directly in the garden, bad idea. Otherwise everything is growing great – a little too good. Because of limited space we shortened the recommended space between rows and plants, now it is getting to where we can barely walk down the rows, or weed between the plants. Also we overplanted tomatoes, underplanted corn and potatoes – maybe later we can make some trades at the local farmer’s market.
    Using no chemicals or mechanical implements – just a plain old hoe and spade. Feels good giving our newborn only fresh and organic food straight from the garden, in addition to breast milk. All in all, my wife and I enjoy it greatly. Safe to say that we will be lifelong gardeners.

    • Stephen Clay McGehee

      Pleased to make your acquaintance, sir! A quick glance at your blog shows that we frequent many of the same places on the web – I’m looking forward to spending more time there.

      I had to chuckle at some of your comments – “Yup, been there, done that.” I still make so many mistakes, yet I usually learn from them, so it’s a good thing. I’ve planted way too closely, but fortunately I haven’t done that in a while. Right now, I’m planting most at 18″ between plants and 4′ between rows. As I build the soil back up, I’ll experiment with closer plantings, but for now, my focus is on building up the soil. I consider my garden area to be my family’s emergency food source, so keeping it in good fertile condition for the future is more important to me than what I can get out of it now.

      Planting tomatoes too close is a mistake that everyone makes. It ends up spreading disease because there isn’t enough air circulation to dry the leaves sufficiently. In addition, it seems to give insects too many places to hide. This year’s tomato disaster for me was planting too late, so I ended up turning them all under with lots of green tomatoes, but none of them ripening.

      Congratulations to you and your wife on your newborn! It sure sounds like you’re starting the baby out right. The youngest grandchildren we have are six weeks old and two weeks old. Keep in touch!

  9. wayne

    I believe Heavy Hitter okra was developed from Clemson Spineless.

    Stewart Zeebest and Burmese okra for me. The slender, smooth okra types taste better and stay tender longer, in my experience.

    • Stephen Clay McGehee

      I haven’t tried either of those. I started with Clemson Spineless and just stuck with it. I’ll have to look into other varieties, at least to experiment with. You’re right – Heavy Hitter was developed from Clemson Spineless.

  10. Wayne

    How did your Heavy Hitter okra do? Did it produce more than the standard Clemson Spineless?

    • Stephen Clay McGehee

      The Heavy Hitter okra produced well, but my experience wasn’t all that impressive. The branching effect that gives it that ability was seen in only a fairly small percentage of the plants. With that said, I am thrilled that Ron Cook is working on this project. It may be a few more generations before it really pays off, but that’s what it takes. A few more things that might influence the growth pattern:
      1) Climate – Ron is growing it in Oklahoma, and we’re down here in north central Florida.
      2) Soil – Even though the area I planted it should have been uniform soil, the rows showed very clear differences – one side of the plot was significantly bigger and more productive than the other side.
      3) Genetics – It may take several generations of careful pollination control to isolate the genes that produce the branching pattern.

      My guess is that it’s a combination of things, but I would guess more heavily on genetics. The HH Okra is probably still a work in process. I hope we will all support Ron’s efforts at this – he is providing a real service to the agrarian community.

      I have saved a good number of seeds from this crop, and I’ll be trying to do what I can to refine the gene pool over the next few years. If it looks successful, then I’ll send some seeds to Ron Cook for him to try if he wants. Possibly having them branch apart and then combine back together again will help. One thing I’m going to do is plant as much as space allows, and then pull up any plants that do not exhibit the low-level branching.

  11. Ron Cook


    This is Ron Cook. Are you still growing any of the Heavy Hitter Okra? The reason I’m asking is that my garden got wiped out by flooding twice, once in May, 2017 then again in June. I lost all 220 of my caged tomatoes, my 50′ foot hoop house, plus my entire okra crop and everything else I had planted, as a result of 8 days of standing water. After the flood waters receded, I retrieved tomato cages as far as a quarter of a mile away in my neighbor’s hay field. Many of them were wrapped around trees so hard they were not salvageable. To make a long story even longer, the only H.H. seeds I have left, are some I put up in the freezer back in 2015 in case of an emergency. Do you have any seeds saved from your H.H. plants? If so, please contact me by email:
    Thank you for your diligence in carrying on the craft of kitchen gardening; a fine Southern tradition. That’s a big part of what makes this Country so great. (By the way, have you visited George McLaughlin’s, Green Country Seed Savers website?) George is a neighbor of mine and has worked long and hard, serving the gardening community. It is his goal, through seed saving on a local level, to get Southern gardeners to work together to develop varieties that are truly acclimated to the South’s unique growing conditions, as we have found that most seed companies specialize in varieties that are grown North of the Mason Dixon Line and are not really intended to do well where the rest of us live.

    • Stephen Clay McGehee

      Ron – yes, and I have some planted in my garden now, as well as some seeds remaining from when I ordered from you. I’ll contact you by email and send you the seeds that I have left as well as seeds from this year’s crop.

  12. Chris S

    Ron & Stephen,
    I stumbled on the mention of Heavy Hitter okra in another post and had to search for this one to find out how the subsequent FL growth trial went. (First time reader) After reading of your coordination after the disastrous flood, I wanted to take a minute to marvel at what our collective technology and Stephen’s efforts and consideration have worked together to repair. A prime example of a product of our time achieving its purpose! Past and future meld as one! OK, anyway, I wish Ron the very best in revitalizing his impressive growing venture, and I thank Stephen for this service to growers in word and deed. If either of you ends the summer with a small handful of HH seeds you don’t need, I’d be happy to contribute (in my own small way) to the genetic experiment and seed bank here in coastal AL.

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