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3-course interview: Kathryn Fontenot, professor and gardener 

The author of The Louisiana Urban Gardener offers advice for beginners

click to enlarge kiki_fontenot_photo_by_collin_richie.jpg

PHOTO BY COLLIN RICHIE

Kathryn K. Fontenot, an assistant professor at LSU AgCenter's School of Plant, Environmental and Soil Sciences, is an avid gardener and works with farmers' markets and home, community and school gardeners. Her new book The Louisiana Urban Gardener (LSU Press) offers guidance to new and beginning home gardeners. Fontenot spoke with Gambit about what vegetables to plant now and mistakes to avoid.

What about Louisiana's climate makes it challenging for home gardeners?

Fontenot: Because we're semi- tropical, we can grow things year-round. We can always plant something, always harvest something in the garden. But with that, we never really get cold enough to kill off that insect population, and it never gets cold enough to kill any (plant) diseases so, there are challenges. We have really humid weather, and we obviously have a lot of rain — sometimes we get too much at one time and not enough at other times. All of that is really challenging for the Louisiana gardener.

What can people plant right now?

F: Now that we're in early October, you can plant all of your cabbage, broccoli, lettuces, kales, mustard greens, Swiss chard, collard greens, turnips, radishes, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower — anything that's leafy and green. What's really great about Louisiana is that we don't have to worry about covering things, as long as we don't get a freeze.

  Now is also the time for strawberries, which people don't usually think about this time of year, because you eat them in the spring. You'll see them on the roadsides right after Thanksgiving and then again in the beginning of the year. Those are truly Louisiana-grown strawberries. Our farmers are planting more mature plants than a home gardener would, but a home gardener could plant what we call "bare-root" plants, meaning there's no soil around the root. You put them in the ground, and as long as you keep them really well-watered, they'll start multiplying and you'll be eating strawberries in the spring. Strawberries are pretty tough to grow in the ground, so I always recommend to home growers to put them in a pot or a basket.

  Another great thing to plant right now is artichokes. They're planted now and then they have time to get really big over winter. Then in spring, they send out their shoots, and you've got great artichokes. Really, to get a big, healthy plant with about 10-15 artichokes, you've got to plant them early in fall.

What are some of the most common mistakes novice gardeners make?

F: Under fertilizing. If you're using organic or synthetic fertilizers, it doesn't matter — you just have to put something in the ground. I often see people drop plants and then they don't fertilize them, and (the plants) start looking yellow and weak. It's especially important if you're growing in a raised bed or a container. ... The other thing is fertilizing at the wrong time. You usually fertilize the garden before you plant anything — wait a week and then put your plants in. As the plants start to grow, you want to wait about three weeks and then fertilize, and then wait another three weeks and fertilize again.

  It's important to space your plants appropriately. Once a garden starts crowding in any kind of plants, no matter what kind of vegetable it is, you're setting yourself up for failure with insect populations that grow there — transporting from one plant to another. Weeds harbor insects. So if you grow everything wild and messy, you'll actually have worse insect problems. We talk about it holistically. The goal is: You don't want to apply pesticides if possible, just because it costs more money, (but) also, what's the point? You're probably growing your vegetables at home because you want to know how they were grown. I talk about this in the book, too: there are a lot of good gardening practices that will soften the blow if and when insects and disease set in.

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