The Times West Virginian

April 4, 2012

Rules of (green) thumb

By Debra Minor Wilson
Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT — Valinda Loy has several rules of thumb to go with her green thumb.

Rule No. 1: Love what you’re doing.

She remembers helping her dad, Jack Haught, tie up his tomato plants when she was just a little girl growing up in Meadowdale. That’s when she fell in love with gardening.

Now, she and her husband Bob grow just about any vegetable you can think of on their mini-farm high up on Grist Mill Road.

Bob handles the fruit trees and berries, Valinda takes care of the perennials, and they both work the veggies and herbs.

“Gardening is very therapeutic,” she said. “When the weather’s decent ... and it doesn’t have to be warm ... we have to be outside.

“I love the taste of good produce,” she said. “We can go out and pick our salad in the morning with the dew still on it. It’s the best God has to offer.

“Gardening keeps me in touch with what’s really important in life, the ebb and flow of things.”

Rule two: Grow natural.

“The foundation of gardening is good soil,” she said. “And composting is nature’s way (of laying that foundation). The layers break the soil down and the earthworms come up and do their business. That makes the soil light and the roots can get the nutrition and water they need.

“West Virginia’s soil is clay-based. If you don’t compost, you can’t free up the nutrients needed by the plants.”

They “borrow” manure from a neighbor’s cattle fields and add it to their gardens to feed the soil.

“You take nutrition out of the soil when you raise plants. By adding it back in, the soil never gets worn out.”

One manure-fed sunflower grew to be 12 feet tall, proving one vital fact.

“Cow crap grows good stuff.”

Rule three: Grow old.

She prefers raising heirloom vegetables, those raised from seeds handed down from generation to generation.

Hybrids — manufactured crossings between two plants — are perfectly pretty. They’re bred to be. Trouble is, sometimes taste gets tossed aside in the quest for perfection, she said.

“And you can’t save their seeds. You might get plants from one cross or the other.”

Heirlooms, on the other hand, may not always be the prettiest plant in the garden, but have a unique taste “that cannot be beat,” she said.

“And they come back true. I have some seeds passed down for generations, hundreds of years.”

She once grew a 2-pound Italian tree heirloom tomato.

Many of their flowers are grown from seeds and cuttings from friends. One neighbor, who has since passed away, had given her bags of day lilies, which still grow to this day.

“I still have her flowers to remember her by,” she said.

In the age-old debate of perennial versus annual, she has this opinion.

“It’s good to have a balance. Perennials are here for just a moment, but with annuals, you’ll always have something to enjoy in the garden.”

As most people in Marion County know, your garden always has unwanted admirers: deer. And living in their rural home, the Loys have devised ways to outsmart the beasts by fencing in vegetation and spraying religiously with deer repellant.

Their two large dogs, Rere and Nell, help keep the four-footed vandals out, too.

Rule four: Get — and stay — organized.

She keeps track of their produce production through three 2-inch binders filled with information and divided into sections like shrubs, grasses, day lilies and the like.

“In January, when I’m starting to go crazy, I get out a cup of tea and read through the binder to see what needs to be done to get the plants off,” she said.

A member of the Marion County Master Gardeners, she uses the organization’s calendar to see what she should be doing garden-wise day by day.

Rule five: Grow organic.

“It’s for our own health mainly,” she said. “But it’s to help the insects, too. The first year I did chemicals. Then I called the Extension Office about the use of some of those chemicals.

“‘Are you wearing a mask when you’re spraying?’ the agent asked me. ‘I worry more about you than your plants.’

“And that scared me. I realized I was making a mistake heading that way.”

So now their gardens are as organic and chemical-free as they can be. They use cayenne spray to fight bugs. They build covered tunnels of sorts to protect their lettuce. They mulch and use raised beds to avoid slugs.

Some gardening tips:

• Trim the foliage away on tomatoes.

“That way, when rain hits the soil, it doesn’t splash up on the tomatoes. That’s where one type of blight comes from.”

• Use black netting to keep deer out.

“It’s almost like it’s not there. The deer can’t see it but they can feel it.”

• Your flowers and vegetation will love a cocktail of what she calls “manure tea.”

“You get some manure, put it in a bucket and let it set. Then you give all the perennials a shot to get started. They love it.”

If she had to choose between growing vegetables or flowers, she’d choose flowers.

“I can always go to the farmers market. But I don’t think I could choose. I wouldn’t want to choose. I like them 50-50.

“I just wish I had 20 kids to help in the garden,” she said with a laugh.

Rule six: No matter what you grow in your garden, love what you’re doing.

“There’s never a dull moment in gardening,” she said.

Every Wednesday through June, Take 5 will be strolling through our readers’ lush gardens. To have yours featured, contact Debbie Wilson at 394-367-2549 or dwilson@timeswv.com.

Email Debra Minor Wilson at dwilson@timeswv.com.