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This year, families are looking for ways to save money and cut household expenses at the same time. One way to reduce rising food costs is vegetable gardening. Growing your own food and preserving just seems to make sense for many folks trying to spend less while eating healthy. That's the way Larry Ellis sees it.
Newcomers to gardening can learn all those tried and true secrets from local growers like Ellis.
His vegetable gardens, at 3924 Great Falls Highway, caught the attention of the Lancaster Council of Garden Clubs, who honored him with the Yard of the Month for July.
“He’s always out there working so you can tell he enjoys it,” said Janice Smith, who just stepped down after chairing the Yard of the Month committee for 2008-09. Smith said she passes by Ellis’ gardens regularly on her way to Columbia.
“All his plants are healthy and full of ripe vegetables ready to be picked,” she said.
Ellis has been gardening for years and the love of his hobby shows.
A retired roofer, Ellis isn’t satisfied with one garden; he has two of them to harvest.
After his freezer and pantry shelves are full, he said the excess goes to the farmer’s market or is given to lucky friends who stop by.
Ellis said this has been a banner year for gardens – the spring rains fell at just the right time to promote growth.
One source of all those healthy, ripe vegetables is rooted in what works best. Ellis said instead of starting most of his vegetable from seeds, he starts with plants in mid-April. That proved to be a decision that was especially agreeable to Mother Nature this year.
“I was picking watermelons about one month before anyone else because I planted them earlier in the year than most folks do,” Ellis said.
While he is an experienced farmer, this is Ellis’ first try at watermelons. He said he’s been very pleased with the results.
Ellis planted three varieties of watermelon; Congo, which is round with dark and light green stripes; Crimson, which is oblong with the same stripes, and Mountain Pride, which is dark green and round.
All of them have done well. Ellis said the Mountain Pride melons tend to be less sweet than the other two varieties he planted.
Speckled (colored) butter beans and Fordhook lima beans are great producers this year, too.
Ellis said both bean varieties are ideal for freezing or canning. They can then be combined with other vegetables for piping-hot homemade vegetable soup this winter.
No garden is complete without tomatoes.
Ellis prefers Beef Master tomatoes because of the flavor.
“The size is perfect for a tomato sandwich,” Ellis said.
He also grows 2 and Better Girl tomatoes.
Ellis said these two varieties are small and sweet, which makes them great ingredients for soups and sauces.
He also special ordered some California tomato plants that are supposed to grow to a height of about 15 feet. So far, these plants are about halfway there.
“I planted them in old whiskey barrels and keep them beside my shed,” he said. “If they ever reach the shed top, they will be about 15 feet tall.”
The only crop that’s not done as well as expected this year has been okra. Ellis attributes the slower-than-normal growth to this summer’s milder, cooler nights.
“Okra thrives in hot, humid weather,” he said.
But with August now just a day away, he hopes his okra gets a taste of the tropical weather it prefers.
Ellis will receive a $25 gift certificate complements of Ace Hardware and Garden Center of Lancaster for being named Yard of the Month for July.
To nominate a yard of the month, please contact Jackie Palmer at 283-4562.