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Seasoned soil turners, greenhorn green thumbs battle bad economy by growing their own food

By Steve Huffman
shuffman@salisburypost.com
While the economy is wilting, business at Rufty’s Garden Center on West Innes Street remains brisk.
Still blooming, you might say.
“Business isn’t off,” said Charlie Smith, the store’s owner, “it has just shifted into another pattern.”
At Rufty’s, sales of vegetable plants and seeds have doubled from a year ago, Smith said, with many people taking up gardening as a means of fighting back against an economy that has witnessed better days.
“I’ve seen a lot of people this year who I’ve never seen in a garden shop before,” Smith said. “For me, it’s refreshing, even if it’s economically driven.”
He welcomes those customers and offers advice as needed. A vegetable planting guide has been a popular handout at Rufty’s this year.
Susan Waller isn’t one of those who ventured into a garden or a garden shop for the first time this year.
She and her husband, Tom, have been gardening at their house off Sells Road outside Salisbury for the better part of 35 years. They grow a little bit of everything ó from cucumbers to zucchini, from green peppers to watermelon.
“And lots of tomatoes,” Susan said. “Lots and lots of tomatoes.”
She said she and her husband have been gardening so long that they’re often stopped by novice gardeners seeking advice.
They’re happy to share their gardening tips, Susan said, and encourage anyone with a smidgen of interest to give raising vegetables a try.
“Everything just tastes better if you grow it yourself,” Susan said. “And you know where it comes from.”
Darrell Blackwelder, agricultural agent in charge of horticulture with the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service in Rowan County, said that before this past weekend’s showers, conditions weren’t ideal for vegetable gardens.
It was stifling hot in mid-June, Blackwelder noted, and before a couple of inches of rain fell this past weekend, the area was suffering with near-drought conditions.
Blackwelder said conditions were so bad that on a recent weekday, six gardeners brought him samples of their tomato plants that weren’t doing well. He got phone calls from another four or five growers asking what to do about their sickly tomatoes.
“Sometimes I can tell them what’s wrong,” Blackwelder said. “Sometimes it’s not that evident.”
He said one of the more common ailments brought on by novice gardeners is blossom-end rot that comes from over-watering. Too much water can be as bad as not enough, Blackwelder said.
But he said not everything that affects tomatoes and other vegetables is the result of a miscue by the grower.
Tomatoes are not a hot-weather plant, he said. They flourish much more when the daily high reaches 85 to 90 degrees than when the thermometer hits the upper-90s, as it did earlier this summer.
“Lots of people are growing for the first time,” Blackwelder said. “But with the heat and drought, it hasn’t been a good year for beginners.”
Still, Blackwelder said, most first-time growers don’t have a lot to lose, with the financial investment in raising a small garden being anything but extreme.
He laughed that some people have expressed concern about planting tomatoes because of the well-publicized association between the vegetable and a salmonella outbreak earlier this year.
Blackwelder said deciding against planting tomatoes because of that outbreak is borderline ridiculous.
“I just think they’re paranoid,” Blackwelder said.

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