Master Gardener Loves Her Garden

By Carol Nelson VCE Southside Master Gardener Successful gardeners learn to read the weather in their region – and more importantly, get to know the soil that supports their plants. For Sandi Slocum, who moved to Halifax County a few years back with her husband, George, the adjustment to growing in red Virginia clay took time and patience.
:  This is a raised bed of delicious strawberries in the Slocum’s vegetable garden.

The Slocums rely on their garden for their mostly plant-based diet and so decided to put in eight raised beds to be able to control the planting mixture. “We built the beds in the front yard and filled them with mounds of compost, vermiculite, peat moss and steer manure. It’s a different sort of landscaping but the front has the best drainage and light and the deer mostly stay away, even without a fence,” Sandi remarks. “And since people notice the garden driving by, I’m motivated to keep it tidy!” She learned to be attuned to her environment growing up in Massachusetts, where she drew inspiration from her aunt and uncle’s two-acre farm. “We visited often and they taught me the value of hard work and how to graft apple trees. I really didn’t appreciate what they were doing until I was newly married and decided to grow all our own food.” Sandi coaxed vegetables and fruit out of the thin, stony northeastern soil and eventually sold her produce at local farm markets. “After all,” she says, “rocks have minerals.” The next stop in her gardening career found her in southern Oregon where “anything will grow” in the nutrient-rich silty loam. “This was definitely the easiest area to garden in, as long as you kept things watered – the fruits and berries were especially good. This region produces the cherries we buy in the supermarket.” When the Slocums retired, Sandi decided she needed advice on coping with Southside’s warmer winters that didn’t kill many pests and its unpredictable rains and frosts that could extend into May. She contacted Virginia Cooperative Extension and was accepted into the Master Gardener program in 2014. “It was good to trade notes with so many people and pick up on new ideas like straw bale gardening and raising worms.” Sandi spends the first three or four hours of every morning out in the garden. “It’s worth it to me to put in the time to stay on top of the weeds. You know ‘pretty costs money’ or extra work.” An hour is taken up with hand-sprinkling the rainwater captured in two 275-gallon cisterns and five rain barrels. All the usual veggies like squashes, cucumbers, spinach, tomatoes and edamame are flourishing, as are four beds of strawberries and the herb bed of lavender, basil, rosemary and dill. Sandi does plant the 20’ x 60’ ground plot, but adds, “Things are so much easier in the raised beds.” Patches of raspberries and blackberries round out the garden. Once the summer crops are finished, she’ll put in fall lettuces, broccoli, arugula and Brussels sprouts. “George does all the heavy lifting such as moving lumber and pounding stakes. I try to ‘work smarter’ by dragging anything heavy like bags of soil or tools on my toboggan made from a child’s plastic sled. After back surgery, I’m not supposed to bend, twist or lift so I also scoot around on a stool recycled from an old tractor seat. The straw bales are great for me since I don’t have to reach very far to plant or pick and the tomatoes don’t get fungus.” “I love starting plants from seeds and nurturing them along. I garden intensively which means I squeeze as many plants as possible into each bed; this helps protect them from bugs and shades out a lot of weeds. I even put three tomato plants in each straw bale. As an organic gardener, I don’t use chemicals so if I see a bug, I smush it. Believe it or not, my least favorite part of gardening is harvesting – it’s a double-edged sword! You have to bring everything inside and deal with the dirt and then you have to do something with it: eat it, can it or freeze it.” Sandi is careful to provide for the beneficial critters around her property. In the afternoons, she tends a patch of Joe Pye weed and swamp milkweed to attract butterflies. Around the property hummingbirds fight over feeders, tree swallows and bluebirds nest in boxes and martins make use of gourds that sway in the constant breeze. And of course, she will tuck her worm bin in for the winter with blankets and tarps. “I really enjoy passing on what I know about growing food. My neighbors are well supplied with extra zucchini, tomatoes and cucumbers. People are always stopping by and asking questions. There’s also a family down the block with small children who I have helped with their big plot. My advice to new gardeners is ‘start small and work your way up.’ It’s easy to get overwhelmed and plant too much but keep at it and keep learning. No matter where you are, a garden is a blessing in so many ways.” While we are all still practicing ‘social distancing’ due to COVID-19, and all Halifax County buildings are closed to the public, if you have gardening questions, you can best reach an Extension Master Gardener or Extension staff member by sending an email to If you can’t email, you can call and leave a message at the Extension Master Gardener Help Desk at 434-830-3383, giving us your name, telephone number, and nature of the call. The Help Desk phone is checked timely and someone will get back to you, although it may be from a different telephone number. Keep washing your hands, wear your mask and visit the local farmers market for fresh fruits and vegetables if you don’t have a garden of your own.