Maine’s vegetable gardeners have been uncommonly generous this year. Donations to the Plant-a-Row for the Hungry program are up for sure in Cumberland and Oxford counties and probably around the state — people are too busy in the gardens to get exact statistics.

Part of the reason for the boost is the phenomenal growing season, and part of it is that people see the need in a down economy. But there is more.

“I think a good reason for the abundance this year,” said Barbara Murphy, who coordinates the Plant-a-Row statewide, “is that the program has been around just long enough that people have heard about it in more than one place and the pieces are starting to fall together.”

Plant-a-Row, sponsored nationally by the Garden Writers Association and in Maine by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Service, has been around 15 years nationally and 10 years in Maine.

The program also has received good response from a press release sent out early in the season, and that resulted in about 30 private gardeners getting involved to make donations through the program.

Murphy, an extension educator who works in South Paris, said that Oxford County as of Sept. 10 had donated more than 5,000 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables to food pantries and soup kitchens as of last week, way ahead of earlier years.

Amy Sinclair, coordinator of the Yarmouth Community Garden, said that garden had produced 3,000 pounds as of Sept. 11 and still has a lot of heavy produce such as tomatoes, melons and squash to go. Last year’s total was 2,358 pounds.

The Yarmouth garden, on East Main Street between Estabrook’s and the transfer station, also serves as a collection point from 8 to 10 a.m. Tuesdays and Saturdays, while volunteers are doing their harvesting. So home gardeners who discover they have more tomatoes, green beans, summer squash or cucumbers than they can eat or put up can drop by.

“And it is not just stuff that we grow here,” Sinclair said. “People have been bringing in flowers, eggs, fruits and blueberries. It’s nice for us to expand our offerings.”

Murphy said the Oxford County Extension has refrigeration, so gardeners can donate produce any time the office is open. But for people who are not nearby, the extension has a website listing all of the larger food pantries across the state that take donations.

And the donations are definitely welcome.

On Sept. 7 I showed up too late to take in the 8-10 a.m. harvest at the Yarmouth garden, but Colleen Kenyon, Marjorie Stone and Joy Ahrens were still picking a few things, cleaning up and doing other garden chores around 11 a.m. They said the recipients just love having fresh, organic vegetables in the diet.

Stone said one of the highlights was when a homeowner had more blueberries on her bushes than she could use or pick, so some volunteers went out and came back with 36 quarts of berries. And with the farm-market price of blueberries $6 to $7 a quart this summer, that is a significant donation.

Sinclair said it is great that this year has been a good gardening year, with warm weather, no wash-outs and no late blight of tomatoes and potatoes. After all the promotion from Michele Obama, it helps to have a good year.

Murphy said the top donations of food in Oxford County have been cucumbers and summer squash — whether green or yellow.

“We did a little research,” Murphy said, “and cucumbers are the most appreciated food. We had cantaloupe and blueberries there, and by far the favorite one was cucumbers.”

A little growing tip for cucumbers that worked well in Yarmouth: The cucumbers there grew up a wire grid with holes about 1.5-inches square, probably 4 feet by 4 feet and set at about a 45-degree angle to the ground. It gave the cucumbers more light, better air circulation and saved space. Harvesting was easier because some of the fruit had fallen through the mesh, leaving the leaves on the opposite side. The production was superb.

Murphy swore that the next bit of information should be the headline, and it is good, but it is cooking rather than gardening. So I add it here.

“Get your apple crisp recipe out and substitute summer squash and zucchini,” she said. “You can’t tell the difference. Or just Google ‘zucchini crisp.’ ” She said that even the huge zucchini will work because they are going to be cooked soft.

 

Tom Atwell can be contacted at 791-6362 or at:

tatwell@pressherald.com