In the Garden:
Lower South
December, 2006
Regional Report

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Vegetable gardens can beautify a landscape, such as this one that includes crops of broccoli, lettuce, chard, mustard, kale, and other cool-season greens.

Start Yourself a Garden of Eatin'

You all have green thumbs! Trust me on this one. We humans were originally put in a garden for a reason: We were made to garden! The difference between an alleged green or brown thumb usually boils down to an understanding of some horticultural basics and a commitment to learn and then put what you learn into practice. What begins as an inspiration to grow a garden of fresh vegetables can end up in a lifelong hobby and years of enjoyment.

One of the most affirming and enjoyable things about gardening is that each season is a new chance to learn, to experiment, and to gain expertise. There are few endeavors in life where you can fail so miserably and just start over with a clean slate. It's kind of like one of those Etch A Sketch toys. Don't like the picture you made? Just turn it over, shake it and you get to start creating again.

Gardeners are the world's premier optimists, as every new season is the start of the one best ever! If you are having fun, there is pleasure in every row and every new day. Even disease and pestilence become part of the unfolding drama of a new season in the garden.

Vegetable gardening season is almost upon us. If you have never tried to grow vegetables or have tried and felt it just didn't go well, take heart! Growing veggies is really not all that difficult. There are some basics that can help get you going in the right direction and which will go a long way to insuring a successful garden. Here are a few tips to help get this year's Garden of Eatin' off to the best start ever.

Prepare the Soil First
Soil is the foundation of a garden. Most of us start with something too sandy, too clayey, or too poor. And unless you've been working on it, your soil is probably low in organic matter, the life of good soil. Before one seed or transplant goes in, build up your soil with a few inches of compost and whatever nutrients may be lacking. A soil test is a good start to let you know where you are so you can know what you need to add, and how much.

Insure Good Drainage
A 92-years-young gardener I was privileged to know used to say, "You can always add water but you can't take it away." Build your beds anytime the soil is dry enough to work. Then when late-winter and spring rains arrive, you'll be prepared for planting. Raised beds also warm up faster in early spring for a little head-start on the season.

Provide Lots of Sunlight
Most vegetables prefer a full sun exposure. Crops that are grown for their fruit (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, melons) or roots (carrots, turnips, radishes) must have at least 6 hours of direct sunlight. Crops that are grown for leaves (lettuce, collards, spinach, chard) will tolerate a bit of shade. A spot beneath a deciduous tree may be too shady for the warm-season garden, but fine for cool-season veggies.

Choose Proven, Adapted Varieties
Select varieties that are proven and well adapted to your area. Talk to experienced gardeners and your County Extension office for suggestions of varieties that are proven in your area. In addition to the proven types, try a few new varieties to hedge your bet.

Plant at The Proper Time
There is a small window of time in spring between freezing weather and blazing hot weather here in the south. If you wait too long to set out tomato plants, your yields will be low at best. If you plant tender veggies too early with no protection, a late frost may spoil the show. I buy tomato transplants about three weeks early and pot a few of them up to keep on growing in a bright window. I'll plant a few others out in the garden and place a milk jug of water up against them and a clear plastic cover over them. This gets me a great jump on the short season, and it's insurance in case of a hard freeze.

Provide Adequate Nutrition
Healthy plants grow fast, produce well, and in many cases are less bothered by a few pests here and there. Begin with a dilute starter solution at planting. A few weeks after transplanting, sprinkle a light dose of fertilizer around the plants, scratch it into the soil surface, and water it in well. Legumes (beans and peas) produce their own nitrogen on the roots, and in moderately fertile soil should not need additional fertilizer. But they do need soil with good nutrient levels of all the other elements.


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