Saturday, January 25, 2014

Vegetable Garden Basics

With the mercury hovering around 25 degrees, my thoughts turn to the warmer days ahead. I am refining my garden plan for 2014. If you have not made a plan yet, now is the time, before spring chores eat up most of your gardening time. Your plan need not be elaborate, but it should at least cover three things:

  1. What am I going to plant?
  2. Where am I going to put everything?
  3. What is the best strategy for succession planting? 
Food garden at UT Gardens
Here are some tips for answering these questions. One of the best ways to determine what to plant is to ask the other people in the family. You may think growing salsify would be fun, but your kids may want tomatoes or strawberries. Make a list and let everyone vote. If you are a novice at food gardening, limit yourself to three or four crops until you get the hang of growing those, then branch out. My top four choices are beans, lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers. If I could grow only four vegetables, I would grow these, lettuce in spring and fall, and the others as summer crops.

Choosing a site for your vegetable garden can be the most critical decision you make, in terms of success or failure. Of primary importance is sunshine. Veggies need at least six hours of sun a day, and the more sun, the better. Don't locate your food garden in a low-lying spot where water stands for more than a few hours after a heavy rain. No vegetable likes wet feet, although they all need about an inch of water a week. Speaking of which, be sure you can reach your vegetable garden with a hose, or you will be toting water in buckets during high summer. Your soil should be well-drained, moisture retentive and organically rich. Work in composted organic matter in late winter, as soon as you can work the soil. For a small plot, you can buy compost, peat, or pine bark fines to work into the bed. I suggest adding 3 two-cubic-foot bags of this material per 100 square feet of growing bed, unless your soil is already in great shape. Add more each year, and in five years time you will have the best veggie beds on the block. Good soil is the key to great veggies.

Late winter is also a good time to incorporate organic fertilizers into your garden soil. Doing so gives the weather and beneficial bacteria a chance to decompose these materials into a form your plants can use. I add a cup of cottonseed meal per 10 square feet of growing space, along with a similar amount of bone meal and two tablespoons of pelletized dolomitic limestone. (I leave out the lime if I am growing potatoes.) These amendments are best added around the first of February, if you intend to begin planting in March. That allows a month for breakdown to begin. If you determine that plants need more nitrogen later on in the season, I suggest using a balanced organic fertilizer mix available commercially, rather than more slow-release amendments. When plants are really growing the nutrients will not be released fast enough.

I should also say that, although I prefer organic fertilization wherever possible, I see nothing wrong with using a soluble fertilizer, such as Miracle Gro(TM) in order to salvage a crop of veggies. Doing so is less likely to cause harm than allowing the plants to get stressed and attract insect pests.

Regarding succession planting, this is the key to growing a lot of food in a small space. The most important point to remember is that here in the Tennessee Valley, we have three growing seasons. Two cool ones in spring and fall, and a warm to hot season in summer. Once you have your veggie list in hand, divide it into cool season and warm season crops. The most popular warm season crops are beans, corn, cucumbers, okra, peppers, tomatoes and squash. Greens of all types are the easiest cool season crops, including arugula, lettuce, mustards and spinach. The cabbage family also needs cool temperatures, as do green onions and leeks. Plan on growing cool season crops from March 1 to June 1, warm season crops from June 1 to September 1, and cool season crops again around Labor Day. for the ones to be grown from transplants, either plan on purchasing them from a garden center (recommended for beginners) or start seeds about four to six weeks before you will need plants.

When your early crops of greens and scallions are done, remove plant debris and move in the summer crops. When these are up and growing well, fertilize. Start moving in the fall plants as the summer veggies start looking exhausted. Feed the fall crop when all the summer crops are gone and the fall plants are established. 

By following these simple guidelines, you should be able to grow enough food to eat, and perhaps have some extra to can or freeze this summer. 

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