Help your vegetable garden thrive

March 29, 2007

BY ROY COOK - VICTORIA COUNTY MASTER GARDENER

EDITED BY CHARLA BORCHERS LEON

March is here, the weather has warmed up and it is time to get serious about getting into the vegetable garden. I know that each one of us who did not have a fall vegetable garden has already cleaned up all the debris from last spring and summer, amended the soil and has made it ready for planting. If you are not ready, then let's get busy.

Cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, beets, potatoes, onion, turnips, spinach and other cool season crops should already have been planted. Other vegetables that can still be planted include beans, cucumbers, cantaloupe, eggplants, mustard, okra, peppers, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, squash, sweet corn, tomatoes and watermelons.

When planning your garden, it is important to ask a few basic questions. Who will be doing the work? Will you be having help or will you be handling the hoe by yourself? One thing to remember, a small weed-free garden will produce more than a large messy, overgrown weedy one. The larger traditional, raised bed and square foot gardens each requires its own care practices.

PHOTOS BY TOM LEROY, MONTGOMERY COUNTY EXTENSION AGENT
Traditional garden, top; raised-bed garden, above left; and the square-foot style garden, above right, all work well for vegetable gardening depending on the gardener's space, interests and production techniques.

 

 

What do you and your family like to eat? There is no value in taking up valuable garden space with vegetables that no one eats. How do you plan to use the produce from your garden? Do you plan to can, freeze, dry or store part of the produce or possibly give some away? Answering these questions will help you not only in planning the size of the garden but also in selecting the varieties to be grown. Some varieties produce better quality and more tasty veggies than others do. Choose varieties carefully, making sure they are adapted to the Victoria area and their intended use.

SUNNY SPOTS

When planting your garden, place tall and trellised crops on the north side so they won't shade shorter vegetables. Group plants by length of growing period. Plant early spring crops together, so that later crops can be planted in these areas. Consider the length of harvest as well as time to maturity.

The ideal garden site is close to the house, but out in the open where it receives at least eight hours of sunlight each day and is not shaded by trees or buildings. Choose a place that is near a water supply and has loose fertile soil. Try not to plant related vegetable crops in exactly the same location more often than once in three years. Rotation prevents the buildup of insects and disease. Use your old garden plans as guides for rotating crops.

Soil analysis

The ideal vegetable garden soil is deep, friable, well drained and rich in organic matter. Proper soil preparation provides the basis for good seed germination and subsequent growth of garden crops. Careful use of various amendments can improve garden soil.

Not enough can be said about soil testing. Check soil fertility and pH by having your soil analyzed at least once every three years. Soil pH measures the degree of acidity or alkalinity of the soil. Vegetables vary to some extent in their requirements, but most garden crops will do well with a soil pH of 5.5 to 7.0. A soil pH of 7.0 is considered neutral. Higher than 7.0 tends to be alkaline and lower than 7.0 is acidic. Soil sample "kits" are available at the County Extension office, with instructions on how to properly take the samples. The Extension Soil Testing Lab will mail the results to you with recommendations for correcting any deficiencies or other problems that may exist. It is better to spend a dollar on your soil before you spend a dollar on plants.

Timing really counts

You want most crops to mature before the very hot weather sets in. There are a few exceptions (okra, Southern peas, sweet potatoes and more) Most crops need to be planted as early as possible, but be prepared to protect them from a late March frost. It has happened before.

Most all seeds need a soil temperature of 60-70 degrees for proper germination. The County Extension office has bulletins for most vegetable crops in the "Easy Gardening" series. Another good, reliable source is the Victoria County Master Gardener Association handbook, which has a fact sheet with planting dates and related planting guidelines for various vegetables.

What veggies need

Adequate soil moisture is essential for good crop growth. A healthy plant is composed of 75 to 90 percent water. Water is used for plants' vital functions including photosynthesis, support and transportation of nutrients and sugars to various parts of the plant.

During growth, vegetable crops need about an inch of water per week from rain, irrigation or both.

The amount of fertilizer to apply to a garden depends on the natural fertility of the soil, the amount of organic matter present, the type of fertilizer used and the crops being grown. The best way to determine fertilizer needs is to have the soil tested.

Mulching can be an alternative to weeding. Thick layers of organic mulch will prevent most annuals from appearing and any that do are easy to pull. Mulch is defined as any material spread on the garden soil to protect root plants from heat, cold or drought and prevent weed seeds from sprouting. Adding compost to the soil is very beneficial - so use it.

While herbicides can be used on vegetables, the home garden is not the recommended place to use them as using mulch, chopping or pulling weeds is usually the best. The reason why? Normally we plant many different vegetables in the garden that would require many different herbicides - and you can't use the same herbicide on all vegetables. The use of weed killers normally recommended for lawns or other areas is also not advised nor approved. Use only pesticides approved for use on vegetable crops and be sure to read and follow label directions carefully.

Following these tips will get you off to a good start and a healthy supply of fresh veggies.