Warm temperatures and sunny days signal it’s time for another spring planting season. Raising luscious, homegrown vegetables is a favorite pastime of many people. Careful planning, hard work and detailed management practices will help make this year’s vegetable garden a success.
People have many reasons for gardening — as recreation, exercise and it’s therapeutic. The sunshine and clean air improve mental well-being. Gardening also has it rewards; those fresh veggies and canned goods are mighty fine eating. But whatever your reason, a few tips will reward you with another successful year and tasty vegetables.
A well-prepared, loose seedbed — as the garden publications call it — gets the seed in contact with soil moisture for good germination. However, what you do to prepare that seedbed can create major problems later in the growing season, says Dr. Charles Mitchell, an agronomist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.
“Most gardeners can’t resist the temptation to crank up the tiller, even when the soil is a little too wet in early spring,” he said. “The churning action of the tiller in wet soil results in clods when the soil dries in thick crusts after a rain.”
Fast moving tines on a rear-tine tiller can also create a hardpan beneath topsoil in some Alabama soils. The hard, packed layer of soil just beneath the plowed layer prevents roots from growing into the subsoil, which can cause plants to wilt prematurely during short-term droughts.
Mitchell suggests these guidelines:
• If a ball of soil sticks together when dropped, it’s too wet to plow.
• Reduce tillage, and instead plant seeds in a narrow strip worked with a hoe or with no tilling at all. Set transplants directly into untilled soil.
• Break up existing hardpans with a spade or by double-digging. Be careful not to mix a clay subsoil with a sandy topsoil, which makes crusting worse.
• Soil test every three years and apply lime as needed. Lime helps improve soil tilth, reducing clodding and improving soil structure.
• Use lots of mulch and organic matter to improve soil texture. Mulch also reduces weeds, which further reduces the need to cultivate.
• Remove old vegetation and plant a new crop. Growing plants and controlling weeds year-round, eliminates the need for heavy tilling in early spring.
LIME AND FERTILIZER
A soil test is the best way to determine fertilizer needs and the only way to determine lime needs. Information for soil tests are available at the county extension office. Test at least every three years. For most vegetables, the soil pH should be around 6 to 6.5. Mix lime into soil before planting to be effective.
Most people overdo it when it comes to fertilizer, thinking a little is good so a lot must be better. That isn’t always the case. With a soil test, mistakes are limited. However, if a soil test isn’t taken, a general recommended amount of fertilizer can be applied before or at planting. The two methods of applying fertilizer are broadcast, which is more practical for most gardeners, and in the row.
Broadcast. Spread the recommended amount of fertilizer evenly over soil surface, thoroughly mixing into the soil during soil preparation. This initial preplant application should supply all the phosphorous and potash needed by most garden vegetables. Nitrogen requirements vary from crop to crop and heavy rainfall may cause nitrogen to leach from the soil, so additional nitrogen may be required. Long-season crops such as tomatoes, cabbage, pepper, okra and potatoes need more fertilizer than short-season crops. Close observation is the best way to determine whether additional fertilizer should be added after the plants are established.
In the row. Apply the recommended amount of fertilizer to the row, placing it at least 3 inches below and 2-3 inches to the side of seeds. Any closer may result in fertilizer burn and poor stands. For most gardens, 25 pounds of 8-8-8 fertilizer or 15 pounds of 13-13-13 fertilizer per 1,000 square feet is sufficient.
Combination. You can apply fertilizer to the garden in a combination of broadcast and row application. Broadcast two-thirds the recommended fertilizer over the entire garden surface and spade or rototill it into the soil. Apply the remaining one-third of the fertilizer in furrows 3 inches to either side of the row and slightly below the seed.
For help on other home and garden questions, contact your local county extension office.
Shane Harris is an extension agent for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.