Soil temperatures were not warm enough for most warm-season veggies three weeks ago, and are still not warm enough for plants like okra and sweet potatoes in our area of the world. Some gardeners have already planted their veggies, and I know a few who are starting this weekend. When you get ready to plant, remember the veggie garden basics.
Crop rotation is an essential part of gardening. Simply put, this means not planting vegetables in the same location they were planted the year before. Vegetables are grouped by family. Tomatoes, peppers, potatoes and eggplants are all in the same family, so tomatoes should not be planted where peppers were planted the year before. Likewise, squash, cucumbers, watermelon and cantaloupe are in the same family. Corn is in the grass family. By rotating crops, the life cycle of diseases and insects that live in the soil are interrupted.
A healthy garden depends on full sun — at the very least, six hours a day, though eight is better. Healthy plants in full sun are less likely to have problems with insects and disease. If you have to choose a location based on morning or afternoon sun, go with morning sun. Morning sun will dry the plants off quickly, reducing wet canopies and diseases. Late afternoon sun is more brutal.
Of course, vegetables need water — anywhere from 1 to 2 inches a week. In the absence of rain, water must be supplemented. The best way to water the garden is by drip hoses or soaker hoses, which deliver water to the plant, not the surrounding weeds. It also keeps the foliage dry (as opposed to overhead watering). Diseases are more prevalent when overhead irrigation is used as a lot of fungal diseases are spread by wet, humid conditions. Water in the early morning hours; less water is lost to evaporation. If plant foliage does get wet, the early morning sun will dry the leaves of the plants quickly.
I test my garden soil every three years. Soil test results will give you the pH (soil alkalinity) of the soil as well as recommendations if it needs to be corrected. A soil pH that is not in the recommended range results in nutrient deficiencies in the plant, and a stressed plant is more likely to develop insects and disease problems.
Adding organic matter when preparing the garden will improve the health of the soil, improving the health of vegetable plants. After tilling, remove as much of the weeds brought to the surface as possible. Some use a broad-spectrum herbicide to kill or suppress all weed species growing in the plot before preparing the soil. This must be done before the vegetable garden is planted. After years of adding organic matter and creating well-drained, loose gardening soil, you may not need that tiller anymore. Over tilling damages the soil creating a hard pan inches below the soil surface.
Mulching your garden will conserve soil moisture and keep weeds at bay. There are a lot of options out there. Organic mulches (like pinestraw) can be worked into the garden at the end of the season. Plastic mulches can also be used to keep weeds from popping up. When plastic mulches are used around the vegetables, a soaker hose or drip hose needs to be used to water the veggies under the plastic.
Alabama Cooperative Extension System has a great publication, The Alabama Vegetable Gardener. It is free to download and has great information for home gardeners. You can find the publication on the website at www.aces.edu.