It's time for the planning to begin! What will you plant, where will you plant it, what kind of container will you use? January and February are the months to decide and prepare so you will be ready to go in late March or early April.
Southern gardens are blessed with a long growing season and usually plenty of rain, but also can be plagued with disease and insects, especially in the heat of summer. Successful gardening in the South means the three "Ps" - Planning, Preparation, and Prevention.
(1) CHOOSE YOUR GARDEN SPOT
Choose a sunny, well‐drained site for your garden spot, raised beds or container garden. Plants need a minimum of 6 hours of sunshine per day. Too many gardeners try to grow vegetables in competition with trees, shade from buildings, or fences.
(2) PREPARE YOUR SOIL
After you choose your site, you can improve your garden soil by adding organic matter—compost or leaf mold, and lime if needed. Work it into the soil in the winter. You can use Miracle‐Gro Moisture Control Potting Mix for container gardens, but keep in mind it contains chemical fertilizers.
Soil pH: Garden soil should be rich and slightly acidic to neutral. Most nutrients that plants need can dissolve easily when the pH of the soil solution ranges from 6.0 to 7.5. Below pH 6.0, some nutrients, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, are less available. When pH exceeds 7.5, iron, manganese, and phosphorus are less available.
Soil Test: Determine your soil’s pH with a simple soil test kit. You can get a “Rapid Test” soil sampler test kit at Ace Hardware, Lowe's or Home Depot for about $5.00.
Lime: A soil test is the best way to determine lime and fertilizer needs. To be effective, the lime must be mixed into the soil well‐ahead of planting. Use lime to raise the pH of the soil.
Timing: Prepare soil in winter/early spring so nutrients will be available for late spring planting. Be prepared to plant root vegetables in February, leafy greens in March and fruiting plants in April.
(3) SELECT YOUR SEED AND/OR PLANT VARIETIES
At our annual Heirloom Garden Plant sale in late March and early April, you can choose from our selection of heirloom tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, squash and cucumber. For crops like beans, order seed from a reputable, seed company or buy certified organic seed. We order a lot of our seed from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Many of the garden centers now carry organic seed as well.
Heirloom Seeds and Plants: Heirloom vegetables, fruits, flowers and herbs are varieties that have remained popular with home gardeners because they grow well and taste great. Heirlooms are loosely defined as plant varieties that have been grown for at least three generations, or pre‐1940. Heirloom food plants are varieties that have been selected for their flavor, resistance to pests and diseases, and other traits important to home gardeners. Unlike modern hybrids, heirloom seeds are open‐pollinated, which means they will breed true and can be saved by the gardener from year to year — an important consideration for food security and self‐sufficiency.
Note: Hybrid means simply selectively breeding more than one variety – they are not GMO, and perfectly fine to use! But hybrid seeds will not breed true, so they are not good for seed saving.
(4) PLANT YOUR SEEDLINGS OR SEEDS
If you are going to grow your own tomato, pepper, eggplant, greens and herbs, you’ll need to plant your seedlings in early to mid‐February. Once they sprout they need full sun, so you’ll need to move them to a place where full sun is available. You can use Miracle‐Gro Moisture Control Potting Mix, but if you want to mix your own, here’s our mix:
4 parts screened, homemade compost; 1 part perlite; 1 part vermiculite; 2 parts sphagnum peat moss
Seeds: Seed is inexpensive, so get the best available. Don’t seed too thickly. Plant small seed, such as turnips and carrots, about 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 inch deep. Plant larger seed, such as beans, about 1 inch deep.
Plants: Use only stocky, healthy, fresh plants. Always water transplants to settle soil around roots. Set tall plants deeper in the ground than they grew originally.
Timing: Depends on your crop. Root vegetables on Valentine’s Day; summer vegetables on April 1.
Spacing: Depends on your crop – follow directions on seed packets.
Depth: Plant to the same slightly deeper than they were in the nursery pot. Lightly firm the soil around the plant and water thoroughly.
Fertilization: Long‐season crops such as tomatoes, cabbage, pepper, okra, and potatoes need more fertilizer than short‐season crops. Experience and close observation are the best guides for additional side dressing.
Irrigation. Water is essential for a top‐notch garden. During long dry periods, soak the garden
thoroughly twice per week; don’t just sprinkle daily. Light, frequent irrigation helps only during the period of seed germination. If you use overhead irrigation, use early in the day so plants can dry before night.
During the peak growing season it is very important to harvest your garden daily to pick vegetables at the proper stage of maturity. Over‐ripe fruits and vegetables attract insects, and quickly become targets for disease and fungus. If beans, okra, cucumbers, etc., are left to mature fully, the plant will stop producing. Pick off any damaged fruits immediately, even if they are not ripe to keep them from rotting.
The main reason for a home garden is to produce high‐quality vegetables. Early morning harvest, before vegetables absorb heat from the sun, is best for most vegetables. Freeze or can the surplus if you want to enjoy your garden all year.
(6) INSECT CONTROL
For a successful garden, you must control insects. Early planting will miss some insects, but usually you’ll have to use insecticides. Garlic and diatomaceous earth combined with insecticidal soaps are very effective. Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt (Dipel, Thuricide) is good biological control for cabbage worm.
(7) WEED CONTROL
To control weeds, use a mulch, weed often, and pull weeds when very small. Deep cultivation after plants are older will damage roots. Chemical weed killers are not recommended.
(8) DISEASE CONTROL
The best practices in disease control are rotation, clean seed, resistant varieties, and early planting.