For the past two years, I have diligently planted a vegetable garden in my backyard with the best of intentions. For the first month or two, it flourishes. I have ripe red tomatoes and crunchy green beans, fragrant basil and spicy peppers.
And then the true heat of the Southern summer sets in. Lots of sun and never enough rain.
These elements are what I’ve always blamed when my garden starts to die.
And while the heat and lack of rain contribute to my less-than-stellar garden, it turns out the worst thing happening to my garden might be me.
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After talking to Muscogee county ag agent Jennifer Davidson and Master Gardener Caroline Castle, these are the things I learned about growing and maintaining a garden in the hot Southern heat.
1. A good garden starts long before plants are even in the ground. According to Castle, three important considerations for a garden site are sun (at least six hours per day), soil (should be amended to the proper pH level) and proximity (close to a water source and close to the house — so you’re reminded to check up on it often). Basically, don’t just randomly choose a plot and start planting.
The cooperative extension office offers a $9 soil test: Pick up a bag from the extension office, send in a sample of your soil (identifying what you’ll be growing) and they’ll send you an e-mail letting you know what needs to be added to your soil for optimal growth.
2. Select the right plants for the season. It is important to do a little research before you decide what to plant, especially since many garden centers offer plants during a season when they shouldn’t be planted. For example, you can buy a broccoli plant in the spring, but it’s a fall vegetable (I bought and planted in April and then angrily ripped unproductive broccoli plants from my garden in July).
3. Consider a raised bed garden. Castle, who lives in the Lakebottom area, said her raised beds (she has seven: five with veggies, two with herbs) help her retain water since her soil is very sandy; for residents of North Columbus, where the soil is more clay-laden, Castle said raised beds help with irrigation.
4. Not all bugs are bad bugs. “Another thing people seem to do is they want to reach for something to spray bugs with any time they see a bug,” said Castle. “And the problem with that is that you run the risk of killing good bugs — most of the bugs are good.”
She said the first step for bug problems is to identify whether it’s a good or bad bug (spiders are almost always good because they eat other bugs) by looking at a pest identification website or using a book called “Good Bug Bad Bug.” Either resource will provide information on how to deal with a bad bug.
5. Using a sprinkler isn’t the best watering method. Before the temperature starting exceeding 90 degrees on a daily basis, I would use a shower-head attachment on my hose or a watering can to water my vegetable garden. But my thick Northern blood can’t handle the heat, so I turned to my sprinkler. Not the best idea.
“The best way to water is watering at the ground because when you water overhead it does several things,” said Castle. “Number one, it gets water on the leaves and that promotes disease … another thing is, I’ve noticed since I’ve done this (rain drip irrigation system), I have fewer weeds because I’m only watering the good plants.”
Castle added that the best time to water is in the early morning, before 8 a.m. Watering in the evening promotes fungus growth and water tends to evaporate quickly in the mid-day heat.
6. You don’t have to plant your entire garden all at once. Called succession planting, it’s generally a good idea to space out some of your planting times so you don’t harvest everything at once. Said Castle: “This year, I ate beans twice a day, every day, for several weeks and I gave a lot away; next year I will not plant an entire row of beans at once.”
7. Mulch. While Castle was showing me her garden, she pointed out that she didn’t have much fruit on her tomato plants. “It’s just been too hot and I’m not mulching,” she said. “I’m gonna tell you to mulch, but I’m not doing as I say. So you’re gonna want to mulch, it should keep down the soil temperature, which will keep down the root temperature and things like tomatoes aren’t really gonna produce if the soil temperature is much over 80-85 degrees.”
Castle recommends straw mulches like pine or wheat; ag agent Davidson said any mulch will do, but “the only mulch I’m not a big fan of is the black plastic mulch.”
Fun fact: newspaper can be used under mulch to stifle weeds!
8. Keep picking the produce. I got a great first harvest off my bush bean plants, but I thought the beans could be bigger. When another harvest came around, I left them on a little longer to see if they would get bigger. The fruit shriveled up and the plant stopped producing, even after I picked off the dead beans.
“Once you stop harvesting, (plants) stop producing,” said Davidson.
9. Keep a garden journal. Castle has only had a proper garden for the last two years, but she said keeping a journal helps her remember what worked the year before and what didn’t. “I think a lot of gardening is trial and error,” she said, “so if you start younger you have a lot more time to try.”
10. There are many local and online resources. The Muscogee County cooperative extension office and their Master Gardeners are here to help you. You can call them with any questions “whether it’s your grass or you’ve got deer eating something or clearing ants out of your kitchen,” said Castle. The extension office phone number is 706-653-4200.