Here in the Midlands, our winters are considered mild because our low temperatures do not usually dip below 10 degrees Fahrenheit, and believe it or not, our summers are considered temperate because we only sometimes have temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. We are lucky that vegetables can be grown from mid spring to mid fall in our gardens and year-round in greenhouses outfitted with a heating source.
Vegetable gardening is a most satisfying activity and is a great way to introduce youngsters to the joy of gardening. How wonderful is it for a child to plant, grow and harvest a bucket of squash to share with his neighbors? He will be hooked on gardening for life! This article will focus on vegetable gardening in the outside garden. Midlands’ gardeners are lucky enough to be able to grow two to three crops every year. There are many cooler season crops that flourish in the spring and fall as well as warmer season crops that produce a huge bounty in summer. Here are some steps to follow to ensure success in the vegetable garden.
Test the Soil
Always have the soil tested in your garden. A soil sample can be dropped off at the local County Extension office for testing. Some of our local garden centers will take care of this for you. There are many different types of soil in Zone 8. Our soils vary from poor draining clay to very rich, well-drained soil. A soil test can help determine the structure and the pH. The results of this test will recommend which nutrients to add to the garden area before planting.
Amend the Soil
After receiving the results of this test, visit your favorite local garden center to purchase the recommended amendments that will improve your garden soil and will help your vegetables thrive and produce. Organic material such as compost and well-rotted manure are easy to obtain and will improve the soil’s consistency and nutrient content. Make sure any manure is aged well, or it will burn any tender plants. Sometimes there can be a lot of weed seeds in the manure, so the aging process helps eliminate this problem also.
If the soil is very heavy clay, adding gypsum will help break it up and will improve drainage. If the pH needs adjusting, adding lime will raise the level and adding sulfur will lower it. The optimal pH for most vegetables that we grow in Zone 8 is between 6.0 and 7.0. This information will be provided in the soil test results. If the pH is in the right range, the plants will be able to absorb nutrients more efficiently and should produce healthy and abundant fruits and vegetables. The soil’s health is essential to a successful vegetable garden.
Prepare the Garden Plot
Make sure to till the garden area to a depth of at least 6 to 8 inches. Use a heavy garden rake to level the soil and to remove any rocks or break up any clumps of dirt. Spread the amendments on top of the soil and dig them in to a depth of 3 to 4 inches. The roots will absorb these nutrients so you want to make them available at the proper root level. Use the heavy rake to level the soil again to make sure there are no low areas that will collect water and cause the young plants to drown.
Select the Proper Plants
As in all gardening, to be successful you must choose the right plant for the right place. Select vegetables that are hardy to Zone 8. Cool season crops include lettuce, onions and broccoli. Warm season crops include corn, beans, okra, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and many fruits such as strawberries, plums and melons.
Planting seeds is an economical approach to vegetable gardening. You do, however, need to pay attention to the last frost date. Here in the Midlands, our last frost date is usually around the first week of April — Good Friday is a good rule of thumb and has stood the test of time. Plant the seeds in the ground two weeks before the last average frost date. Water them gently, and they should germinate in two to three weeks. Pay attention to the weather forecasts, and if there is any chance of an unusual frost, cover the sprouted seedlings with landscape cloth that is not too heavy or too dark. If there is wind, it will have to be stabilized with bricks or landscape staples.
If you choose to plant young vegetable seedlings, wait until after the last frost date of the spring. Vegetable seedlings do not have to be planted in an area specifically designated for vegetables. Many vegetables such as eggplant look gorgeous inter-planted in the perennial border. Add lettuce and parsley to containers planted with blooming annuals. Dig a hole that is twice as wide as the root ball of the seedling and place the plant in the soil. Cover the roots with soil and pat it down to remove any air pockets. Water gently and evenly to keep the soil moist. Installing a drip irrigation system to water the young seedlings is a very effective way to keep the roots moist. Keeping the roots moist is essential and will help them develop more quickly into strong, healthy plants.
Herbs are a wonderful addition to the vegetable garden. Plant herbs such as thyme, sage, parsley, chives and basil. These wonderful culinary ingredients can be planted directly in the ground or in containers near the grill or kitchen for convenience. Be sure to read the CMM herb recipes on page 100.
The Best Fertilizer is the Gardener’s Footprints
Keep a watchful eye on the forecast and the garden. Check the low temperatures and cover any sprouting seeds or seedlings if there is any threat of frost … better to be safe than sorry. Water gently and frequently in the mornings. Try not to water the leaves so they won’t burn. When the temperatures warm up in the summer, make sure the watering schedule is adjusted to meet the needs of the vegetables. When the plants are producing fruit they may need more water to sustain them.
Maintenance of the Vegetable Garden
Weeding is an unfortunate but essential aspect of vegetable gardening. Many weeds are so vigorous that they overwhelm the tender seedlings and cause them to suffer. There are many ways to weed: by hand or using a hoe. Choose the method that suits you best, but keep up with it and don’t let the weeds overtake the garden. Birds and squirrels are also attracted to the beautiful bounty of the vegetable garden. Some plants may have to be tented with a fine mesh to keep the vegetables for the gardener and not the birds and squirrels!
Cool Season Vegetables that Thrive in Zone 8: broccoli, carrots, spinach, arugula, collards, cabbage, celery, onions, radishes and peas.
Warm Season Vegetables that Thrive in Zone 8: tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, squash, beets, beans, cucumbers, carrots, corn, radishes and potatoes.
Plants flowering during April: Azaleas, Banana Shrub, Dogwood, Lady Banksia Rose, Roses, Spirea, Alyssum, Coreopsis, Gerbera Daisy, Pansy, Viola and Foxglove.
Gardening Chores for April in Zone 8
• When shopping for annuals, choose healthy plants with well-developed root systems and healthy looking leaves.
• Choose plants to attract hummingbirds and butterflies such as Milkweed, Lantana and Salvia.
• Plant hanging baskets with impatiens, begonias and lantana to trail over the edge.
• Add summer bulbs to your garden such as gladiolas, dahlias and caladiums.
• Choose colorful annuals such as impatiens, marigolds, petunias, zinnia and salvia.
• Try different herbs such as coriander, chervil, dill and rosemary.
• Fertilize camellias, sasanquas and azaleas with an acid-rich, slow release fertilizer.
• Define borders using a trench edge or metal edging.
• Prepare new planting beds by smothering grass or weeds with thick layers of cardboard or newspaper and adding a thick layer of mulch on top.
• Start a compost pile in a corner of your garden.
• Go on a wisteria ride. Forest Acres is beautiful with all of its tall pine trees covered in blooming wisteria.