Summer Garden Preparation
April 15, 2019
We are at the very beginning of the summer growing season here in the south and we are so excited because that means one thing — lots and lots of produce. However, it doesn’t come without its share of hard work! We spend many of our weekends working in the garden — preparing the soil, planting, and doing ongoing maintenance such as watering, weeding, pruning, etc. By now, in mid-April, we’ve done all of our planting and now we get to watch them grow! The most time consuming part is the garden preparation, which we try to do at the end of March. Our soil is very sandy here, and thus it lacks a lot of nutrients and organic material that the plants need to grow and be productive. We amend our soil with a number of different supplements at the beginning of the season — and it will certainly vary based on location and soil quality. However, we wanted to provide you with a few considerations for any aspiring gardeners who are thinking of starting their own home garden.
1. Planning your space. This is an important first step that we skipped in the first few years of gardening. We would arbitrarily lay out our garden without pre-planning for what kind of plants we wanted, considering how much space they each needed, or thinking about what kind of layout would lend itself to easier maintenance. This led to several occasions where I bought too many seedlings than I could fit into our garden space (AKA, my eyes were too big for my garden 😉). Another year we planted tomatoes a foot or two from our back fence, and they did great — but they grew so large that there was no space between the plants and the fence, and I couldn’t get back there to easily harvest the tomatoes! So, my advice is to do your planning. Measure out your space first. Then, consider what types of plants you want to grow (and also what actually grows well within your zone). From there, you can research how much space these plants need in between each plant and row, and get a rough estimate of how much you will be able to fit within your space and give everything adequate room to grow.
2. Tilling. If you are lucky enough to have root-free soil, then you may be able to skip this step and clear the first few inches of surface soil with a hoe. However, our ground is riddled with giant vine systems that to this day we have no idea what they are. We have a gas tiller that thankfully makes quick work of these roots and clears the area quite nicely. This is also an especially important step to loosen the soil if you plan on planting and root vegetables, such as sweet potatoes, carrots, parsnips, beets, etc, as they all need uninhibited room to grow underground.
3. Amending the soil. I use the term “soil” loosely, because I’m pretty sure we are planting in mostly sand with a little soil mixed in. In order to have a productive garden, the plants need more nutrients than our sandy soil can provide. We add plenty of compost and manure to the top few inches of soil to provide the organic material that the plants will need. We also use organic garden fertilizer to enhance the nutrient content of the soil. Finally, our soil is too acidic for ideal growing conditions, mostly due to the fallen oak leaves that increase the acidity of the soil as they break down (or so I’ve been told by my father who grew up on a farm). So, to reduce the acidity, we also mix in lime to the soil along with the other amendments. All three of these can be put on the garden at the same time and raked in together. The soil instantly looks richer, and like a much more inviting home for your future plants, after adding the compost!
4. Planting. Again, this is where planning and measuring becomes important. You might even have to use your math skills (I definitely require a calculator for our garden planning). Make sure you give all of the plants enough space, depending on how large they will grow, so they have enough sunlight. You don’t want to crowd anything out, and also want to give yourself enough space to easily move around the garden. Also consider that eventually you will likely want to add supports for the larger growing fruiting plants, like tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers. For vining plants such as cucumbers or climbing varieties of beans and peas, these supports should be placed when the seeds/ seedlings are planted.
5. Irrigation. This is another optional step, but if you have the time and resources, will make your life so much easier — especially for larger gardens. We have a system of drip irrigation and soaker hoses that run throughout most of our garden so all we have to do is turn on the outdoor faucet and it waters the garden. So much easier than individually watering every plant in the heat of summer, but certainly not necessary!
As a side note, I plant a combination of organic seedlings that I buy from a local nursery (tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, cucumbers) and plant everything else from seed (okra, lettuces, kale, Swiss chard, carrots, beets, radishes, turnips, beans, peas, fennel, herbs). It’s really a matter of preference and experience — I’ve tried planting tomatoes and peppers from seed but didn’t have much success. And I’ve completely given up on zucchini and squash varieties after a long losing batter with squash vine borers — but that’s a story for another day! I hope these tips help you get started on your way to growing your own beautiful veggies at home!