Planning your spring and summer garden
Although we can garden year-round in the Piedmont area, most people start thinking about vegetable, herb and flower gardening in the spring. To get the most from your spring and summer gardens, do a little "armchair" gardening during the remaining cold winter weeks. The seed catalogs began arriving in the mail last month and we can start dreaming of fresh tomatoes, tasty herbs and beautiful flowers as the days get progressively warmer and longer. Here's ten tips for getting the most from your garden this year and beyond.
Get a soil test. By knowing what nutrients your soil may be lacking, you will save time and money and get the best results from your gardening efforts. No amount of water and weeding can grow a great garden from soil that is lacking the right nutrients. Soil tests are free for all state residents through the North Carolina Department of Agriculture (NCDA). Soil tests measure pH and the levels of plant nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (N-P-K), calcium, magnesium, sulfur, copper, manganese and zinc. Soil sample boxes are available from the Union County Cooperative Extension Office at 3230-D Presson Road in Monroe. For more information, visit http://www.ncagr.gov/agronomi/uyrst.htm.
Plan for crop rotation. Crop rotation (changing where you grow specific crops from year to year) is the best solution to break the cycle of soil-borne diseases, pests and weeds as well as improve soil quality. Different plants have different nutrient requirements and affect the soil differently. Heavy feeders such as corn and tomatoes can be rotated with light feeders such as root crops. Crops that tend to use up nitrogen, such as lettuce, cabbage and tomatoes can be followed by peas and beans (legumes) which add nitrogen. The general rule of rotational planting is to avoid planting the same crop category (root, legume, leafy/fruiting) in the same place each year. Crop rotation can also break the cycle for several bacterial and fungal diseases as well as the lifecycle of insects that overwinter in the soil.
Use companion planting to benefit both plants and gardener. Companion plants can attract beneficial insects to surrounding plants to prevent pest problems, enhance pollination and help use garden space more efficiently. For example, nasturtium flowers can be planted with cucumbers to repel cucumber beetles and chives can be planted with roses to repel rose petal pests. However, not all plants are good neighbors. Onions are not good planting companions for beans, peas and parsley, and strawberries hate broccoli!
Plant with beneficial insects in mind. Beneficial insects are wonderful helpers in the garden! They pollinate vegetable and fruit plants (which increases yields) as well as provide natural pest control. By planting flowers and herbs such as sweet alyssum, yarrow, lavender, cilantro, mint, dill, and fennel in our garden, we create a "bed and breakfast" destination for all types of helpful insects.
Plan for succession planting. Our long growing season gives us the chance to grow cool weather crops such as lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and a variety of greens followed by warm season tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and squash, then back to the cool weather crops in the fall. These crops can overlap in the garden during the change of seasons, so garden space planning is important if you want to take advantage of three season vegetable gardening.
Select varieties that are suited for your gardening style. Container gardening? Choose dwarf or compact varieties. Want lettuce in May? Choose heat-resistant varieties. Have more vertical space than horizontal? Choose climbing and trellis varieties such as peas, beans, cucumbers and tomatoes.
Direct seeding vs. Transplants? Some plants, such as carrots, radishes, beans, peas and corn are best started by placing seed directly in the garden once the soil is warm enough for germination. If you want a jump start on the season, plan on using transplants that you start from seed early and indoors, or buy seedlings from a local source. Buying seed is less expensive than buying plants, but buying quality, locally grown plants is less work and gets you to fruit or flower quicker.
Consider seed saving. Saving plant seeds is a great way to cut costs, develop locally adapted varieties, preserve biodiversity, practice a basic life skill and it's fun to do. Want to give it a try? Be sure to choose non-hybrid (or heirloom) seeds and plants and plan your garden to prevent cross-pollination between different varieties of the same plant.
Plan with water conservation in mind. Add a rain barrel and drip irrigation to your garden plan. Mulch rows and beds with leaves or straw to retain moisture. If you are container gardening, use glazed pots instead of plain terracotta pots to hold moisture longer.
Keep records so planning is easier to do. Items to record include the garden layout (for planning next season's crop rotation), a copy of your soil test (to compare year to year), fertilizers and pest management products used, seeds and plants purchased and their source (for budgeting and to remember varieties), and any pest challenges (weeds, bugs, rabbits, etc.). A folder to hold receipts, notes and empty seed packets plus a digital camera to capture activities in the garden throughout the year will give you valuable information for next season's planning.
• Mary Roberts and Ray Tarlton are owners and managers of Windcrest Farm, a USDA Certified Organic farm and greenhouse in Monroe, NC . Visit www.WindcrestOrganics.com for more information about plants, produce and classes.