The tale of the impatient gardener

Planting vegetables early can yield pleasing results, but beware the risks

In The Garden

March 30, 2003|By Gwen Fowler | Gwen Fowler,Knight Ridder / Tribune

With visions of huge bright red tomatoes and green vines full of crookneck squash or purple eggplants, sometimes an eager gardener just can't wait another day to get the summer vegetable garden planted.

So, go ahead. Plant away.

Just be sure you don't plant anything soon that you can't protect in a frost.

Planting later is sort of the tortoise and hare story of the gardening world. Say one gardener plants tomatoes next week and is careful to cover them on cold nights. A more patient gardener may wait three or four weeks to plant.

Both probably will pick ripe fruit from their plants about the same time.

"This time of the season, plants grow very slowly," said Dale Linvill, a professor of agricultural meteorology at Clemson University. "The days are still too short and not warm enough, and all green things grow slowly." But don't wait too late. There are advantages to getting your garden planted as early as the weather will allow.

"The quicker you can get your plants in, the less disease and insect problems you have," said Gary Forrester, an extension agent in South Carolina. "Disease problems and the insect population get worse as temperatures rise." Meanwhile, there are plenty of chores to be done.

"Do a little clean-up," Linvill advises. Prepare an irrigation system, if you plan to use one, and prepare your soil. Get rid of the dead stuff left from last year's garden that may be carrying disease.

Whether you're a veteran or novice, here are some tips from the experts to help with your garden this year.

The garden spot

Gardens need at least eight hours of direct sun each day.

Some leafy vegetables will tolerate partial shade, but vegetables that bear fruit, such as peppers and tomatoes, need full sun.

Avoid spots too close to trees or shrubs. In the competition for nutrients and water, your vegetables will lose.

The garden needs to be as close as possible to a water source. The site also should have good drainage. Avoid places where water stands after a heavy rain.

Remember that you don't need a huge garden to provide plenty of vegetables for your family.

Improve the soil

The condition of your soil is the most important factor in the success of your garden. Before planting, improve the soil as much as possible. That means mixing in organic manner, such as compost, as you till the soil.

Compost is decomposed organic material, such as yard waste, food scraps and manure, that makes soil rich. It supplies nutrients to the roots of the plants and can also help sandy soil hold moisture.

Even if you added lots of organic matter to the same garden site last year, Forrester said, it's important to add more, because it breaks down quickly.

What to plant "Don't grow something you don't want to eat," Forrester said. Crops among the easiest to grow include pole beans, peppers, squash and tomatoes.

"Pick varieties that will do well" in your region, he said.

The right tools

For a small garden, few tools are necessary. Experts recommend buying a few simple, high-grade tools that you can use for years.

The essentials are a shovel or spade, a hoe, a trowel, a rake and a garden hose long enough to water all plants of the garden.

If you want to protect your hands from grime and blisters, buy a quality pair of heavy gardening gloves. A wheelbarrow is also useful.

How to plant

Some gardeners start their own seedlings in containers indoors in the winter. But most people with small gardens or new gardens buy transplants at a garden center. Remember that the best plants aren't always the largest.

Choose plants that look healthy, have a good green color, appear to be free of insects and disease, and have good roots. Avoid plants that look yellow or wilted.

An hour or two before transplanting, water the garden soil.

Dig a hole large enough for the container. Peat and fiber pots can be set directly in the hole. They will disintegrate in the ground.

Place most transplants in the ground slightly deeper than they grew in the container.

Plant tomato plants deep enough to leave two or three sets of leaves exposed. Roots will develop along the stems.

Gently set the plant in the hole and fill in around it with soil. Water well immediately after planting.

For planting seeds, start with moist soil to ensure germination. If the soil is dry, water it thoroughly and then allow it to dry slightly.

"Wait until soil temperatures are warm enough," Forrester said. "If you put seeds out too early, they'll rot." Read each seed package to determine how deeply or widely spaced to plant.

Don't allow a hard, crusty layer to form on the surface of the soil. That could prevent the seedlings from popping up from the ground.

When the plants are about 3 inches tall and have one or two pairs of leaves showing, thin them out. Thinning gives the remaining plants a better chance of producing yields.

Keeping it healthy

The key to keeping your plants alive and healthy is watering, the experts say. That is especially true as the temperatures climb. Water in the mornings or late afternoon rather than midday. Watering in the morning is ideal because the water will dry off the foliage quickly and that helps prevent fungus and insects.

Fertilize to be sure your plants get all the nutrients they need. Some gardeners swear by an every-other-week feeding with a water-soluble fertilizer, such as Miracle Gro. Others recommend a slow-release fertilizer, which can work for months, to save effort.

If insects invade, use pesticides as a last resort, Forrester said. Be careful not to kill the good insects while you're trying to get rid of the harmful ones.

Keep the garden weeded.

Weeds will steal the water and nutrients your plants need.

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