A quick guide to growing summer vegetables
Story by Jeff Wilson, Ph.D.
Mississippi is fortunate to have a long growing season, usually lasting from mid-April to late October. This can even be longer in the more southern and coastal areas of the state. As you prepare for this season’s vegetable garden, here are a few helpful tips:
It All Begins With the Soil
A good quality soil with the proper pH is a key factor toward having a successful summer vegetable garden. Having a soil that is nutrient balanced with adequate drainage is as important as any other part of the growing equation. Improper pH can have a negative effect on the plants’ growth and overall health. This can lead to weakened plants that are more susceptible to insect and disease pressure.
Mississippi soils vary greatly – from sandy coastal soils, to dark and heavy high pH prairie soils, to more ideal delta soils. Knowing your soil type and pH is very important, so test your garden soil to know what you have.
For small gardens, it may be easier to grow produce in a container or raised bed garden. When doing this, always purchase weed- and disease-free soil. Never put native soil into a container or raised bed. This will make the soil heavier and also increase likelihood of soil-borne diseases. It is also a good idea to test this soil too. For raised beds, a depth of 12 inches is sufficient for most vegetables. It is okay to go deeper, but no shallower if possible.
Select a Proper Garden Site
Choose a location that receives at least eight hours of direct sunlight each day. Look for a level spot away from trees and close to a water source. Trees will shade your vegetables and also rob nutrients and water from the soil. The trees always win, so avoid them if possible.
Before planting, you need to know two things: what vegetables you want to grow and how much space is available. This may be the determining factor in what crops are planted and how many of each. Nothing is worse than planting more vegetables than you can use and having some go to waste! Guidelines in this article and the recommended resources that go with it give examples of spacing requirements for many vegetable crops. Follow these to determine how many of each crop you have room to plant.
Garden Design and Layout
How you design the garden is very important. First, try to plan the garden with an east-west orientation. Place taller crops, such as sweet corn and pole beans, on the north side so they won’t shade the other plants. It is also a good idea to place vegetables of the same family in areas together. These families usually have similar growing conditions, which makes for easier management.
Another tip is to plant short-term crops together. This allows easier harvesting without damaging the other crops. Then you can safely replant in that same area (succession planting). This works well with beans, peas, cucumber, squash, and even tomatoes. Just replant or reseed early enough for plants to reach maturity before the first fall frost. This can be anywhere from early October in the north and as late as mid-November on the coast.
Remember that some crops, such as watermelons and pumpkins, require a large amount of garden space, so plan accordingly. If growing in a smaller garden area, it may be more sensible to save this space for your most desired vegetable and just buy any watermelons you want.
From Planting to Harvest
After planting is complete, the work is not finished. Vegetables require regular maintenance until harvest time ends. Plants need to be watered, fertilized, weeded, and scouted regularly for pests.
• Fertilizing: Basing it on a soil test is the most efficient method you can use. This will give you the amount of fertilizer to use at planting and how much to use throughout the growing season. Unless you follow these test results, then you are simply guessing. Gardeners can use a granular or liquid product or a synthetic or natural product, the choice is personal. Read the product label to determine how often it needs to be applied.
This test will also provide a pH level and possible liming recommendations. You should never lime your garden unless you know that it is needed. Raising the pH to an inappropriate level is just as detrimental as having the level too low.
• Weeding: Keeping the garden weed-free is very important for the plants’ health. A few weeds in the garden is not a problem, but if they accumulate to the point of harming the vegetables, then it is time to remove them. A pre-emergent used at or just after planting works well to prevent annual weed seeds from germinating. It is again important to follow the rate and application method on the product label. If weeds still appear, and they will, choose a post-emergent product that is labeled for use in a vegetable garden. A local MSU Extension office, CO-OP, or independent garden center can usually help make suggestions. A sharp garden hoe is still a great way to eliminate weeds, in addition to being good exercise.
• Scouting: Be on the lookout for insect and disease pests on a weekly basis. If a pest is left unchecked for too long, it can become a real problem. Just like with weeds, a few insects or disease spots are not a threat, but there is a point when they hurt the plants’ ability to properly grow and produce. At that point it must be addressed.
The first step to control these issues is to identify the pest. Knowing which insect or disease pathogen is occurring is important for selecting the correct control product. Not all insecticides, fungicides, or herbicides will control all issues. Most are designed to prevent/control only a select few issues, so carefully pick a product designed to help with your specific issue. Whether you select an organic, natural, or synthetic product is up to you.
• Watering: Very crucial for growing healthy vegetables. We are blessed to be in a state that normally receives adequate rain during the growing season. Gardeners who like to grow crops for the entire season usually have to provide additional water during the hot, summer months. Many vegetable crops can thrive with 1 inch of water per week, but producing tomatoes need up to 2 inches per week. Growers need to monitor rainfall in order to provide the water their crops may need.
• Harvesting: This is best done in the early morning. First of all, it is cooler for the worker and the crop has the most water in it at that time of day. This prevents stressing the produce any more than necessary. Always use a sharp knife or pruner, rather than tearing them from the plant. This will prevent injured areas on the stem that may allow pests to enter more easily.
When harvesting produce, if it is infected with a pathogen, completely remove it from the garden. Many home gardeners make the mistake of dropping these infected crops onto the ground in the garden. This allows the spores to splash back onto the plant and spread the infection. Take an extra bucket into the garden while harvesting and put the “bad” produce into the bucket for easy removal.
As you plan future vegetable gardens, remember to rotate your crops within the garden. Many vegetable diseases are soil-borne and can affect a crop in future years. These usually only affect select crop families. By rotating crops into different families, you can prevent many of these disease problems from occurring. Sanitation is the key to controlling many of these disease problems.