10 problems solved in your warm-season vegetable garden
Story and Photos by Bob Westerfield
April, with its mild temperatures and light, frequent showers, can be one of the most pleasant gardening months in Georgia. This is the month that most gardeners get the fever and are ready to plant their warm-season vegetables. The soils across the state have usually warmed up enough by some point in April to plant most of the traditional summer favorites. Nevertheless, as any gardener knows, planting a vegetable garden in Georgia does not come without its challenges. Disease, insects and an array of cultural problems can plague even the most experienced gardener. Begin to plan now to avoid the most common problems you may encounter.
1. Out of Kilter Soil
When it comes to growing vegetables, you have a very short window, ranging from one to just a few months to get the plants up and ready for harvest. Having the soil properly adjusted is essential for success. I highly recommend you run a soil test through your local county extension office at least every other year to check out the state of fertility in your garden. Of upmost importance is the pH of your soil. The pH, which is the measurement of alkalinity or acidity of the soil, can be a game changer when it comes to growing. Vegetables thrive in a slightly acidic soil, somewhere between 6.2 and 6.8. Your plants will also require essential nutrients at planting time, as well as during the development of the crop. Micronutrients are also vital, so consider using a premium fertilizer that contains those.
2. Working the Soil When it is Too Wet
Even though we are eager to till up our gardens on those first warm days of April, care should be taken not to work in the garden when the soil has too much moisture. Tilling, shoveling, or even walking in a garden that is excessively wet can cause compaction and soil clods to form, which will inhibit seed germination and root development.
Grab a handful of garden soil before working in it and squeeze it tightly in the palm of your hand. When you poke it with the finger of your other hand, it should break apart easily into small pieces. If your finger pushes into the soil clod in your hand like putty, it is too wet to work.
3. Planting Too Early
Even though we began this article by talking about the pleasant conditions in April, the soil temperature is really what matters when it comes to planting vegetables. Warm-season vegetables need warm soil to germinate and thrive. In general, soil temperatures should be a minimum of 60 F and closer to 70 F for greatest success. A soil thermometer purchased at a garden center or using the UGA automated weather site (georgiaweather.net) can help you determine when the soil is warm enough.
4. Improper Planting
While it is not rocket science, planting vegetable transplants and seeds does require some technique. Read the seed packets to determine the proper depth to plant your seed. If you do not have that, the old standby rule is to plant twice as deep as the size of the seed. One important step many folks forget is to firm the seedbed after planting. Simply pat the soil down after you drop the seed in or lightly tap it with the flat side of a hoe. This will ensure good soil/ seed contact. Transplants should be planted level with the root ball, with the exception of tomatoes. Tomatoes have dormant roots in virtually every part of their stem and should be planted deeply to encourage a stronger root system. If I had a 12-inch tomato plant, I would plant it approximately 6 inches deep. I normally pinch off the lower branches so that only the stem comes in contact with the soil.
5. Planting Only One Succession of Crops
When you only do one planting, you are putting all of your eggs in one basket. You can enjoy a fresh supply of vegetables all through the season, as well as avoid many insect and disease issues, by planting a fresh round of vegetables in the garden every few weeks. Because certain pests attack at either different times or different maturity stages of your crop, planting multiple successions will help you to ride those out. It will also extend your season, providing fresh vegetables after many others have expired.
6. Failure to Fertilize Properly
We have already discussed soil fertility and having nutrients available at planting time. It is also vital to provide nutrition over your vegetable plants’ short life spans, and at the right time, to avoid problems. Most vegetables need an initial feeding and then not again until after the flowers have pollinated and little fruits have appeared. Vegetables that continue to produce, such as okra and squash, can be given additional fertilizer every few weeks to remain productive. Sweet corn will need fertility at planting time, then again when it reaches 8-12 inches tall and one more dose when it hits about 3 feet tall.
7. Poor Irrigation Practices
It is no mystery that vegetables need a certain amount of moisture to survive. Relying on rainwater alone will not normally cut it. Most vegetables require approximately 1 inch of water every week in order to produce. Raised beds that drain more quickly may even require several inches per week. Improper watering, whether too much or too little, can lead to problems such as blossom end-rot, blotchy ripening, and fruit cracking. It can also cause nutritional deficiencies. When possible, use soaker hoses or drip irrigation to apply the water at the soil line and help cut down on evaporation and diseases.
8. Not Harvesting on Time
You would think that the privilege of harvesting fresh vegetables would be such an easy task. The truth is, we get busy during the summer, it gets hot, we go on vacation, and we just can’t keep up with what we planted. Okra, cucumbers, and summer squash seem to appear magically overnight, even though we just harvested them the day before. Because we need to harvest the young, immature vegetables for the best eating quality, it can be an actual chore to keep up with them. When you allow most vegetables to stay on the plant too long and mature, it diminishes their edibility. It also signals the plant to terminate, or stop producing. Leaving mature vegetables out in the garden also rings the dinner bell for damaging insects that can sense the expiring fruit.
9. Not Keeping Weeds Under Control
If I could only pick one thing to eliminate in my garden, I would choose weeds. Because of my organic nature, I have virtually no chemical products I can use to help control weeds. I must rely on mechanical removal, as well as mulch and weed fabric, as I wage my battle.
Weeds can overtake you quickly if you do not catch them while they are young. Weeds will virtually suck the life out of your vegetables as they steal the nutrition and moisture from your desirable plants. I always think that it is easier to keep weeds out than to get them out.
10. Failure to Control Disease and Insects
Just like weeds, insects and disease can take the fun out of you garden quickly. It is important to frequently scout your garden for the first signs of any of these issues. Vigilant pruning of diseased leaves and stems will help slow the spread of the plague.
Take care when spraying insecticides, not to wipe out naturally occurring beneficial predators that are actually helping you in the garden. Late season pressure is always greater as summer temperatures get hotter, so be prepared to step up your efforts. Consider organic alternatives as your first choice of chemical controls and move up from there.