A quick guide to summer vegetable gardening in Arkansas
Story by Lisa D. Martin, Photos by Bob Westerfield
Arkansas can be a gardener’s paradise, thanks to long spring and summer seasons. In general, many of the popular garden crops can be planted and harvested through at least six months of the year (April through October).
While the weather encourages gardening, there are some important things to keep in mind when it comes to growing warm-season crops across the state. Here are a few tips and tricks to keep in mind:
The size of the garden should be determined by available space, the number of family members, and how the vegetables will be used (feeding family, canning, selling at local farmers’ markets, etc.). Sunlight is an essential component of any garden; most warm-season crops need six hours of direct sunlight in order to produce. Remember that other plant materials will compete with the vegetables for nutrients and water, as well as sunlight.
KNOW YOUR SOIL
Soil in Arkansas can range from coarse sand to heavy clay and every type in between. And each type presents its own unique challenges – drainage, tilth, moisture, and nutrient availability. Most Arkansas soils tend to be acidic and the optimal pH range for most of our warm-season crops is 5.8 to 6.8, so lime may need to be added to raise the pH. A soil test through your local county extension office is free and gives you valuable information about not only the soil’s pH, but also levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium available for plants. Soil amendments, such as fertilizer and compost, can be invaluable in adding much-needed nutrients to the soil. In addition to adding nutrients, compost can also increase water- and nutrient-holding capacity of the soil and aerate the soil, allowing for better root growth.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
When planting warm-season crops, timing is key. While the average last frost date ranges from March 20 to April 10, depending on where you are in the state, it is fairly common knowledge that Arkansas weather is completely unpredictable.
Seeds can be started indoors three to eight weeks (depending on specific plant) before planting them outside in the garden. Green beans and cucumbers can be ready to move outside in as little as three weeks, while tomatoes and peppers can take as long as six to eight weeks. Many popular vegetables – such as tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage – benefit from being transplanted rather than direct-seeded. Because fall temperatures are fairly mild, many warm-season plants (think tomatoes, peppers, summer squash, beans, southern peas) can be planted again in late summer and harvested in fall before frost hits.
When it comes to home gardens, pest control can be one of the biggest battles. Insects, weeds, and diseases are problems that most gardeners have to constantly address throughout the growing season. Fortunately there are a variety of readily available control methods for common problems. Whether a gardener chooses organic or more commercial control methods, issues can be held at bay in order to allow for a productive crop. Use of disease-resistant or disease-tolerant cultivars goes a long way toward preventing disease issues. Purchasing transplants that are free of insects also helps reduce the likelihood of introducing an insect into a garden area. Scouting regularly for signs of disease and insect issues so that they can be addressed early is probably one of the most critical components of pest management. Catching pests in the early stages of infestation makes control much easier.
REAP WHAT YOU SOW
As mentioned before, timing is everything as far as planting and the same can be said for harvesting. Harvesting at peak times allows the gardener to capture the best flavor. Corn, peas, melons, and sweet peppers are best picked later in the day when sugars and starches are at their highest levels. For maximum crispness of veggies such as cucumbers, peppers, and leafy greens, pick early in the day. Tomatoes can ripen on the vine or inside the house. They can also be picked green to whip up a batch of fried green tomatoes. Remove fruit that is dying, becoming over-ripe, or is diseased so that it won’t fall on the ground, where it will attract insects or spread disease to other plants.
INTEGRATED PEST MANAGEMENT
Home gardening pest control is best achieved using a variety of methods, or integrated pest management (IPM). IPM strategies include the following:
Tolerance threshold – Determining what level of damage requires intervention.
Prevention – Consistent monitoring for potential pest or disease issues and proper identification before any action is taken; selecting pest/disease-resistant cultivars; practicing crop rotation; proper garden sanitation practices.
Control – Employing physical barriers to prevent insects from getting to plants; hand removal of insects and weeds; using naturally occurring organisms (i.e. insect predators, parasites) and chemicals, such as pheromones. If further control is needed, always choose the least toxic chemicals first.