Ready, set … wait!
All the signs are here for starting the summer garden: sunny days, warm temperatures, tomato and pepper plants for sale in the shops.
You could start planning right away and gamble on good weather, to end up being the first among your neighbors eating a tomato sandwich.
Or you could toil in the soil for days to get that garden going, just to have everything killed off by frost – and have to start all over again.
The last frost of the year tends to happen in this region anywhere from mid-April to the first week of May. Henry County Horticulture Extension Agent Melanie Barrow always has given the advice to plant those vulnerable plants after Mother’s Day.
If you have seeds left over from last year, or take advantage of the 50% or 75% off sales on seeds from previous years, those seeds still are good to plant. If the seeds are a few years old – their expiration date or “packed for [year]” is marked on the package – just plant a few extra seeds in each spot in case some aren’t viable. You’re sure to have some that are.
At the end of the season, save remaining seeds in the freezer to be well preserved for next year.
In fact, a general rule of thumb is to plant three or four seeds at each spot anyway, in case some don’t germinate or survive, and then pinch off the weaker plantlets to leave just one strong plant in each spot.
To know how to fertilize the garden, bring soil samples to the Cooperative Extension Office in the Henry County Administration Building, 106 Rucker St., Suite 316 in Stuart or the Charles R. Hawkins Research Center at 230 Slayton Ave. in Danville. They’ll be sent off to Virginia Tech for a soil analysis which will tell you the condition of your soil and how much of each type of fertilizer the soil needs based on what you’re planning to grow there.
Plants need myriad micronutrients, including calcium, and they need three macronutrients: nitrogen (good for energy and helping the plant create food through photosynthesis), phosphorus (important in several key functions including photosynthesis, energy transfer and transformation of sugars and starches) and potassium (regulates carbon dioxide uptake, helps with efficiency with water and helps make strong roots and stems).
The most basic fertilizer is called 10-10-10, which contains 10% of each of those three macronutrients (the rest is filler and micronutrients). Fertilizer comes in other combinations of macronutrients, too, and it’s recommended to get the right makeup for your soil and plant needs.
Manure provides nutrients naturally, but it must be applied only after it has been seasoned for about 6 months; otherwise, its decaying process burns plants.
An important factor in plant performance is how the pH level of the soil matches up with the pH requirements of the plants. Generally, soils in this area tend to be on the acidic side (lower than 7.0 pH), and lime is added to the soil to reduce the acidity. The ideal pH range for most vegetables is 6.0 to 7.0.
Plants that thrive in acidic soil, ranging from 4 to 5.5 pH, include blackberry, blueberry, raspberry, parsley, potato and sweet potato. To lower the pH level, add cottonseed meal, coffee grounds, fresh manure three months before planting, pine needles, oak leaves, aged sawdust or leaf mold.
Plants that need a higher pH level, up to 7.0 or 7.5, include carrot, cauliflower, corn, cucumber, dill, garlic, pepper, winter squash, tomato and turnip. To raise the pH level of acid soil, add lime, bonemeal, hardwood ashes, ground eggshells or ground oyster or clam shells.
Since the preparations needs of the soil are opposite, plant acid-loving plants in a separate area from the plants that need alkaline soils. Adjustment of pH levels takes between 2 months to half a year, though, so any measures you take now will take effect much later in the season.
Other vegetables fall in between.
When planting potatoes and peppers, push a couple of calcium tablets into the dirt near each plant to provide calcium. Ground eggshells also do the trick but more slowly. The calcium prevents blossom end rot, the condition in which the end of the tomato or pepper furthest from the stem develops a brown spot which grows with time. It’s a result of lack of calcium.
Corn requires more fertilizer than any other vegetable; without a strong supply of nitrogen, corn plants will be short. Beans and peas naturally put nitrogen in the soil, so it always helps to plant corn where beans and peas were last year, or plant pole beans at the base of corn plants. That provides two benefits: The beans give the corn nitrogen, and the bean vines grow up the corn stalks.
You can keep weeds down and maintain soil moisture by mulching with several layers of newspaper – but be sure to weight them down with rocks, branches or shredded wood mulch, or they’ll fly all over the place in the next wind.
There’s a lot to do in the vegetable garden, and for those struck with spring fever, it’s hard to wait to get started. Of course, the soil preparation technically started about six months ago.
If you can’t resist the urge to plant now, go ahead – but keep those first plants in the ground within a size big enough to cover with an old bedsheet.
Keep an eye on the weather reports, and when it looks like there might be frost, cover those plants with the sheet. Be sure to take it off in the morning.
The sheet won’t save plants from a freeze, but freezes are much less likely this time of year than frosts. The frost would cover the sheet, but stay off the plants.
For a good garden all summer long, plant just a portion of each group of small plants or seeds now, and keep planting a few more sections of seeds of each. That will ensure a continuous harvest.
Holly Kozelsky reports for the Martinsville Bulletin. She can be reached at email@example.com