Veg out this spring

Don't let a few bugs or a little hard-clay soil stop you from growing your own food

CorrespondentApril 11, 2009 

Nothing says springtime like vegetables harvested from your own garden. If you're new to the Triangle, or perhaps just new to growing vegetables, here are some techniques I've learned over the course of more than three decades of trial-and-error vegetable gardening.

Challenge: When do I start planting?

Solution: Your county agricultural extension agent can tell you the last frost dates for your area and advise you on when to plant. Or you can use a soil thermometer. It takes a while for soil temperatures to catch up to air temperatures this time of year. An inexpensive soil thermometer will prevent you from planting too early.

Most spring crops, such as peas, potatoes and carrots, need a minimum soil temperature of about 50 degrees. In the Triangle, this usually occurs between mid-February and late March, depending on weather.

Don't even think about planting corn and tomatoes until the soil reaches 65 degrees. This usually occurs around the average last frost date, which is the middle of April here.

Previous generations of gardeners used signs from nature to tell them when to plant. For example, I've heard it's safe to plant corn when oak leaves reach the size of squirrels' ears.

Challenge: My soil is Carolina hard-packed clay.

Solution: It takes several years of soil amendments to transform clay into decent garden soil. If you are starting a new garden in clay, I have two words of advice: Go up. Grow in raised beds to avoid the drainage and permeability issues of clay soils.

Raised beds can be as fancy or as simple as your budget can handle. Many designs and instructions can be found on the Internet, or you can consult your local agricultural extension agent.

Raised beds full of fertile topsoil provide the nutrients and drainage that vegetables demand. If you're building raised beds for the first time, limit yourself to one or two until you're confident of your techniques and results. You can always build more in the fall.

Challenge: The weeds are taller than my vegetables.

Solution: In raised beds, bare soil is your enemy. It dries out faster and gets crusty, preventing small seeds from germinating. It also heats up faster, a problem for spring crops. And it is prime real estate for weeds.

Mulch is your friend. My favorite mulch for vegetables is a layer of compost about an inch thick. It suppresses weeds while slowly adding nutrients to the soil.

If I don't have compost, I use shredded leaves from the previous fall. When I run out of leaves, I've used hay, shredded newspaper or even aged wood chips in a pinch. Hay can introduce weeds; newspaper isn't bad as long as the inks are soy- or water-based. This newspaper uses water-based ink.

Challenge: My lettuce has aphids and my broccoli is being invaded by cabbage worms.

Solution: I am an organic gardener, so I don't use pesticides or herbicides on my plants. However, your agricultural extension agent is well-versed on safe pesticides if you choose that option. If your soil and plants are healthy, you probably won't have significant bug problems.

I've found that insects rarely overwhelm a crop, especially when I use row covers. I enclose all crops that don't require pollination to produce their edible parts (carrots, beets, lettuce, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, onions, potatoes) with a spun polyester garden fabric.

The fabrics come in various weights. The heavier ones are ideal for spring crops, because they protect against late frosts while preventing predation by aphids, carrot flies and cabbage moths.

Many garden centers and online sites sell the fabric with the metal hoops over which you drape the fabric to make a cozy tent for your vegetables. These fabrics allow light and water to penetrate, so you only have to lift the row cover to check on the progress of your veggies and to harvest them.

Challenge: All of one crop caught a disease and died.

Solution: Sometimes this happens, but you can improve your chances of success by diversifying your plantings. Dense, staggered plantings shade out weeds and produce more food in a small space.

But don't put all of one crop together. If you mix your plantings, bugs and diseases will have a harder time finding their targets.

And if your crop needs pollination -- as our summer crops of tomatoes, squash, peppers, melons and beans all do -- mixing in plants that draw pollinators increases the likelihood that the bees will visit your vegetables. Basil and dill -- essential annual herbs and bee magnets -- mix well with vegetable crops.

I also add annual flowers such as marigolds. And the edges of my vegetable beds are surrounded by perennial herbs and flowers (such as anise hyssop) that bees adore.

If you're new to vegetable gardening, expect wins and losses. You can't always beat weather, and you won't defeat every bug and disease.

But the first time you eat a tomato sandwich layered with a few fresh basil leaves -- both products of your garden -- you will be forever hooked on growing your own.

Catherine Bollinger has been gardening in this region for 35 years. She writes and lectures about her passion for Piedmont gardening as often as possible.

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