What to do this week –By Mark Govan, Host “Florida Gardening”
One of the things I enjoy about gardening in Florida is that we have multiple planting seasons throughout the year. With so many times to plant different vegetables in our gardens, we need to know what to plant and when to start the seedlings we are going to use in our garden. With our next planting season right around the corner, I want to give you the information you need to get the most out of your garden. This week I am going to tell you what you should be doing in your existing garden to prepare for this season. If you have not prepared a garden yet, then this information will help you get started. In addition, I will give you a few suggestions of plants you should be starting now so you can put them into the garden.
My summer garden has seen better days. I only have a few pole bean plants and a couple of hot peppers still growing and even those are not doing very well. Our summer heat and humidity have taken its toll on our gardens and now is the time to remove most of the plants you have in your existing garden. I know a few of you may still have some absolutely beautiful plants growing in your garden. If you still want to save those plants, then that is fine. Unfortunately, for most of us, this is the time to get our existing gardens ready for new plants.
One of the things I find absolutely necessary for every garden is to give back to the soil before planting each season. This means I like to apply some additional compost, dolomite, and fertilizer to the soil prior to planting. By adding these soil enhancements, you are giving the soil back the nutrients necessary to produce a good crop of vegetables. The size of the garden you are working will determine how much material you will need to add to your garden. As a general rule of thumb, I like to add at least three to six inches of compost and peat to not only my containers but also my raised beds. For those of you tending elevated beds, feel free to add more. A thick layer of organic material will pay you back with loads of vegetables so pile it on.
After you have top-dressed your garden with the materials above, you may think you are ready to start planting. Unfortunately, this is just the first step to prepping your garden. Next you need to turn these materials into your existing soil. Use a shovel and start at one end of the garden and work the new material into your soil. You do not need to go very deep. Just turn over the new material the depth of one shovel blade and repeat until you are at the other end of your garden. Continue this process until the entire garden has been turned. Once you have finished turning the garden, you will need to get a good sturdy rake to level off any mounds of dirt you have left. Make sure not to compact your soil by walking on the freshly turned material. You want your garden to be filled with loose soil, which allows for good drainage and root formation.
Now that the garden is level, you will need to start the next process of preparing your garden, solarization. Solarization is the process of using the sun’s heat to kill weed seeds, bacteria, diseases, and nematodes in the soil. This process is easy to complete and is essential in raised garden beds or for those of us that like to plant directly into the soil. You will need to purchase some clear plastic from your local garden center or box store. Only purchase enough to cover the area of your garden. Roll out the clear plastic sheet over your level garden area and secure the corners with dirt or a few rocks to prevent the sheet from blowing in the wind. I like to leave the cover over my soil for at least thirty days. The sun’s heat will sterilize your soil and will help to cure the compost and any additional peat you have put down. After thirty days, you can remove the plastic and discard in the trash. Your garden will be ready to plant as soon as you remove the plastic. Containerized planters do not need to be solarized, however; you should change the soil at least every other year. Do not forget to add fertilizer and dolomite.
While your plastic covering is heating up your soil in the garden, you should be starting your new plants from seed. Thirty days is the perfect amount of time to select, plant, and grow your seedling plants that will be put into the garden in mid-August. To start your seeds you need some sterilized potting soil which you can purchase at any local garden center, and you will need a few seed starter pots. Seed starter trays come in many sizes. Only purchase enough to start the seeds you are going to be using for your garden. Some trays have individual cells numbering in the twenty to thirty cells per tray. These are great for starting small seeds like tomatoes or onions. Larger seeds require bigger starter pots such as four-inch pots. Squash, corn, and beans seem to do better in bigger starter pots, and you do not have to re-pot them before putting them into the garden. Some nurseries carry bio-degradable pots you can put directly into the garden.
If you are using plastic pots or old egg cartons to start your smaller seeds, then you may have to thin out the number of sprouts that come up. I will generally wait about two or three weeks and then remove all but the best or tallest growing plants. Do not be afraid to plant more starter seedlings than you think you will use because there always seems to be one more place to put another plant. Make sure you keep your plants moist as the smaller the container is, the quicker the soil will dry out.
Starting plants in the home lessens pest problems from outside, and you can watch the plants as they grow. When the plants are large enough, or you can see the roots on the bottom of the pot, it is time to move them off of the windowsill and into the garden. Your plants should be at least four inches tall or better. If the plants were raised in small cells, then you may need to repot them into a larger container before placing them into the garden. All plants need healthy established roots before you plant them. Make sure you water them well every day.
Plants you should be considering starting from seed are broccoli, corn, cucumbers, eggplant, okra, southern peas, peppers, pumpkins, rhubarb, summer squash, tomatoes, and watermelons. All of these seeds should be available at most garden centers, or you can find them online. Remember, this is just a short list and there are many other vegetables you can grow now. I did not even mention herbs, many of which can be added to the corners of the garden. Stay away from the leafy vegetables for now as you will need another month before we start planting them in September. Save any extra seeds in their original package and keep them in a dry and cool place for best storage. Most seeds kept this way can last for several years.
Following the steps I have laid out above will help you get the most out of your garden. Solarization will help keep pests and diseases from killing your plants and will allow your plants to reach their full potential. Try to minimize the work you have in maintaining your garden by doing a little every day. Your garden will pay you back by producing loads of fruits and vegetables for your table. Starting your plants from seed is fun and you can have the whole family involved in working the garden. Good Luck this season and remember without plants, we would not be here! Happy Gardening!