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What to do this week –
By Mark Govan, Host “Florida Gardening“
Our Spring Vegetable planting season is right around the corner. This means we have to get focused on preparing our gardens for planting and selecting the seeds we are going to be growing. This week I will go over a few of the steps you need to take to get your gardens off to a great start. I will also go over a few of the plants you should be starting from seed in order to get them ready for your spring vegetable garden. The steps I am going to lay out will require a little work on your part, but I am sure that if you follow my directions, you will reap the rewards of a fantastic garden. Let’s get started.
Most of your existing vegetables are probably past their prime at this point of time, so you will need to clean out your garden by removing all the existing plants you still have growing. Now I know there are a few of you that have a couple of plants that are still producing. Well, if you want to keep those plants growing, then go ahead. However, please remove all of your other plants and weeds from the garden. Now is the time to top dress your garden with additional compost and fertilizer to prepare it for the spring planting season.
I like to top dress my garden every planting season. Top dressing a garden increases the nutrients and organic matter available to your new plants. The healthier the soil is, the bigger and tastier your vegetables will be. I try to add at least three inches or more of compost, Black Kow, and Peat to the top of my garden. Use a steel rake to spread the new material across your garden evenly. Next, I like to add dolomite over the top of the garden. Three to five pounds of dolomite spread over a ten by ten garden is sufficient. Finally, you need to add about three to five pounds of a good quality 8-10-10 garden fertilizer.
Once all the new materials are evenly distributed throughout the existing garden, you can begin turning or tilling them into the garden. This is the hardest part, but the results you will get will add pounds of fresh vegetables to your table. There is no need to till the soil deeper than six inches or one shovel’s depth, as most vegetable roots do not grow below this level. The key to a healthy soil is to do this now and then let the soil rest for several weeks before planting. This resting stage allows the soil microbes to work on the materials you have added, giving you the perfect medium to plant your seedlings in.
Start in the corner of the garden and work right to left across the garden. Try not to step on or compact the turned materials. Continue this process until you reach the end of the garden. Once you have finished, smooth the turned material with a steel rake. Now you need to cover the freshly raked garden with some black plastic or weed blocking material. Secure the edges of the material so the wind does not carry the cover away. By covering your garden, weed seeds and pests will be kept out of the garden while Mother Nature starts to “cure” the soil for your seedlings. Soil needs a resting stage to “digest” the materials you have added giving you the perfect planting medium in three to four weeks. While your garden rests, you should be planting the seeds you have selected to use in your garden.
Starting vegetables from seed is cost-effective and will give you more plants to use in the garden. You can also grow the plants you want to try instead of being limited by whatever the big-box stores have available. I highly recommend that you try a few of the heirloom varieties of seeds that are widely available online. Heirloom seeds are the old-fashioned varieties of vegetables your Grandmother used to plant. Not only are they easy to grow, but they are not genetically altered, and I think the flavor is much more intense. Check out this website for a huge selection of seeds for your garden http://www.totallytomato.com/. If you do not know what to plant this season, then let me make a few suggestions for you.
Bush and pole beans, cantaloupes, cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, potatoes, squash, tomato, and watermelons can all be started from seeds now. Depending on the size of your garden, you may consider starting a few of these or you can mix and match them to your taste. I know that many people tend to grow certain varieties year after year, but I like to try something new each season to see how they grow and taste. Different cultivars not only give you a new taste, but they can also add color and differing textures to your garden.
A good reference you may want to use to help you get the most out of your garden is published by the University of Florida. Just type into your browser the following address http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/vh021. This guide will help you lay out a new garden, prepare the soil, and give you information on what varieties of vegetables you can grow in your area. You will also learn about some of the problems to be on the lookout for when growing vegetables. Of course, you must get your seeds started first!
Do not be afraid to start many more plants than you would normally purchase from the garden center. A good thing about having more plants available to use in the garden is that you can sow several small gardens instead of having just one main garden. Sometimes, having only one garden where all of your plants are can lead to problems such as insects or disease. When you plant multiple garden sites, you can reduce the risks of pests or diseases taking over. Another thing I have discovered from planting in different areas around the home is that there is always room for one more seedling, so go ahead and plant a few extra.
In order to start your seeds you will need some sterilized potting soil and a few seed starter flats. Starter flats come in many sizes and styles. Some have individual cells numbering from twenty to thirty cells per tray. These are great for starting small seeds like peppers and tomatoes. Larger seeds like corn, squash, cantaloupe, and beans require bigger, deeper seed flats. Remember, as your seeds grow, you must transplant them into bigger containers to keep the root system expanding. Never over pot your seedlings. Step your seedlings up slowly by moving them to the next larger container and be sure to use additional potting soil each time. Once your plants have attained the one-gallon size, in about three to six weeks; it is time to put your plants into the garden. This is also just the right amount of time for the garden you have prepared above to “cure” and be ready for your transplants.
Keep your starter plants fertilized regularly. Every ten to fourteen days you should spray your starter plants with a liquid fertilizer like Miracle Grow or Peter’s plant food mixed at one-half strength and sprayed over the foliage. Spraying the foliage with fertilizer increases the absorption of the nutrients the plants need to produce new roots and begin to set fruit. Plants sprayed every two weeks will almost double the size of the plant and increase production dramatically. As always, be vigilant in checking your plants for signs of insects or disease and treat them accordingly.
Preparing the soil for your Spring Garden is essential to producing a good crop. Selecting the seeds you are going to plant can be fun and should include a few cultivars you have not planted before. Make sure your seedlings are well fertilized and of proper size before planting into your garden. When you are all done you will see the work you have put into the garden will give you food for the table and the soul. Enjoy what you do and remember, without plants, we would not be here!