Food prices are up and predicted to go higher. Prices are getting folks attention when they shop at local food stores.
If saving money is the main reason for growing vegetables, compare the cost of produce at the store. Herbs, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and squash are more expensive than potatoes, greens and beans. Other reasons to garden are food safety and the satisfaction of growing your own food. By growing your own vegetables, you control the types of pesticides that are applied. Mid March is the time to plant warm-season vegetables, so get started now to beat the pests.
Here are a few tips if you are new to the gardening scene:
Siting the garden
Select a site that will receive a minimum of six hours of full sun. To reduce disease problems, morning sun is preferred and a little shade in the hot afternoon is not a bad thing. Water is critical to the success of the garden, so position the garden close to a water source. Soil should be well drained and will likely need additional organic matter. Avoid areas around trees and woody shrubs because of competition with roots.
Plan on paper
If you're a first time gardener, keep the garden small. The average size garden is 300 to 600 square feet. Decide which vegetables you like the most and draw a garden plan on paper. Plant taller crops or plants that require a trellis on the north side, while shorter crops, like squash, are planted on the south. If growing corn, plant in multiple rows or in blocks, because corn is wind pollinated. If space is an issue, inter-plant short and long-term crops together. For example, plant lettuce at the base of corn, or snap beans with sweet potatoes. Corn can be versatile by serving as a trellis for beans or cucumbers. For a small garden, the distance required between rows is not important; just follow the space needed between plants.
Prepare the site
The first step in preparing the site is to clear sod, weeds or any debris. Then cultivate or turn the soil to a depth of 6 to 12 inches. At the same time, add organic matter to enrich the soil. If using composted animal manure, add 25 to 100 pounds per 100 square feet. Avoid incorporating fresh manures into the garden. Fresh manures must be composted for 90 to 120 days before planting. Compost can be substituted at the rate of 1 pound per square foot. In addition, mix in 2 pounds of a 10-10-10 or comparable fertilizer per 100 square feet. Another option is to mix in a slow-release fertilizer (like Osmocote) for vegetables to avoid having to side-dress plants throughout the growing season. Just prior to planting, rake to make sure the soil is fine and free of clumps. If drainage is a problem, make rows 12 inches higher than the existing soil to help the plants survive standing water. Don't add lime without first knowing the soil pH. Take samples from several areas in the garden, mix together and place in a pint container. If the soil is wet, air-dry the soil prior to taking it to your local County Extension Service. Vegetables like a slightly acid soil with a pH between 5.8 and 6.5.
Plant the garden
Beans, cantaloupes, collards, corn, cucumbers, eggplant, okra, peanuts, Southern peas, peppers, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, summer and winter squash, tomatoes and watermelon can be planted through April. The easiest vegetables to grow for the beginning gardener are beans, eggplant, okra, peanuts, peppers, squash and cucumbers. Tomatoes have many disease and insect problems but are worth the extra effort. Some vegetables are best grown from seed, whereas others should be planted as transplants. Tomatoes, peppers and eggplant are best purchased as transplants. The rest can be planted from seed, with the exception of sweet potatoes, which are grown from cuttings (slips). Select varieties that are good for our area. Buy disease-resistant varieties, especially tomatoes. Look for the term VFN on the tag, which refers to disease and nematode resistance. If tomatoes transplants are too tall (leggy), plant them deep to develop an extensive root system and get better production.
For more on vegetable gardening, go to http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/vh021.
Maintain the garden
At planting time, side-dress with 4 ounces of 10-10-10 per 10-foot row. Apply fertilizer in bands 1 inch deep and 2 to 3 inches away from the seed row or plants. If you used a slow-release fertilizer like Osmocote, you can skip this step. Water new plants at short but frequent intervals to get them established. Apply water early in the morning to reduce disease problems. Another option is to use a flat soaker hose turned upside down or a drip system to keep water off the leaves. Once plants are established, water less frequently but for longer intervals.
Apply a 2- to 3-inch layer of organic mulch to conserve water and reduce weeds. Pine straw, mini pine bark, or leaves (oak, maple, etc.) are all good sources that can be worked into the soil after the gardening season to increase organic matter.
Some gardeners lay down two to four layers of newspaper (black-and-white print) along the rows, and then cover with an organic mulch.
Plastic mulches have become popular in commercial production. Silver, aluminized or metalized plastic mulch repels aphids, thrips and silverleaf whitefly, which reduce the risk of some viruses and diseases.
If you don't have the space for a traditional in-ground garden, try growing a few plants in containers. It is very easy to make or purchase a raised bed which can be as small as 4 by 4 feet. Large containers or grow boxes are excellent ways to grow many vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers or eggplants. Large containers will require less watering, so don't skimp on the size.
Select a good medium that holds moisture (peat) but has some bark to help with drainage in case we get heavy rains.
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