Master Gardener Norris Wootton, pictured at Mark’s Greenhouse Nursery and Landscaping at 2803 Wilmar Lane in Albany, is preparing for summer with a vegetable garden. (Staff photo: Laura Williams)
“Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant.” - Robert Louis Stevenson
If you have been itching to get out and dig in the dirt after our unusually cold winter, April is the time. I hope you did some preliminary digging in March making all your vegetable garden rows ready. If raised beds with wood or stone sides are not to your liking, you can still make slightly raised beds with a shovel and some elbow grease. Even a small elevation provides better drainage for your plants’ root systems.
April is the time to plant warm season crops such as beans, cantaloupe, corn, okra, field peas, peppers, squash and tomatoes. The average last frost date is now March 5th for this area, but we had a hard freeze in late March in 2013. If you grow corn, snap beans or squash, you may want a second or third planting later in April.
I like to grow my tomatoes and peppers from seed, so that I can try different varieties each year. I had three tomatoes, two peppers and one type of eggplant in a sunny window in early March. Later I potted up the seedlings to paper cups. The nice thing about paper cups is that by the time your plant is ready to go in the ground, the paper is beginning to rot. You may easily peel it off, spread out the tiny roots and plant your tomato. For full information on growing your own plants and setting out garden transplants see UGA Extension publication 947. http://www.caes.uga.edu/Publications/index.cfm
If you did not raise tomatoes from seed this year, you may still be adventurous by looking for different varieties in local nurseries. I have tried out some real losers in my continuing quest for varieties new to me, but I have also discovered tomatoes and peppers that produced well and tasted great. Try a tomato that is new to you this year. You may be pleasantly surprised.
I do not cook much with hot peppers as my husband does not care for them, but we both enjoy pepper vinegar on field peas and greens. Pepper vinegar is expensive in the grocery, but it is easy to make your own with cayenne peppers from your garden.
Many years ago, I attended a garden workshop where I learned to plant tomatoes in a shallow trench. If you lay the tomato on its side in the trench, it will grow nice roots all along the stem. This produces a stronger plant. The leafy end you leave above ground will soon grow upward. You may want to wrap the stem just below those leaves to protect from cutworms.
I use blood meal, composted cow manure and two tablespoons of Epsom salts thoroughly worked into every planting hole for the peppers, tomatoes and eggplants. The Epsom salts provide a little boost of magnesium for the plants in the Solanaceae or nightshade family. Squash plants particularly like composted cow manure. UGA Extension recommends side dressing with fertilizer two to three weeks after planting. Side dressing means placing and scratching in the fertilizer in a band three inches out on either side of the plants in the row.
By now some may think I am like a broken record continuously praising the wondrous virtues of mulch. Whether you grow flowers or vegetables, all garden maintenance is easier if you keep a healthy layer of mulch around your plants. There is one time you should not mulch. Do not mulch around your tomatoes, peppers or eggplants until the soil has completely warmed up for the spring. These plants like warm weather and mulch cools the soil a bit. Add mulch when the soil is warm, and you think it is likely to stay warm.
Folded newspaper makes an excellent under-layer for your garden paths. You may then cover up the paper with pine straw or hay. The thick layer of paper under the straw means you will need to buy less straw.
Most garden guides recommend drip irrigation to conserve water and avoid spreading soil diseases. If you use an overhead sprinkler, be sure to water very early in the morning so your plants will have time to dry out during the day. A simple timer makes the process convenient and still works if you are away.
UGA Extension leaflet 943 provides a nice garden calendar for the whole year. It cautions that you should not try to work in your garden when it is very wet. That may spread disease from one plant to another.
Try not to use any pesticides in your vegetable garden this year. When tomato hornworms appear in the summer, just pick them off and stomp them. It’s a fine way to dissipate aggressive tendencies. Try to conserve water with mulch and early watering. Try some different tomatoes, but mostly just enjoy seeing the things you planted grow and produce.
Norris Wootton is a Master Gardener Extension Volunteer who gardens in Terrell County. She is a member of SOWEGA Master Gardeners and the Georgia Master Gardener Association.