By Keri Byrum
Because of its enviable winter climate, the Gulf Coast is a great place to grow your first vegetable garden. Take advantage of mild spring and fall weather to get your garden growing! Here are a few tips to keep you on track.
Start Small. I know, it can be extremely tempting to grow one of absolutely everything! When I started my first garden, I took out about half the lawn before I realized getting rid of the grass was the easy part. Make your first garden manageable, and you will be much happier with the results.
I like to see beginning gardeners make a raised bed for their crops. Whether you grow herbs or vegetables, a raised bed helps reduce weeds, improves the soil quality, and gives you a set area you can plan, plant, and maintain. It doesn’t have to be fancy, and many kits can help you. Even a simple frame made out of lumber holds 3–4 inches of fresh soil and gives your new garden the advantage it needs to grow a bumper crop. Fill your new garden bed with rich, dark soil or compost to provide nutrients for lush plants and to retain moisture.
Plants or seeds? After you figure out what to grow, the next question is whether to purchase plants or grow from seed. There is certainly an art to growing crops from seed, but the cost savings and enjoyment are worthwhile too.
For your first vegetable garden I suggest buying tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers as small plants. You can easily grow lettuce, radishes, beans, squash, cucumbers, okra, and corn from seed; all are great choices.
Plan for full growth. Yes, those little seeds need some room to grow. Read plant tags and seed packets carefully so you can give plants ample space to spread out. Having good airflow through your vegetable garden helps reduce pests and diseases that like tight, damp places.
If your seedlings grow too tightly, use a small scissors to snip out the ones you don’t need. It may be tempting to try to transplant the extras, but it’s not worth damaging nearby companion seedlings when digging.
When to plant. Timing is one of the easiest things you can control, and also one of the most crucial for success. Remember that cool-season winter crops for our area include leafy greens, such as lettuce, collards, Swiss chard, kale, and spinach, and should be grown October through April. These do well growing in cooler temperatures with lower humidity. Other plants to consider are onions, radishes, and cabbage.
The most difficult season is the heart of summer, May through September, when high heat and humidity can lead many plants to suffer, and succumb to pests and disease. A few thrive in these conditions, so plan to have your summer garden include sweet potatoes, okra, Southern peas, and cherry tomatoes.
Some of the most popular vegetables include tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and beans. These are all good spring and fall crops, so as you harvest your winter leafy greens, replace with these garden favorites. March through April is best for spring planting. Plant again in September, after your summer garden is complete. Knowing the best seasons for your crops and planning out the entire year helps keep your garden focused and continues your harvests year-round.
Remember your pollinators! Those small flowers on your vegetables need to be pollinated, and this is where companion plants come in handy. Include some flowers to help attract bees to aid pollination. Edible flowers, such as nasturtiums, offer a bonus: Their peppery flavor and bright flowers spice up salads!
Spring is a great time to get your first vegetable garden growing. Think carefully about the crops you want to grow, and set a realistic game plan. Remember, you can always expand your garden next season.