We’ve had a very mild, somewhat wet winter this year, but gardeners shouldn’t rush out to plant their vegetable gardens just yet.
The temptation to put plants in the ground before March is sometimes overwhelming, so anxious are we to begin our spring garden. Late unexpected frosts around the end of February can lead to disaster for tender seedlings, even if they have been hardened off.
According to the USDA cold hardiness zone map, the last frost date in Zone 8, is between February 22 to March 30. Much of the upper Gulf Coast is in Zone 8, but in the southern part of that zone. For those of us who live in Zone 9, the average last frost date is between January 20 to February 28. Use your own judgement, but I would not plant any spring crop before March 1 and would probably wait until March 5 or, just to be sure.
Now, what to plant. You can see the chart above which has dates for planting. The information from this chart is taken from Texas Agrilife Extension Service and applies to Zones 8 and 9, and it provides windows in which to plant various spring vegetables.
Of course, tomatoes are the very first concern for most of us. Second probably comes peppers. Tomatoes should be planted after the last spring frost. Take the info above about last frost date and do with it as you wish. I will plant my tomato seedlings the first week of March, and barring any problems, I should have delicious tomatoes by April.
As for peppers, I have a friend who has a chili pequin TREE that he’s kept alive for decades. It’s still bearing fruit. I’ve kept a mucho nacho jalapeno alive for three years, but I’m sure some of you have done better than three years. Don’t know anyone except my friend who’s kept one alive that long.
Gardeners can plant vegetables, like eggplant, cantaloupe, okra, southern peas, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, and watermelon far into the summer.
Note that different varieties of the same vegetable may have differing ripening times. For instance, Early Girl tomatoes have a fruit maturity time of 55 days, while Celebrity tomatoes mature in 70 days. Most store-bought plants have maturity dates on the pots and seed packets do as well.
Remember too that many hybrid varieties of plants are resistant to different viruses and bacterial diseases. If you’re an organic gardener, note that hybrids are not GMOs.
Access these websites for more information about suggested varieties for the Gulf Coast area and days-to-harvest for each variety.
Did you know that Monsanto owned 40% of the garden seed market? That’s right, the maker of that premier Agent Orange product, Roundup, crept into the home gardening scene a few years ago. Already known for it’s development of genetically-modified organisms and for developing (and owning the patents on) a large number of vegetable and grain varieties), Monsanto sought not only to gain control of the seed genetics, but of the market itself.
In 2005, the chemical and agricultural giant bought Seminis, then the largest developer, grower and marketer of fruit and vegetable seeds in the world for $1.4 billion.
Last year, the chemical giant Bayer bought Monsanto for $66 billion. Bayer, as you may know from your history, used slave labor during WW2, and conducted medical experiments on female prisoners. Of course, that was 80 years ago, and we all tend to forget.
Bayer now controls the seed for 55 percent of the lettuce, 75% of the tomatoes, and 85 percent of the peppers in U.S. groceries. The company also holds a significant portion of the markets on beans, cucumbers, squash, melons, broccoli, cabbage, spinach, and peas. Interesting food for thought, not so interesting for our bodies and health.
In the list below. You’re sure to recognize the names of some important and popular seed sellers.
Here is a list of companies which are owned by Bayer (Monsanto), or sell seeds from them.
Dege Garden Center
Earl May Seed
E & R Seed Co
Flower of the Month Club
Germania Seed Co
Gold Country Seed
McClure and Zimmerman Quality Bulb Brokers
Mountain Valley Seed
Park’s Countryside Garden
R.H Rea Hybrids
Roots and Rhizomes
Seeds for the World
Seymour’s Selected Seeds
Spring Hill Nurseries
Tomato Growers Supply
Vermont Bean Seed Co.
Willhite Seed Co.
Remember the high school science class? No, neither do I, but if we were paying attention, we would have learned about the “litmus test.”
Here’s how it went, I’m told. First, you dip a piece of litmus paper into a solution, and it turns color…either red or blue. If the paper turns red, then the solution is acidic. If it’s blue, it’s “basic” or alkaline. If you’re interested in what litmus paper is, I think it’s made from lichens. I could go into that a little deeper, but I’m not that interested. If you are, either Google it or send me a message.
The critical point is that it tells you if the solution is acidic or alkaline. Chemists call the range between acidic and alkaline “pH.”
The term “pH” was first described by Danish biochemist Søren Peter Lauritz Sørensen in 1909. The o with the slash is called a “minuscule” by the way, and that’s all I know about it
pH is an abbreviation for “power of hydrogen” where “p” is short for the German word for power (potenz), and H is the element symbol for hydrogen. Why a Danish scientist used a German word is Greek to me, but he was a scientist, and I’m not, so I’ll just go with the flow. The H is capitalized because it is standard to capitalize element symbols. So now you understand about as much as I do.
Chemists and soil scientists have assigned a number to the pH test, ranging from 0 (highly acidic) to 14 (highly alkaline).
As I’ve said in other blogs before, soil is made up of living and non-living materials, both inorganic and organic. This melange of components creates some complicated chemistry. The pH designation and number are considered a “master variable” in soil science.
If I (or you, as the case may be) change the pH of a soil, the process can change biological, biochemical, and chemical processes in the soil and the interaction of those processes.
And here’s how it affects gardeners and farmers.
Let’s use phosphorus as an example. As most gardeners know, phosphorus is one of the three major nutrients that plants need. The other two are nitrogen and potassium. When you buy fertilizer, the law requires that each container on the bag provides the percentage of these three chemicals…nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K), or NPK.
Phosphorus is an excellent example of how pH can help or prevent plants from taking up nutrients in the soil. Phosphorus is essential to a plant. It plays a role in photosynthesis, respiration, energy storage and transfer, cell division, cell enlargement, and several other processes in plants. If the pH of the soil is between 5.5 (somewhat acidic) and 8.5 (slightly alkaline), plants can take in phosphorus.
But if the pH is outside those levels (lower than 5.5 on the acidic side or higher than 8.5 on the alkaline side), the phosphorus interacts with other soil minerals like iron oxides and carbonates. This interaction then locks up the phosphorus and make it unavailable to plants.
There is a “Goldilocks Zone” where the pH is just right. That range is between 6.5 and 7.5. This is the range in which most plants can access the nutrients they need.
How do you find out your pH? Get a soil test done. Here’s where you can go:
More articles you might like:
A variety of soil types exist along the Gulf Coast. And, they are all somewhat different.
Gulf Coast Marsh Soils
Found immediately along most of the upper Gulf Coast, these soils can be divided into four types: freshwater, intermediate, brackish, and saltwater. Lakes, bayous, tidal channels and man-made canals crisscross the area. Most of this land is highly susceptible to flooding.
The soils are poorly drained, almost continuously saturated, soft and can support little weight. The organic soils contain a layer of thick, gray undecomposed organic material over a clay-like sub soil.
Coastal Saline Prairies
Covering over 3 million acres and extending from Mexico through Louisiana. Just at sea level or a couple of feet above, it also contains areas of salt-water marsh and drainage is slow. The water table is either at or just below the surface. Used mostly for cattle grazing, or wetland wildlife refuges, residents have developed wonderfully bountiful gardens by amending soils.
Spanning over 9 million acres and stretching through Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, the coastal prairies range from 30 to 80 miles north of the Gulf. Even though surface drainage is slow, much of the soil includes dark-colored clays and loams. As most of us who live along the coast know, the topography is level and the soil amazingly productive. Rice, sorghum, cotton, corn, hay and sugar cane are major crops and productive home gardens abound through this area.
Alabama has coastal prairies as well, but little saline prairies and few coastal marsh soils. The Alabama coast, east of Mobile Bay, more closely resembles the upper Florida coast, with barrier islands, thin lines of beaches and then flatland forests inland.
Whichever of these areas you live in, you need to get your soil tested. See below for links to soil labs in each state:
There are some chemical properties you can determine on your own.
What color is your soil? Soil color reflects the amount of organic material, conditions of drainage and the level of oxidation and weathering of the soil.
Light-colored soil means low organic matter. Darker colors mean higher organic content. Also, light or pale colors of soil could mean courser soil and heavy leaching.
Dark colors can also mean high water tables and poor drainage (for instance the gumbo soil along the coast, or from the color of the parent material.
Red and yellow shades can mean finely-textured soil. It can also mean, as in the case of red dirt in Alabama and Florida, oxidized iron in the soil.
Red and brown subsoil show that there is free movement of air and water through the soil.
How coarse or how fine the mineral particles in the soil determine texture.
Sandy soils are generally coarser, while silt is fine, smooth and feels floury.
The finest soil particles make up clay, while loam has mixtures of clay, sand and silt, and also humus. There are different types of loam, each with its own characteristics: sandy loam (feels sandy and rough but has some silt in it; silt loam (feels smooth – like flour, when rubbed between your thumb and fingers); silty clay loam (feels smooth when dry – sticky and slick when wet but has noticeable amounts of silt in it; and clay loam (smooth when dry and sticky and slick when wet – there may be some amounts of silt and sand in it, but there is noticeably more clay).
There are over 5,000,000 acres of turf grass grown along the Gulf Coast. All are warm-season turf grass, each with its own characteristics and its own pros and cons. Others, like buffalo grass – although considered a warm-season grass – do not do well in Gulf Coast lawns. There are, however, three types of grass which grow reasonably well here. (Lawn statistics for the Gulf Coast)
If you’re new to the area, and want to see what Bermuda grass looks like, go to the nearest sports field. Sports fields usually have one of two types of surfaces. One is artificial turf. The other is Bermuda grass. The chief advantage of this turf grass is it has few disease or insect problems and, although it is a warm-season grass, it is more cold tolerant than other warm- season grasses. However, the main requirement for Bermuda grass is that it needs full sun. It is also much more tolerant of traffic than other types.
One disadvantage is that it does not tolerate shade, it turns brown after the first frost. However, just because it turns brown after the first frost, it is still alive but dormant. It will return to green in the early spring. Many gardeners (including myself) despise Bermuda grass because it is aggressive, quickly invades garden beds and is a devil to remove.
Bermuda grass needs about one inch of water a week during the growing season (April-October). That includes rainwater. So, if it rains an inch this week, you don’t have to water it at all – good news on your water bill. In fact, the three warm-season grasses mentioned here go dormant in the winter. Here is an example of a lawn that has not been artificially watered in over 2 years.
St. Augustine grass
St. Augustine is the most commonly used turf grass along the Gulf Coast.It is relatively shade-tolerant and may remain green but dormant throughout most winters here. Like Bermuda grass, it does need a lot of water (about one inch a week). It is the most tolerant of salt water, which can be a boon during hurricane season.
This turf grass is susceptible to disease and insect damage, its two major disadvantages.
Zoysia grass is becoming more and more popular among residents along the Gulf Coast. It’s almost as shade-tolerant as St. Augustine and has few disease or insect problems, Zoysia also requires much less water than either St. Augustine or Bermuda grass and it tends to be more wear-resistant than either of the two other grasses.
A disadvantage is that it is the earliest turf to turn brown at the first frost. It is also the last to green up in the spring.
When to sod
Although theoretically, all three grasses can be sodded anytime, the very best times to sod are late October and early April. Those months are cooler than our hotter late spring and summer and allow the grass roots more time to grow without the stress of extremes of temperature. April is also the best time to aerate your lawn and add compost to it.
Every winter and early spring along the Upper Gulf Coast, weeds begin appearing in even the best-maintained lawns. Chickweed, henbit, burweed, dandelion and other weeds, carried in by the wind, by birds, or merely lying in the soil for years until sprouting, begin their annual blight across our landscapes.
Whatever way they got there, our main concern is “how do we get rid of them?” Don’t despair. Homeowners have many choices to remove and eradicate these annoying plants.
Mow them down before they seed. Most of the weeds that appear in the lawn in late winter and very early spring can be destroyed completely by simply mowing them down before they form seeds. These weeds are annuals, like corn, tomatoes, begonias, petunias, nasturtiums and others – which means they only live for one year. They propagate their species by making seed and dropping it onto the ground in the spring. But if these plants are mown before they create seed heads, they cannot propagate. This is the least invasive method of getting rid of weeds in your garden.
Add organic material in spring and fall. Most lawns here are varieties of St. Augustine turf. St. Augustine is a very rugged, aggressive and durable warm-season grass. Healthy, strong, disease-free St. Augustine will eventually force out weeds. A quarter inch application of organic material, once in mid-October and another in mid-April will help the St. Augustine grass itself to eliminate the weeds.
Pull the weeds. Work-intensive and probably not the preferred method for homeowners and landscapers alike, this requires a lot of stooping, bending and kneeling. If one seeks a good workout, then this might be an acceptable method.
Pre-emergent herbicides. I do not recommend chemical herbicides. Herbicides containing benefin, trifluralin, isoxaben, pendimethalin and dithiopyr are effective as pre-emergents do work, but residents must be very careful in their use, read and follow instructions to the letter, avoid run-off (they can cause damage to both fresh and salt water marine life, as well as beneficial microbial life in the soil), and ensure that children and pets are not around when applying. Also, avoid tracking the material into the home. Wash clothes worn during application and run the washing machine empty immediately after washing those clothes. If the above doesn’t scare you or at least get your attention, then you should probably read Rachel Carlson’s book, Silent Spring.
Let the weeds grow. Although neighbors and covenants would probably object, the adage of “one man’s weed is another man’s flower” does have a certain charm. And, as Emerson said: “What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have never been discovered.”
“What tools should I get for gardening?” It’s a question I get just about every time I give a gardening lecture.
I’ve got a lot of gardening tools. Hand rakes, and four of five different shovels and spades, several types of pruners, a couple of pruning saws, as well as a bow crosscut, three or four hoes, some long- and short- handle weeders, dibbles, a hori-hori knife, a ton of hand tools, and a plethora of other instruments.
Interestingly, I rarely use them. For my vegetable gardening, I generally use only seven tools.
Hoe – I use a Japanese Draw hoe for weeds, to break up clods when I add soil to my raised beds, and to help create rows. It’s just the right size for me, and, because of its design, I can even use it with one hand.
Rake – I use a plain garden bow rake. It’s useful for spreading out soil and compost on my beds, and really helps in levelling beds. For fine leveling, I just turn the rake upside down with the tines sticking upward and drag the top of the rake across the soil. I also use my rake to mark rows for beans and other vegetables.
Hand trowel – My bend-proof garden trowel works well for digging holes for transplants, for patting down soil or adding soil or compost over seeds. It’s stainless steel and rust resistant, and I don’t have to worry about it bending (which has happened to less well-built trowels more than once. There are several makers who carry bend-proof trowels, so check them out and decide which is best for you.
Wagon – I grew tired of rolling an unwieldy wheelbarrow around the garden, especially when it was full of soil or other heavy materials. So, I splurged and bought myself a nice little wagon. It’s made of strong plastic, can hold up to 300+ pounds, and I can pull it along – a lot easier than pushing a one-wheel wheelbarrow. The wagon also has a lever that allows me to dump the contents – a great boon when unloading heavy compost.
Gloves – I have two sets of gloves. The nitrile pair is for summer use, and they last me for about one season. The other is more heavy-duty and somewhat insulated which I use for winter work.
Pocket knife – I always carry my Kershaw pocket knife. As a master gardener, I never know when I will get called out to check someone’s plants, and I can use my trusty knife to do a little soil investigation. It’s great for cutting twine, perhaps cutting small soil roots, prying seedlings out of pots and scoring rootbound seedlings.
My pruners – I have a set of Felco pruners, which are over 10 years old. Whenever I work in the yard, I always carry them in their holster attached to my belt. There are always situations that come up where my Felcos will be useful. And I keep them sharpened and well-cared for. I swear by my Felcos. And they offer right and left handed pruners…something us lefties see very seldom.
That’s about it. I won’t say that I never use my trenching shovel, because I do need it on occasion. Or my scoop shovel that comes in handy unloading a yard of compost from my pickup. Very occasionally, I will use one of my pruning saws to trim an errant shoot from my vitex or redbud. But those are really exceptions to the rule.
If you love buying tools, go ahead. But if you want to keep things simple, or you’re working on a tight budget, the seven things I mentioned are really the only tools you absolutely need to have a bountiful garden (vegetable or ornamental).
One word of advice: clean your tools and put them out of the weather after you use them. I wash mine with water making sure all the dirt and grime is off the tool. Then, I use rubbing alcohol and an old rag to sterilize them. I then coat them with a fine film of oil. My pruners and knife usually need sharpening, so I make sure I sharpen them, sterilize them and use a little drop of oil to keep them from rusting. Take care of your tools and they will last a long, long time.
I know it’s still January, but spring comes very early along the Gulf Coast. I’ve already ordered seeds for my spring vegetable garden, along with some annual flower seeds to enhance the look of my native garden.
The USDA tells us that the “average” date of the last frost here is around February 27. It also reports that we are “almost” assured that we will receive no frost between March 20 and November 1, making the frost-free growing season around 270 days.
I shoot for the average, and always plan to get my spring garden planted by the end of February, or the first week of March at the latest.
I try to get tomatoes in as soon as I dare, because even the shortest maturing tomatoes take about 55 days to produce fruit. That means that tomatoes won’t begin to come in until the third week in April. Tomatoes with longer maturities may go into May. By that time, it’s beginning to get really warm. Since tomato pollen is no longer viable when daytime temperatures reach 85-90 degrees and nighttime temperatures are at 75 or higher, it’s important to make sure they’re planted early enough.
If I wait until March 20, the date I am almost assured of no more frost, some of my tomatoes won’t be maturing until late May. By then it’s going to be far too warm for them to set fruit.
Here are some varieties which do well along the Upper Gulf Coast, along with how long it takes for the harvest to come in.
|Variety||Days to Harvest|
|Large Tomatoes(12 oz. +)|
|Medium 4-11 oz.|
|Small (under 3 oz.)|
|Sun Gold (Cherry)||65|
|Sweet Chelsea (Cherry)||65|
Wildflowers often appear in spring, sprouting in abandoned or fallow fields, pastures, along railroad tracks or country roads. The seeds initially brought there by birds, or other animals have reseeded themselves. Unlike many of our domesticated and non natives plants, wildflower reseeding occurs in the fall, when the flowers drop off, seeds form and fall to the ground.
A growing number of gardeners along the Gulf Coast are becoming particularly fond of native wildflowers, using them as accents in their yards. Some have entirely removed turfgrass and simply rely on native plants and wildflowers.
Like natural reseeding, most wildflowers need to be sown now for them to sprout in the spring.
How to sow wildflowers
Wildflowers and prairie grasses are best sown on bare ground. Decide the area you want to plant the seeds and then remove any vegetation from it. Rake the bare soil to loosen it, but don’t rake more than an inch. That’s because weed seeds may lie dormant deeper than an inch, bringing them to the surface will cause them to germinate.
Mix your seed with some coarse sand, equal to the volume of the seeds e.g., a palmful of seeds plus a palmful of sand. For larger areas, a pound of sand for a pound of seeds. Lightly spread the mix on the spots you’ve designated. Then, sprinkle more mixture of sand and seed a second time. Some gardeners add a light compost dusting. I prefer to press the seeds into the soil with my foot. Since wildflower seeds need sunlight to germinate, simply putting them in contact with the earth will be enough to ensure they will grow.
This method works particularly well when you have a patch of lawn that is not doing very well. Wildflower patches quickly replace dead grass, adding another element of beauty to your yard.
Some gardeners spread wildflower seeds direction over an area already covered by lawn. You will need to use more seed to compete with the turfgrass, but remember, turfgrass usually goes dormant in the winter. Since most wildflowers need cooler weather to begin the germination process, the dormant grass lessens the competition. Just remember not to mow that area in the spring, because, in addition to clipping the green, you’ll also top off the wildflowers.
Don’t expect a wildflower prairie right away. It may take up to three years for the plants to reach their full potential. But when it does, voila! You have a beautiful garden.
Great sources for wildflowers abound, but I have found two that are exceptionally good. And no, I do not make a commission from either of these sources:
Believe it or not, fall is the best vegetable growing season along the Gulf Coast. Snap beans, all the brassica, Swiss Chard, Cucumbers, potatoes, squash (summer and winter), tomatoes and turnips can be put in now or shortly. Others like carrots, beets, garlic, lettuce, mustard, onions, parsley, radishes, spinach and turnips can wait until November.
Beans: Put in snap beans in the next week or two. Good varieties include Blue Lake, Derby, Roma II, Topcrop, Jade, and Masai (haricot vert). Pintos include Arapaho and Dwarf Horticultural. If you like limas (and who doesn’t), plant Henderson Bush, Jackson Wonder, and King of the Garden. Plant all by seed.
Brassicas: Brocolli (Green Magic, Packman, Premium Crop), Brussels sprouts, cabbage (Bravo, Market Prize, Rio Verde), kohlrabi, and cauliflower can go into the ground around the first of October. The brassicas are cold hardy plants, so you can actually do succession planting for these for a supply well into the spring.
Cucumbers: Sow seeds now until the middle of September for maximum growth. Slicer varieties include Dasher II, Poinsett 76, Sweet Slice and Sweet Success. Pickling include Calypso, Carolina and County Fair 87. Most gardeners find that pickling varieties can be used for slicing and vice versa.
Potatoes: Plant slips around October 1. Suggested red varieties include Norland, Purple Viking, Red LaSoda. Irish recommendation is Kennebec.
Squash: Plant winter squash seeds now. Varieites might include Butternut types, Cushaw and Royal (acorn). Plant summer squash around October 1. Suggested varieities are Burpees Butterstick, Dixie and Multipik.
Tomatoes: Put the plants in the ground now. If you planned to start from seed, it’s too late for a fall garden. It takes at least a month and a half to grow seedlngs from seed, and the plants need to go into the ground now. For larger tomatoes (four ounces and bigger) try old favorities like Celebrity, Early Girl, Better Bush and Amelia. For smaller tomatoes, thy Charry Grande, Gold Nugget and Juliet. If you like to make tomato paste, try the standard Roma, or Viva Italia.
Beets: Beets can be planted from seed and should go in around the first of November. Varieties might include Detroit Dark Red and Ruby Queen. Beets are a cold-tolerant and a great winter crop.
Carrots: Plant seed by November 20. Suggested varieties: Imperator 58, Nantes Half Long, Red Core Chantenay.
Swiss Chard: Plant seed by October 20. Many good varieties to choose from. Some include Bright Lights, Lucullus and Ruby.
Collards: Plant seed by October 20. Many choices.
Garlic: Best time to plant cloves is anytime in November, or even December.
Lettuce: Plant around Dec. 1.
Mustard: Plant seed by December 1. Some varieties include Blue Max, Georgia Southern.
Onions: Plant bulbs in December. Varieites include Candy, Early Grano 502, Granex, and Texas 1015Y.
Parsley: Plant by Nov. 1.
Radish: Plant around December 1. Champion and White Icicle are two good varieties.
Spinach: Plant around December 1. Varieties include Bloomsdale, Early Hybrid and Melody.
Turnips: Plant around December 1. Varieties include Tokyo Cross and White Lady.
September vegetable garden chores
In a few weeks, slightly cooler weather will be arriving along the upper Gulf Coast. Now’s the time to get your garden ready for fall crops.
The first step, of course, is to clean your beds. Remove all the spent vegetable plants, chop them up and put them in the compost.
The next thing to do is remove any weeds, including that rampant pest, Bermuda grass. Try to get as much of the root systems out as you can. Since many of them probably are seeding, don’t put these in the compost. Instead, if you have a green waste pickup, put the weeds in there. If you don’t have this service, dispose of them some other way. Hopefully, you won’t burn them. As a last resort, put them in the trash.
Spread organic compost over the entire garden.
You might want to mix the compost into the top couple of inches of soil. Some gardeners simply spread the compost on top of the ground, and let it work itself in over the growing season. After laying the compost, spread about a quarter of a cup per square foot of organic fertilizer and rake it into the compost. Then wet the compost.
In the southeast Texas area, there are several organic composting facilities, but none elsewhere along the coast that I could find. For Southeast Texas, you can find natural composter facilities at this site: http://www.findacomposter.com.
There are many types of bagged compost labeled “organic,” but in many, the “organic” label is misleading. But that’s a topic for another blog.
Cool-weather weeds are a problem. However, since most weeds are annuals and reproduce by spreading their seed around, prevention is worth more than the cure. Some gardeners like to lay down a mulch of straw or pine needles to discourage weeds. Some even put a layer of newspaper down beneath the mulch for further weed protection. After laying paper, wet it down to keep it in place while you spread the mulch.
Wait a few days before planting, but, if you’re in a rush, go ahead and plant.
A noted French theologian once said that “man is the living layer of earth.” He was referring to the spiritual realm, I’m sure. Because there is another “living layer of earth” right below our feet – the soil.
That’s because good soil is alive with millions, billions, trillions – countless mega trillions of living creatures which are born, live, procreate and die every second. A teaspoon of good soil would contain millions of living creatures, while a shovel-full would hold billions. An acre would contain more living organisms than there are starts in our galaxy… perhaps in the entire universe.
These organisms are part of the complex nature of soil – which is different from dirt. I’ll call good soil simply soil in the rest of this article.
I have already written about how soil is formed. Here is a deeper view. Once the tiny bits of grains have deposited and some organic material begins to grow and die, bacteria, single-celled animals and fungi begin to colonize the growing soil and mineral mixture.
Picture yourself in a forest. A tree sheds its leaves. Those leaves, now on the ground, begin to decompose. It’s not a process that just happens. The organic compounds in the leaves are being consumed by living microscopic creatures (and some larger ones). A single bacterium lives about 12 hours, after which it divides. In 7 generations, that single cell with become more than 16 million duplicates of itself. You could see that, in a year, the total bacteria population would completely cover the earth.
However, there is a failsafe, which contributes to the soil being enriched. Bacteria in the soil are being consumed by larger single-celled animals, like amoebas and protozoans. And while these cells are dividing, they are being consumed by even larger creatures. Now, while all these microbes and macro-organisms are going through their life cycles, microscopically fine threads of symbiotic fungi are making their way from root to root.
It’s not over yet. Larger creatures – earthworms, pill bugs, beetles and other detritus-eating plants, munch away at the larger pieces of debris that the microbes did not finish consuming. The earthworms are especially adept at this, and they do more. By passing the detritus through their gut, they inoculate the particles with beneficial bacteria, which they then excrete back into the soil. Worms also make vertical tubes, allowing air and water to penetrate the soil.
Spiders, bug-eating beetles, ants, and other predators begin feasting on the earthworms and their helpers, adding their carcasses or depositing it as excretion onto the ground.
Now, even larger creatures come into the soil – like moles and birds. These predators love the other creepy crawlers and provide a useful purpose.
Every time I turn my compost in the spring, a robin perches near me waiting for worms. Since my compost is usually full of worms, except during the coldest days of winter, I don’t mind sharing them with this friendly avian. She waits until I have tossed four or five wriggling ones her way, she daintily picks each one up with her beak until she has all of them captured. Still holding them in her beak, she slams the worms against the crushed granite walkway until she has them dazed enough to her satisfaction. A quick flit to her next in a nearby oak, a couple of minutes there, obviously feeding her chicks and she’s back waiting for a more worm largesse. Occasionally, I’ll find her on top of my compost pile, scratching on her own – which is okay with me. I’ve got plenty of earthworms.
This is the natural flow of things making up the living layer of earth and an essential part of the planet’s recycling process.
June is here, hot and heavy. Last week the temp was 95, but the heat index was 131. Either is enough to limit time working in a vegetable garden.
The tomatoes are just about done. Peppers are still thriving, and cukes are still producing some, but now’s the time to put in some summer crops that thrive in our hot summers along the Gulf Coast.
There is a great deal of information here, so you might want to print this out and put it in your journal, notebook or pin it to the wall.
Here are some plants that do well in the summer heat:
This vegetable contains essential minerals, such as copper, potassium, iron; vitamins C, B6, A, K and also antioxidants. Eggplant can be set out as late as the last of June. For the best results purchase seedlings instead of starting from seed. If you start from seed, you won’t be harvesting eggplant – if you harvest any, for 100 – 150 days. Planting from seedling shortens the harvest date to about 70 days. You can plant seedlings through the end of June. Recommended varieties and days to harvest:
|Variety||Days to harvest|
Cantalope (or Cantaloupe)
High in beta carotene, Vitamin C, B9 (folate), and K; and also niacin, choline, calcium, magnesium,. Phosphorus, zinc, copper, manganese and selenium, this fruit makes a well-rounded and nutritious food choice. Plant through the end of June. Recommended varieties and days to harvest. Plant by seed.
|Variety||Days to Harvest|
Mustard greens originated in the Himalayan area of India over a half millennium ago. High in fiber, folate, copper, calcium, iron, manganese and vitamins K, A, C, E, and B6 and has been proven to lower cholesterol levels. Mustard greens, along with their look-alike, collard greens, can withstand both heat and cold. Mustard and collards look a lot alike but they are not related. Mustard greens are part of the mustard family and is actually considered an herb. Collards are actually from the Cole family (Brassica), which includes cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli. The best thing about mustard greens is you can plant them as late as the end of July. Plant by seed.
|Variety||Days to Harvest|
|Southern Giant Curled||50|
Okra comes from the West African word nkru and is a member of the Hibiscus family. Look at okra blossoms next time you grow some, and you’ll see what I mean. Okra probably originated near Ethiopia. The Egyptians cultivated it as far back as the 12th century B.C. Okra has high levels of vitamin A, B1, B2, B6, K, and C. A cup contains 1.93 grams of protein, folate and antioxidants. You can plant okra through the end of July and can plant by seed.
|Variety||Days to Harvest|
|Louisiana Green Velvet||55|
Don’t know why they’re called “southern” peas. Does that mean that only people in the south eat them? They’re also called “cowpeas”, because they were also used as cattle feed. However, give me a plate of purple hulls cooked down with some bacon and onions (and a little jalapeno thrown in for good measure), add a pork chop and some fresh tomatoes, and I’m in heaven. I’ve been known to make a meal out of purple hulls and bread. And crowder peas are my absolute favorite.
All varieties of these beans – black-eyed, crowder, purple hull, zipper and cream, are good sources of protein (100 grams equal 42% of the recommended daily intake). These peas contain lots of fiber as well. These peas are gluten-free, so provide an alternative food source for those suffering from gluten allergies and celiac disease.
I can’t say enough about southern peas. They contain folates, vitamins B12, and a host of copper, iron, manganese, phosphorus, selenium, calcium and zinc. All varieties of cowpeas can be planted by seed through the middle of August.
|Variety||Days to Harvest|
|Pinkeye Purple Hull||65|
Some see peppers as a flavoring…a way to spice up a dish. Others see it as a food source, rich in vitamins and minerals.
Originating in the Americas, peppers, both hot and sweet, have amazing health benefits. Raw, fresh chili peppers are very high in vitamin C, B6, K1, A, and minerals such as potassium and copper and antioxidants.
Peppers can be planted (theoretically) through the end of July, but don’t hold me to that.
|Variety||Days to Harvest|
|Mucho Nacho Jalapeno||75|
|Senorita (Mild jalapeno)||80|
Pumpkins are packed with Vitamin A, C, B2 and E. They also contain potassium, copper, manganese, and iron and small amounts of magnesium, phosphorus, zinc and folate. Antioxidants are also present. Pumpkin seeds are edible and nutritious. You can plant pumpkins by seed through the end of July.
|Variety||Days to Harvest|
|Trick or Treat||110|
The tubers of this plant are high in fiber, vitamin C, B5, B3, B6 and also high in manganese, magnesium and copper. Beta carotene, which gives it the distinctive color, is an antioxidant. Plant sweet potatoes through the second week in July.
|Variety||Days to Harvest|
Watermelons are packed with lycopene, an antioxidant. It actually has more lycopene than any other fruit or vegetable. They are a good source of vitamin C, B5, and A. It also contains potassium and copper. It is also the richest source of the essential amino acid Citruline, which is found in the white rind. Plant by seed through the end of July.
|Variety||Days to Harvest|
|Bush Sugar Baby||75|
*I have put links on actual planting, care and harvesting methods on each vegetable. Note that the sites they are linked to may not contain some of the information presented here, or, because they have been published in different parts of the country, do not reflect some of the recommendations I have made.
It really doesn’t matter what type of soil you have in your yard, garden or landscape. Any soil can be amended to make it fertile and robust.
As you can see from the chart above, each type of soil has its own properties. Clay soil has good nutrient- holding and water-holding capacities, but water and air cannot infiltrate into the clay. Clay is also hard to work. Dig a hole into clay soil and fill it with water. You can see what I mean. It takes forever for it to drain. Since clay is so dense, plant roots find it difficult to penetrate very far, leading to a weakened root structure and unhealthy plants. Soil amendments increase the porosity and allow water and air to flow through the soil.
Silt soils have medium capacities in all the categories, but to get the best results it will need to be changed somewhat.
Sand doesn’t hold nutrients or water very well. Pour water into sand and see how fast it drains through. Adding good amendments to sandy soil increases its water- and nutrient-holding abilities.
Now, loam is a different matter. Loam is an almost ideal plant-growing medium. It’s a mixture of equal parts of clay, silt, and sand. But, to make REALLY good soil, a few more ingredients are needed.
“ A soil amendment is any material added to a soil to improve its physical properties. In other words, you want to increase water retention, permeability, water infiltration, drainage, aeration, and structure. The overriding reason for this is to provide a better environment for roots,” according to a Colorado State University paper by J.G. Davis and D. Whiting.
There are easy ways to develop good soils.
I have found that organic materials are best, although some swear by inorganic methods. Organic amendments have come from something that was once alive…composted leaves and grass clippings (although it’s much better to mulch the clippings as you are mowing), peat moss, manure of many kinds, organic humates, straw (not hay because hay has tons of seeds), rotted wood (not fence slats or loading pallets) but wood from trees), fresh vegetable scraps, worm castings, and more. Although wood ash is organic, it is also high in sales and has a high pH.
You should also know this about organic materials. It helps the soil retain water, while also providing infiltration of both air and water. Soil with five percent of organic matter can hold up to three quarts of water per cubic foot. A 4,000 square foot lawn with that amount of organic matter (thus 4,000 cubic feet) can hold up to 3,000 gallons of water, and an acre can hold about 33,000 gallons. If water is a problem (many residents along the coast have their own water wells), it pays to remember that a good soaking rain can save a ton of water-and money – just by adding organic material. Some people make their own compost -others buy organic material (or steal it from their neighbor’s green recycling bin.)
Inorganic materials include vermiculite, perlite, pea gravel, sand, several other mined materials, and man-made crosslinked polymers. These materials are readily available.
I definitely prefer organic methods. I make my own compost- although I can never make enough to meet my needs. I do buy a lot, but I purchase it from local organic compost manufacturers. You can find a local organic composter near your area here.
One other good thing about organic material is that it inoculates the soil with beneficial organisms, which in turn help make nutrients more available to plants, as well as increasing the health of the soil.