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Gardening Resolution #4:
Grow and Eat Nutritious Foods
by Mary Helen Ferguson, Extension Agent, Horticulture
This week, we’re on gardening “resolution” number four of the five that I suggested in January’s column: Grow and eat nutritious foods. This month I’ll write mostly about vegetables, and next month, I’ll address fruits. Many of us in Randolph County have yards where we can grow vegetables. According to our “Home Vegetable Gardening” publication, a “25-by-42-foot garden…should produce most of the vegetables needed for canning, freezing, and fresh use by two people for one year.” (This same publication [http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort/hil/ag-06.html] suggests how many plants or how much seed to use per person and gives a comprehensive-20+ pages-overview of vegetable gardening.)
It may be helpful to mix about two inches of organic material, such as leaves, compost, or manure into the soil in the season before planting to loosen clayey soil, improve drainage, increase biological activity (earthworms, microbes that compete with plant diseases, etc.), and provide a source of slow-release fertilizer. Applying and mixing in the organic matter a season ahead of time gives it time to break down, in the case of leaves, and reduces risk associated with using animal manures. If you use something like manure or compost that can contain high levels of nutrients, it is advisable to plant a cover crop, such as cereal rye, annual rye grass, oats, or wheat, to prevent the nutrients from leaching from the soil, and possibly into ground water, over the winter. (Cover crops can be helpful by themselves, too-grasses or grains help to build organic matter that can be tilled into the soil, and legumes (plants in the pea and bean family), such as crimson clover or, in the summers, cowpeas, added nitrogen to the soil).
If you’re using an area that you have not soil tested before, or if you haven’t soil tested the area in several years, I suggest taking a soil test several months before you want to plant so you can find out how much fertilizer is recommended and how much, if any, lime is needed (yes, it is possible to over-lime and, of course, to over-fertilize). Soil pH, which lime raises, is important, as the pH affects how much of the different plant nutrients are available to the plant. For vegetables, the ideal pH range is generally around 6.0 – 6.5. If you’re using compost, you might wait and test the soil after you mix it in, because some compost raises soil pH.
If planting in rows, rows running north-to-south are suggested-this allows both sides of each row to get comparable amounts of sunlight over the course of the day (assuming one side is not shaded more so than the other). Practicing crop rotation is also recommended. This means not planting the same crop (or, ideally, crops from the same plant family) in the same place in consecutive seasons so that pests, such as plant diseases that live in the soil, are not as likely to build up in the soil.
Vegetables don’t have to be planted in rows. For example, they can be integrated into landscape beds, especially if you’re just putting out a few plants. If you don’t have any yard for a garden, you may still be able to have a container garden, if you have a spot with enough sunlight (most need at least 6 hours of full sunlight daily [lettuce and some of the other leafy greens are exceptions]). Several keys to container gardening are 1) use potting soil, whether you buy it or make it (you can call me if you want info on how to do this)-garden soil is not likely to provide good enough drainage-2) make sure you have drainage holes in your container, and 3) check the containers often to see if they need water. For more on container vegetable gardening, you can see http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort/hil/hil-8105.html. The rule of thumb for vegetables planted in the ground is 1″ of water per week, but water generally evaporates out of containers more quickly than from the ground.