Whether this is your first year of gardening or 50th, success with growing vegetables is most dependent on good site preparation and planting the right things at the right time. Spring is a great time to start.
Vegetables need at least six hours of direct sunlight per day, so plan your garden for a site that meets that requirement. Vegetables can be grown in containers on a patio or deck if the rest of the yard is too shady.
Soil is the next most important thing after sunlight. Soil is a source of air, water and nutrients for plants and provides support to them. Because good soil is hard to find, you may need to do a little soil improvement prior to planting — and trust me — a little work goes a long way when it comes to soil.
Adding compost or organic matter is the best way to improve garden soil. Any kind of compost will do — just be careful with stable manures. Stable manures should always be fully composted before being added to the vegetable garden to reduce the risk of microbial contamination that could lead to foodborne illness. Also, some pesticides can be carried through manure when animals feed in pastures treated with those pesticides. At least one of those is widely used for brush control and inhibits plant growth if it makes it to your garden. Also, horses’ digestive systems do not process weed seeds, so horse manure can sometimes add to the number of weeds in a garden.
Never add sand to garden soil to improve drainage — it typically only worsens the problem.
If there is time, you should also have your soil’s pH and nutrient levels analyzed. I admit that I listened to this piece of advice for years before following it. When I finally tested the soil from my vegetable garden, I learned I had a high soil pH that was creating a less favorable environment for plant growth. I added sulfur to lower the pH and have seen a noticeable difference in plant growth.
The only drawback of soil testing is that it takes two to three weeks for the lab to analyze the sample and me to write recommendations for you. If you can wait at least a few weeks to start planting, bring the sample in as soon as possible. If you have already planted your garden, keep soil testing in mind for summer or winter when we are receiving fewer samples.
Soil samples can be submitted for testing from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday at K-State Research and Extension-Douglas County, 2110 Harper St. Testing is free when grant funds are available through the Douglas County Conservation District. When grant funds are exhausted, soil testing is $8 per sample.
Once the soil is ready to go, you can start planting. Some vegetables prefer the cooler days of spring, while some simply will not grow until things heat up a little. If planting now, start with cool-season vegetables such as lettuce, spinach, radishes, peas, potatoes and onions.
As much as you are itching for fresh tomatoes, wait until late April or early May to plant them. Tomato plants need the warmer soil that we will not experience until later this spring.
Once all chance of frost has passed (April 15 is the average date of last frost in this area), you can plant warm-season crops like tomatoes, peppers, sweet corn, squash, melons and beans. Again, these plants are dependent on soil temperature for good growth, so there is no reason to get in a big hurry to plant. Sometimes I plant a second crop of tomatoes in June, and I have planted sweet potatoes in early July.
For recommended vegetable varieties and a calendar of what-to-plant-when, stop by the extension office, or visit K-State’s online Horticulture Information Center at www.ksre.ksu.edu, then click on “Horticulture Info Center.”