Spring has sprung and for those who enjoy gardening, it’s time to think about planting that vegetable garden. There’s nothing like the pride and enjoyment of growing your own vegetables. But if it’s your first time, there’s a bit of information you need to be mindful of before diving in. Things like planting times, planting zones, soil requirements, sunlight availability, and planting spacing are all important to the success of your garden.
KNOW YOUR ZONE
Before any planting can be done, you must first learn about your geographical location as it impacts what to plant and when. The USDA has issued a Plant Hardiness Zone Map to help guide you on choosing plants that survive well in your area. Most nurseries in your area only sell what will thrive in your area, but if you’re considering ordering online or via catalog, knowing your zone is important in choosing your plants.
WHEN TO PLANT
Publishers of The Old Farmer’s Almanac have an excellent tool on their website that shows you a detailed planting calendar based on your city or zip code. Simply enter your information and you’ll get planting dates for Spring and Fall, a list of vegetables, and dates for when to start your seedlings indoors, move them outdoors, and start seeds outdoors. We tried it out by entering “30512” into the search field. The results shown indicated that typically for Blairsville, the last frost occurs on May 1st. The list of vegetables is linked to individual pages about when to plant, how to plant, growing information, and more. Leave it to The Old Farmer’s Almanac to develop a tool worth bookmarking!
WHERE TO PLANT
Knowing where to plant what will take a bit of research but will make your efforts worthwhile once you’re eating the fruits of your labor. Depending on what you’re growing, you’ll need either full sun, partial sun, partial shade, or full shade. If you’re buying seedlings or plants from a local nursery, that information will likely be on the hangtag. But if you’re not, you’ll want to use the tool mentioned above to look up each vegetable you want to plant.
How do you tell how much light a certain part of your yard is getting? This is a bit tricky as light changes throughout the day. According to the Southern Living Plant Collection, the sunlight amounts are as follows:
- Full sun – 6 hours of direct sun daily
- Partial sun – Between 3 and 6 hours of direct sun per day
- Partial shade – Between 3 and 6 hours of sun per day, however plants need protection from the intense mid-day sun
- Full shade – Less than 3 hours of direct sun per day
You can read more about understanding sunlight on Southern Living Plant Collection’s “Guide to Sun Exposure”. Their entire website is full of great information and ordering of your favorite shrubs, trees, annuals, and perennial plants.
The optimal place for a vegetable garden is on level ground or a slight incline. Avoid low locations that stay damp in the spring when picking a location. Gardening at the bottom of a slope should also be avoided since air can produce a frost pocket.
You’ll want to take note of your property's topography or landscape. Low places are cooler than upper slopes because cool air descends and warm air rises. Frost pockets can form in depressions, trapping cold air and extending the frost period. Slopes that face north are shadier and cooler, whereas slopes that face south are sunnier and warmer. Because of erosion from above, hillside soil is shallow, whereas valley soil is deep and rich. Hillsides are drier as a result of water drainage, but the bottom of the slope may be wetter. Additionally, higher elevations tend to be windier and drier, especially in winter.
Make sure there's plenty of water close to your gardening spot. Nothing exhausts a new gardener more than lugging water to parched plants during a heatwave. Plus, having water nearby means you're less likely to forget to water your plants if you're feeling lazy one day!
During dry seasons, extra water is likely to be required, so place new garden beds near an external water source. Because the soil near walls, fences, and overhanging trees is too dry for healthy plant growth, it's better to plant in an open location.
Water conservation should also be considered when designing your landscape. More information about watering—including a watering chart—can be found here on The Old Farmer’s Almanac website.
Make sure your position is safe from strong winds. Most crops, especially those that grow vertically and produce a lot of fruit, including tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, peas, beans, and other climbing vegetables, benefit from wind protection.
Plants and soil are dried out by strong winds, which can tumble tall plants like maize and sunflowers. Most plants' transpiration and development are also slowed by the wind. Cold, dry winds are the worst because they rob plants of moisture, scorching foliage and creating windburn, which kills leaves and blossoms.
Remember that while strong walls or fences provide protection, they can also produce harmful turbulence on the sheltered side, so don't plant too close to them. Wind is filtered rather than deflected, therefore hedges and open or woven fences are more effective.
Rich, loamy soil is great for gardening. You're either out of luck or will have to do some work to prepare the soil for growing if you have poor or thin soil (see below). Looking at your yard, especially if you have grass, is a quick way to determine the condition of your soil. You probably have good soil if it's lush and healthy.
"Loamy" soil contains about equal percentages of sand and silt, with a little quantity of clay. A decent proportion is 40 percent sand, silt, and clay, with 20 percent clay. This is the perfect mixture for growing the majority of plants. This will be an issue if your soil contains too much clay or sand, and you will need to amend with organic matter. Plants will suffocate in clay soil that is wet for too long, while sandy soil may drain too rapidly, parching them. Both circumstances prevent plant roots from absorbing nutrients.
Drainage is excellent in good soil. Dig a test pit about 1 foot deep, width, and length to evaluate the drainage in your garden soil. If there is standing water beneath the surface, this pit will show it. You'll be able to see how the earth drains as well. To test, pour 12 gallons of water into a wet trench and see how long it takes for it to drain. If it takes a few hours, that's fine; if it takes days, water may pool beneath the surface during irrigation in the summer, suffocating roots and causing anaerobic soil conditions.
A soil test is the most accurate approach to determine the quality of your soil. The University of Georgia Cooperative Extension’s county office can test your soil for $15, giving you information about its structural quality (sandy, loamy, or clayey), pH level (acid or alkaline), and nutritional health (considering nitrogen, potassium, and other necessary elements that plants need to grow well).
However, because plants' roots may eventually reach beyond the raised bed, you should still consider getting your soil tested for raised beds. This is especially critical in cities and suburbs, where lead and other hazardous elements may be present.
For soil analysis information from The University of Georgia Cooperative Extension, visit this page. Note, all testing is done at the county extension office so you’ll want to locate the office near you to drop off your sample. To properly submit a sample, you’ll need to follow the detailed instructions outlined here. All submissions also require a completed form found here.
Other options for soil testing include at-home test kits found at your local retailer or online.
Microclimates, which are places with varying weather conditions caused by natural or artificial reasons, can be found in almost every yard. When choosing a garden site, examine your surroundings and take into account nearby structures, trees, plants, hard surfaces, and other variables.
At different times of the day, a building such as a home, fence, shed, or high wall will throw shadow and lower temperatures on its east, north, and west-facing sides. Meanwhile, the south half of the island will be warmer. Frost pockets can form on the object's windward (windward-facing) side. During the summer, the earth in shaded regions holds moisture for a longer period of time. The vertical object's leeward (downwind) side, on the other hand, will reduce rainfall, making the neighboring land drier. Trees and hedges in the area should also be considered.
Structures can assist protect plants from severe winds, but they can also form wind tunnels that reroute the wind, such as at the end of a fence. Inside, walled courtyards provide a warmer and more wind-protected environment. On their windward side, fences, walls, and hedges trap blowing snow into tall drifts, potentially crushing plants.
Deciduous trees act as structures, but their three-season shading has other effects. Although a tree canopy collects rain, making the land beneath it drier, the ground beneath a tree canopy is slightly warmer and less prone to frost. This is exacerbated by shallow-rooted trees like maples, which fight for moisture with other plants. Rooftops and nonabsorbent materials, such as concrete, asphalt, and stone, are impermeable surfaces that prevent liquids from passing through. They can cause water runoff problems by channeling water to specific regions based on the slope of the surface. This isn't simply a problem at ground level; clogged gutter runoff can drench foundation plants and induce lethal root rot.
Impervious surfaces affect temperature because they are dense and impermeable. Heat is absorbed and released by nonpermeable materials such as sidewalks, driveways, roads, walls, and patios. Even a house can absorb heat during the day and release it at night, so nearby regions will be warmer at night, especially on the south side.
Consider how much work it will take to develop a garden bed in the space you choose when deciding where to put your garden. Remember that you may need to...
- Grass and topsoil should be torn up.
- Large rocks or roots should be dug up.
- If the soil has too much sand or clay, amend it.
- To keep deer and other creatures out, build a fence.
- Construct an elevated bed
- Keep weeds and exotic species at bay.
Gardening can be time-consuming, so start with a small bed and concentrate your efforts there for the greatest results.
If you’re new to gardening, this may seem like a lot of information to digest. But once you get started, you’ll learn quickly. However, if you’re nervous about trying your hand at your first vegetable garden, ask your friends and family—preferably the green thumbs of your circle—for advice.
SOMETHING TO CONSIDER
Your local county UGA Extension office offers lots of help to gardeners. They’re hosting a virtual event Tuesday, March 22nd from 6 pm to 7 pm called “Preparing Your Trip to The Garden Center” when they discuss tips before heading out to buy your Spring plants. The event is free and open to the public. The Zoom link can be found here. Happy gardening!