First, I know we all got caught up in the “frenzy” that is Earth Day. I saw you at Lowe’s getting a free tree and a basket full of tomato plants. It’s easy to spot a virgin in the plant section. Those clean fingernails are a dead giveaway.
Let me help make your garden a success. First, do NOT plant tomato plants until the soil is almost 60 degrees. Last week, I started the Botanical Interests heirloom seeds (see this link on how to win free seeds). In Atlanta, the weather has been too unpredictable for tomatoes. Billy and I never plant tomatoes before May. The plants will only sit in the earth and wait for the temperatures to rise before they begin growing. During that time every insect under the sun will start looking for something to eat and guess who is available? Sure, go ahead and buy the plants, just care for them indoors until Mother Nature decides to heat things up.
What you can do is prepare the soil. I highly advise shredding newspapers and incorporating them into the soil when planting tomatoes. Save all newspapers from now until fall then at the end of the season I’ll share how to work them into the garden. What you can and MUST do is start saving egg shells. Place egg shells in the oven on 350 degrees for about five moments, then crumble the shells into pieces. Store in a container. These will be planted with the tomatoes in about two weeks.
Virgin vegetable gardeners are easily discouraged when blossom end rot appears on those beautiful green tomatoes. Blossom end rot is a result of calcium deficiency. Prevent it by planting egg shells with the tomatoes. A sprinkling of powdered milk also does the trick. I know this sounds odd, but please trust me.
Now is the time to also begin collecting used coffee grounds and tea leaves. This organic matter can be added to the soil 365 days a year. For those wanting to incorporate manure into their vegetable garden, please, please do not use fresh horse manure, or manure from stalls with cedar shavings. Cedar takes years to decompose. Be advised that horse barns love to give away “free” manure. Most will say what you are shoveling is “seasoned.”
Here is a quick way to tell if manure is truly seasoned. If it smells like amonia do not use it on the garden. The manure is green or “hot.” Seasoned manure is dark in color and does not smell (well, it doesn’t smell bad). Unseasoned, green manure will ruin the garden by burning plants and changing the soil’s ph. Please, be careful. It is perfectly acceptable to acquire manure, cover it with a tarp and “cook it” during the growing season. However, do not use on this year’s garden. Also, do not place it near prized trees as the concentration of acidity can severely damage and kill trees.
I have recently been converted to Organic fertilizer (the purchased in-a-bag kind). This pungent plant additive is basically poultry litter. Naturally a skeptic, I liberally scattered it throughout the flower and vegetable garden. Note: this is best done prior to a rain to decrease the offensive aroma. What happens is that the fertilizer decomposes in days and actually becomes a compost-type additive to the soil. I have noticed an immediate improvement in soil condition. I added the manure prior to planting and will double-dig it when I plant. Additionally, my hope is that by using this particular type of fertilizer, I won’t overdo it like last year.
I am a recovering over-fertilizer. It’s a process, this road to recovery, but I digress.
As for what can be planted: There is still time to plant “greens.” Lettuce, Kale, Collards, etc. Lettuce particularly likes the moisture of spring. Mist it with a water bottle and literally in weeks a salad garden will emerge.
Cucumbers, that need an abundance of water, can be planted now in order to establish healthy roots. Do not water them until absolutely necessary. The goal is to encourage all plants to seek their own water. The more water applied early in the year, the more shallow the plants roots. Healthy plants need deep roots.
Beans can also be planted now. It is too late for peas (sorry). Keep the seeds and plant them in January. Expiration dates are a guide, not a cardinal rule.
As always, keep those hands dirty and feel free to contact me with any questions you might have.
Renea Winchester is the award-winning author of the book In The Garden With Billy: Lessons About Life, Love & Tomatoes.