January is the month to start preparing for a vegetable garden in the backyard. The amount of money invested in seeds, fertilizer and a few tools will more than offset the relaxation, healthy outdoor exercise most gardeners encounter.
The garden site should be an area exposed to full or near full sunlight with deep, well-drained, fertile soil. The site should be located near a water supply, away from trees and shrubs that would compete with the garden for light, water and nutrients.
Start off with a small garden. A garden 10 feet by 10 feet will give the novelist gardener enough space to grow a few vegetables, but not to big that weeds and insects become too much to maintain. A border around the garden will keep the number one weed, bermudagrass, from invading the garden. A border made from landscape timbers, concrete or metal edger will work. Raised beds can also make excellent gardens for the novelist gardener.
Now is time to start tilling the soil for this spring growth. Till the soil 6 to 10 inches deep to break up clay soils and remove any plants growing in the garden. An addition of organic materials such as compost, manure, peat moss, dried grass clippings and other decayed matter tilled into the soil will give clay and sandy soils a boost. If a soil test was not taken, add about one pound of 10-20-10 per 1000 square feet or any other complete fertilizer to soil to make sure all nutrients are adequate.
What vegetables to plant and when is based on the temperature that plants can tolerate? Vegetables are classified as cool-season and warm season plants. Cool-seasoned plants are those vegetables usually planted from February 15 to March 10. Cool-season vegetables are beet, broccoli, cabbage, carrot, cauliflower, lettuce, onion, green peas, potato, radish, spinach, and turnips. Warm season-vegetables are those that are usually planted from April 10 to May 31. These vegetables include beans, cantaloupe, cucumber, eggplant, okra, pepper, pumpkins, peas, squash, corn, sweet potato, tomato, and watermelon.
Planting time, seed depth and harvest date of vegetables are printed on the seed package or transplant tag. The county Extension office has the fact sheet “Oklahoma Gardening Planning Guide” that will give you all the information needed for a successful garden.
Most vegetables will be sold as seeds; however, many are now being sold as transplants. Transplants are better than seeds because some vegetables, like tomato and pepper, are almost impossible to establish from sowing seed directly in the garden. Transplants will also allow the gardener to plant earlier and increase the lengthen of the growing season.
Vegetables need supplemental watering in Oklahoma. Plants need about one inch of water per week either through rainfall or irrigation, especially during time of fruit set. Flood irrigation is better for vegetable production than sprinklers because less water is lost through evaporation and foliage does not get wet. The black soaker hoses are ideal because they can be moved and used for many years.
Weeds can become a problem if not controlled. Mulch such as dry grass clippings, tree bark mulch, straw, or peat moss will retard weeds. Mulch also reduces moisture evaporation, allow exchange of gases in the soil and keeps soil temperature constant.
Harvesting vegetables at the peak of their maturity will insure the best flavor and quality of your produce. Harvest dates will be located on the seed package so retain them for harvesting dates. Harvest all leafy vegetables including herbs in the early morning while they still glisten with dew. Harvest the rest of the vegetables as close to preparation and mealtime.
Handle fresh vegetables carefully to avoid cutting, breaking or bruising. After harvest, store them in plastic bags, a covered container in a refrigerator, or a cool place to prevent water loss and wilting.
Jim Coe lives in Lawton and writes a weekly gardening column for The Lawton Constitution.