After a historic winter that brought record low temperatures and ice across the region, warmer temperatures have arrived. The arrival of spring brings with it the promise of new life, more time outdoors and the beginning of prime gardening season. After the ice storm, many folks find themselves starting from near scratch in their flower and vegetable gardens. But, look on the bright side, being outdoors with your hands in the soil is not only great for the body, it is also great for the soul. So, roll up your sleeves, grab your gloves and step into the great outdoors. Spring has sprung across Cenla!
The Good Food Project (GFP) is a model community garden network that feeds, educates and connects Food Bank clients and the broader Cenla community, creating a culture of health in the public schools and empowering people to achieve better health through sustainable gardening and access to nutritious food. The Good Food Project began with a 1/3 acre demonstration garden as part of the Food Bank complex. Here, gardeners of various ages and experience levels take classes, learn about and view different organic garden options, and can volunteer to cultivate, plant and harvest fresh vegetables, fruits and herbs that are distributed to Food Bank clients or local non-profits that serve food to the needy.
In the wake of the ice and snow brought by the historic winter storm, allow your garden to recover for a few days. Assess the damage and remove any mushy foliage that will rot as the sun returns. Leaves can have blanched spots, but the vegetable may still be good and completely edible. Some plants will not recover and will need to be disposed of, so consider composting them. If the ground is soggy, hold back on weeding until your soil has dried.
According to the GFP, April and March are ideal planting season for a variety of vegetables, beans and flowers. Call GFP for more information about supporting their program or for gardening tips and technical support at (318) 445-2773!
You created your wish list and ordered the seeds you will need, and they are beginning to arrive. Make the most of your investment with a bit of planning.
Starting seeds at the proper time, indoors or directly in the garden, ensures a good start to the growing season. Check the back of the seed packet for planting times and directions. In addition to the GFP chart, consult the LSU AgCenter website at www.lsuagcenter.com for more details on the best time to plant in our area. Educational opportunities offered through the LSU AgCenter Extension Service offices include online and in-person classes, seminars, workshops, field days, and publications . In addition, extension agents provide one-on-one advice and, increasingly, use the internet to disseminate educational information. Topics covered include agriculture and natural resources; lawns and gardens; environmental protection and resource conservation; family life; health and nutrition; housing and emergency preparedness; and youth development through the 4-H program.
Now that you’re ready to begin this year’s garden, organize your seeds by when they need to be started. You can organize seeds by type, planting season, color, garden location and more. Use your storage system to keep leftover seeds organized for future plantings. It will also save you money on future seed orders. Just be sure to place the seeds in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
Mark planting dates on your calendar as well. Months pass quickly, and it is easy to miss important planting times. Creating a planting calendar will help you start seeds at the proper time for the maximum benefit.
Gather seed-starting equipment and supplies if starting seeds indoors. You will need a quality seed starting or potting mix and clean containers. Use leftover yogurt cups, butter tubs and other small food containers for starting seeds. Drill holes in the bottom and clean them before planting. Avoid disease problems by sanitizing old plant containers. Soak them in a one-part bleach and nine-parts water solution for ten minutes. Then rinse in clear water before filling with planting mix, or, try one of the new plastic-free, environmentally friendly seed starting options. Use a paper pot maker to convert newspaper into biodegradable plant pots. Consider cow pots made of composted manure that provide nutrients in a biodegradable pot. You can leave your seedlings in these containers when moving them into the garden.
Follow the directions on the seed packets for depth and care. Most seeds prefer warm conditions but do not need light to sprout. Keep the planting mix moist. Cover the containers with a sheet of plastic to conserve moisture and extend the time between watering. Once you see any green, it is time to move the seedlings into bright light or under artificial lights. Keep the lights on for no more than 14 to 16 hours and four to six inches above the top of the plants for best results.
Once your plants are actively growing, you can begin fertilizing if needed. Check the planting mix to see if a fertilizer has been added and how long it will be effective before adding more. Follow the label directions on the fertilizer you select.
Share the fun and workload with friends and family. Perhaps you will start tomatoes for everyone, while another person handles the peppers and yet another person the eggplants. Or, just share extra seeds since each packet usually contains more than most gardeners have space to grow.
Whether planning your first, second or tenth vegetable garden it can be overwhelming. There are so many tasty vegetables and never enough space and time to grow them all!
Start with a plan. Locate your garden in a sunny location with moist, well-drained soil. Save those partially sunny areas for greens like lettuce, chard and kale as well as root crops like radishes and beets. These prefer full sun but will tolerate more shade than tomatoes, peppers, squash, broccoli and other plants that we eat the flowers and fruit.
Review your favorite recipes and make a list of family favorites and those vegetables most often used. Then check the list to see which vegetables are suited to your climate and growing conditions and those that make the most economic sense to include in your garden.
Tomatoes and peppers produce lots of fruit from one plant and are common ingredients in many Louisiana and other Southern recipes. Apple Yellow tomatoes are shaped like a small apple, colorful and ornamental. You’ll have plenty to enjoy as each plant can produce up to 1,000 tomatoes. These bright lemon-yellow tomatoes have a sweet citrusy flavor and firm exterior, making them perfect for stuffing. Sweet corn is fun to grow but needs lots of space for a relatively small harvest.
If space is limited, consider buying your sweet corn at of the area farmers’ markets and use that space to grow other edibles. The Alexandria Farmers Market, located at 2727 Jackson Street, is open every Tuesday from 3:00pm to 6:00pm. In Marksville, Da & Papa’s Farmer’s Market and Event Center pairs with local farmers and artists to provide the city of Marksville and the surrounding areas with fresh produce, local art and crafts, and a fun family-friendly atmosphere each Saturday! Natchitoches Farmers Market will be open on the riverbank in downtown Natchitoches Saturdays starting April 24th for the spring/summer market season!
Every gardener struggles with determining how many of each type of vegetable to grow. This depends upon the productivity of the variety selected, your family’s eating habits and, of course, the impact of weather on the harvest. You will need to plant more if you plan to preserve or share a portion of your harvest with your neighbors or make a donation to the food bank. Purchasing from our local farmers’ markets is a way to supplement your own harvest so that you have sufficient fresh produce when you are ready to can, freeze and ferment. It is always better to start small, build on your successes and expand the garden in the future. Track your planting and harvesting results to help when planning future gardens.
Increase the efficiency of your space with container gardens. Consider growing some of your frequently used herbs and vegetables in pots on the patio, balcony, or deck for convenience. You can quickly grab what you need when creating your favorite meal.
Grow multiple plantings in each row. Start the season with cool season veggies like lettuce, peas and radishes. Once the temperatures climb and these plants are harvested and enjoyed, replace them with warm weather vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, beans, cucumbers, squash and melons. Finish off the season by filling any vacant rows with fall crops like greens, beets and radishes.
Take some time to plan a garden that will provide you and your family with fresh produce you can enjoy all season long. Involving everyone in the planning process just might get them to show up and help weed!
Raised beds and elevated gardens provide easier access to gardens and can increase space available for growing vegetables and flowers. You will enjoy convenience and easy access when including one or more in your landscape or on your patio, deck, or balcony.
Providing proper care for these elevated planting spaces will ensure the biggest possible harvest and a growing season filled with beautiful flowers. Adapting planting strategies and care to fit the needs of these unique growing spaces can help reduce maintenance.
It starts with creating and maintaining a healthy growing foundation. Fill your raised beds with a quality planting mix composed mostly of topsoil and compost, or create your own planting mix with lasagna and Hugelkultur techniques. These methods allow you to convert plant trimmings, compost, and a minimal amount of soil into a quality planting mix.
Elevated gardens are basically containers on legs and usually filled with a quality, soilless planting mix. The lighter weight makes it much more suitable for this type of gardening. Look for a product that provides drainage yet retains moisture. Both features are important when gardening in smaller volumes of soil.
Purchase an elevated garden with wheels or add casters to the legs if you need to move your garden out of the way for entertaining. Take advantage of the added mobility to move your planter into the sun or shade as needed throughout the season.
Make sure you have easy access to water and your gardens have means for excess water to drain. The limited soil mass and increased exposure to wind, heat and sunlight make planting mixes dry out more quickly than in-ground beds. Always water thoroughly to encourage deep, more drought tolerant roots.
Extend the time between watering by as much as 25% with the help of a sustainable, organic product like Wild Valley Farms’ wool pellets. Made from wool waste, these pellets absorb and retain moisture, releasing it when needed by the plants.
Employ space saving techniques to maximize your gardens productivity. Space plants just far enough apart to reach their mature size. Plant quick-maturing vegetables like radishes, lettuce and beets between tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables that take longer to reach full size and start producing. You will be harvesting the short season vegetables just as the bigger plants need the space.
Look for compact flower and vegetable varieties that allow you to make the most of every square inch of these gardens. All-America Selections winner Patio Choice Yellow Cherry tomato produces up to 100 tomatoes on an eighteen-inch plant. Mascotte compact bush bean and Patio Pride peas are big producers, suited to these and small space gardens.
Extend your enjoyment and harvest with succession plantings. Fill vacant spaces left once a row or block of vegetables are harvested. Freshen up ornamental plantings by replacing weather worn flowers with healthy new selections. Add more planting mix along with wool pellets, as needed. Train vining plants onto trellises or other supports to save space and reduce the risk of disease. Dress them up by allowing trailing herbs and flowers to cascade over the edge of these planting beds.
Increasing growing success and reducing maintenance will make raised beds and elevated gardens a practical and productive addition to your gardening endeavors.
Growing on a deck or balcony is a great way to bring the garden to your backdoor. You can attract butterflies and hummingbirds into easy view and grow edibles within close reach when cooking. For some, it may be the only available space to garden.
Gardening on decks and balconies offer many advantages, but also a few challenges. Winds can be brutal, toppling over or launching tall, leafy plants into flight. Use a heavier pot to help anchor plants or tether the container to a post or railing mounted on the deck or balcony. Drainage is critical to container gardening success but can be a problem when you inadvertently shower your neighbor below when watering your plants. Consider using a self-watering container and be careful not to overfill the water reservoir.
Another solution is to place containers on a saucer to capture excess water instead of allowing it to seep to the deck or balcony below. Elevate the pot in the saucer with a commercial or homemade device. You’ll be able to monitor the water level to avoid overflows and keep the pot above the water to prevent root rot.
Make the most of every square foot by growing vertically. You’ll not only save space but also create privacy, make harvesting vegetables easier and create a garden that’s at eye level as you enjoy your outdoor space. Train pole beans, like the Seychelles, up a decorative trellis, teepee of bamboo stakes or other creative support. You’ll be able to harvest these delicious five- to six-inch stringless beans without bending. Picking beans at waist height is much easier than harvesting from low-growing, bushy plants.
Pick and enjoy a healthy treat of Snak Hero edible podded peas right on the porch. If any of these tasty peas make it into the house, you can add them to a relish tray, stir fry or freeze a few to enjoy later. Plant a few Green Light Cucumbers and enjoy the abundant harvest of forty 3- to 4-inch fruits. Put away the peeler, slice and enjoy these smooth, seedless cucumbers with a touch of salt, pepper and red wine vinegar.
Grow some flowers for added color, and don’t forget the herbs. You’ll enjoy the evening fragrance of Perfume Deep purple nicotiana, the bold leaves and bright orange flowers of South Pacific Orange canna and the vibrant red flowers of Holi Scarlet zinnia. Mix in a few of your favorite herbs to add texture and color to the garden and flavor to your meals. These All America Selections (AAS) winning varieties are tested nationally for their flavor, beauty, and performance in home gardens. This non-profit trialing organization names only new, non-GMO varieties as winners.
Whether you use gardening to de-stress from the world, to supply your friends and neighbors with the gift of fresh vegetables or as a family bonding activity, with proper plant selection and adjustments in your gardening style, get ready to enjoy a season full of tasty vegetables and gorgeous flowers. Most importantly, have fun!
Thanks to the Good Food Project, LSU AgCenter and gardening expert Melinda Myers for their generous contributions to this article and gardening success all across Cenla!