published Saturday, May 2nd, 2009

Vigorous vegetables

by Kathy Gilbert
Audio clip

Rachel Staven

The first lady’s doing it. More than 40 million Americans (an increase of nearly 20 percent over last year) are planning vegetable gardens.

“New gardens are popping up everywhere,” said Rachel Staven, a homemaker and co-founder of the St. Elmo Community Garden.

If you’re a new urban farmer, here are some tips.

Work in organic matter such as worm castings, wellrotted manure or leaf-based compost. Fertilize through the growing season with a balanced synthetic liquid product, compost tea or seabird guano tea and kelp teas. Top-dress with worm castings or compost. When the thermometer registers consistently above 85 degrees, mulch 4 to 6 inches as needed to hold moisture.

Choose fast-maturing varieties. Some peppers ripen in 60 days, others in 90. Chattanooga’s late July and August heat and drought put pressure on plants. The faster they mature the better.

Provide vertical supports for long-limbed plants such as pole beans or tomatoes. For less work, choose compact tomatoes, bush beans and summer squash (winter squash really travels).

Water regularly, dousing peppers and tomatoes at their bases, not on the leaves. Southeastern soils naturally carry blight, which spreads to plants when water splashes soil onto leaves. A straw mulch can block some of these splashes. Prune branch at the base, up to about a foot up the leading stem when the plant rises, 3 to 4 feet or higher.

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