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Great gardens start with tips from a master gardener

Ensuring a bountiful harvest begins with getting the soil and planting times right from the start.

Ensuring a bountiful harvest begins with getting the soil and planting times right from the start.

Temperatures in the 70s can have inexperienced gardeners chomping at the bit to dig a hole and plant something – tomatoes, pole beans, zucchini, anything. But experienced gardeners know that for everything there is a season and a few scattered days of summer temperatures are not good enough when it comes to planting what will hopefully mature into bumper crops.

When it comes to planting a vegetable garden, the best rule of thumb is to wait until the soil and air temperatures are no lower than 45˚F at night (unless you’re prepared to cover your plants) and at least 55˚F during the day. Waiting to plant until two weeks past the last chance of a killing frost is the safest bet, especially when it comes to tomatoes, which will not tolerate frost. Locally, it is predicted that the last chance of frost will be no later than April 27. Two weeks out from that date offers up the common advice that it is safe to plant outdoors in time for Mother’s Day.

But soil temperature isn’t the only factor worth considering. Holly Berthold, master gardener and public information officer at the Missouri Botanical Garden, offers the following tips for creating a bountiful garden – and there is work to be done right now.

1. You’ll want to get started by cleaning up the leaf litter and plant remains from last year. Weed and turn the soil to make it workable. It is likely you’ll need to amend the soil by adding compost and other organic materials. Vegetables must have good, well-drained soil. Check with your local nursery or extension service about testing your soil before you plant a thing.

2. Make sure you have enough sun exposure. Vegetables love the sun and require at least six hours of full sun every day.

3. Have a good water source nearby. Vegetables need at least 1 inch of water a week. Missouri is known for having dry spells in mid-summer, so have a plan in place before the hot, dry weather hits. It is best to water your plants in the morning when they are able to absorb more water. Plus morning is a good time of day to spot and remove garden pests like slugs or harmful insects.

4. Locate and clean up the essential garden tools. You should have a spade, garden fork, soaking hose, hoe, hand weeder and a wheelbarrow for moving mulch, soil – and eventually your harvest. Use a receptacle such as a large bucket to keep your tools in one place and easily spotted.

5. Plant what you like. The plants you choose will depend on your own taste. If you don’t really like tomatoes, why waste your time and the space to grow them just because everyone else seems to include them?  For those new to gardening, I suggest picking two or three different types of plants, perhaps a six pack of each. The most popular vegetables are tomatoes, zucchini squash, peppers, bush beans, lettuce and carrots. All of these can be transplanted into the garden at about the same time, though lettuce prefers a little cooler temperature and will be the first crop to expire.

6. Ask for help. Visit www.mobot.org and visit the “Help for the Home Gardener” page. Here you’ll find a myriad of ideas and answers from the pros at the Missouri Botanical Garden. Better yet, stop by and enjoy a stroll to the Kemper Center for Home Gardening for in-person advice.

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