The South is known for long, lazy summer days and stretches of hot, humid weather. These warm conditions are ideal for growing most vegetables, but Southern gardeners face a few unique conditions.
First, if you’re going to grow vegetables in the South, you must adjust planting times to accommodate the searing heat of summer. Most of the South lies in USDA Plant Hardiness zones 8 through 10, which means mild winters and hot summers. Leafy crops such as spinach, lettuce, and kale bolt at the first hint of heat. Ditto for brassicas, including broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower. Plant these crops in January to February and opt for heat-resistant varieties. If you can, plant greens and cole crops in partial shade to keep them cool, which will extend the growing season.
Warm-season crops, such as tomatoes, beans, corn, and peppers are usually planted between March and April, depending on your climate. Again, choose heat-resistant varieties such as cherry or grape tomatoes. Another trick is to plant seeds, such as bean seeds, slightly deeper than the packet says. Deeper planting ensures adequate moisture for germination.
Another problem in the South is that of disease and insect pests. High humidity combined with year-round mild weather encourages fungal diseases and bugs. To combat disease, plant disease-resistant varieties and space plants so air circulates freely. Practice crop rotation so a crop doesn’t grow in the same place for at least three years. Avoid planting tomatoes near potatoes, blackberries, or peppers, because these crops share the same diseases. Use soaker hoses rather than overhead sprinklers and water in the morning so leaves dry off quickly. Avoid working in a wet garden, which quickly spreads disease. Remove and destroy all infected plants quickly. Sometimes, garden soils become heavily infected with disease. Try moving your garden to a new location or spread a sheet of clear plastic over the garden during the heat of summer. Secure the plastic tightly with landscaping pins or rocks and leave it in place for three months. The heat generated during this process, known as solarization, is capable of killing most soil diseases, as well as weed seeds.
To combat insects, hand-pick horn worms and beetles and drop them in a bucket of soapy water. Treat aphids and leafhoppers with insecticidal soaps and oils. Use organic pesticides such as Bt and rotenone whenever possible. Install floating row covers over newly planted crops to thwart flea beetles and other small insects. Eliminate crops that are consistently plagued by insects.
Southern soil varies widely, from the black soils of Mississippi to the sandy soils of Florida. Most soils are acidic, although a few are alkaline or chalk. Vegetables grow best in well-draining soils with a pH level between 6.0 and 7.5. Take a soil sample to a university extension office to determine your soil’s pH, as well as its structure and nutrient level. Follow the recommendations offered in the soil analysis to improve your soil. For example, you may have to add dolomitic lime to raise the soil pH if it falls below 6.0. Compost and manure can improve both clay soils and sandy soils. In some cases, your best bet may be to haul in new garden soil.
Most regions of the South get plentiful rainfall mixed with dry periods. During monsoon periods, your garden may get too much of a good thing, which promotes disease and can inhibit pollination of fruiting crops. During dry periods, plan to irrigate your garden with soaker hoses and drip systems.
Fertilize vegetables every four weeks with a balanced vegetable fertilizer or a few shovelfuls of manure. Wait until fruiting vegetables such as tomatoes and peppers produce blooms before fertilizing.
Vegetables To Grow
Tomatoes: The long, warm growing season found in the South is ideal for growing tomatoes, although heat spells can inhibit pollination and ripening. Choose disease-resistant varieties and plant tomatoes so the bottom leaves are covered by the soil. This deep planting encourages a strong root formation, which encourages a healthy plant better able to fight off disease.
Okra: The South is the only place in the U.S. where this plant reliably grows.
Sweet potatoes: Southern gardeners may have limited success with cool-season crops, such as Brussels sprouts, but long-season vegetables such as sweet potatoes thrive here.
Corn: Plant GMO-free corn in blocks that contain at least four rows. Corn is wind-pollinated, so planting using this method ensures a more abundant harvest. Corn is susceptible to several diseases, such as smut, which live in the soil.
Chile peppers: Chile peppers appreciate a long, warm growing season. Reduce water as fruits reach maturity to increase their heat and flavor.
Greens: Collard greens are synonymous with the South. Plant them in January or February and keep the soil cool and moist.
Onions: Southern gardeners can grow long-season sweet onions such as Vidalia. Give onions light, well-draining soil and plenty of moisture.
Peaches: Peaches don’t tolerate frost, but they thrive in much of the South. The trees generally produce fruit reliably for only fifteen years or so, so plan to replace them after a few years.
Blackberries: Raspberries don’t grow well in warm climates, but blackberries thrive here. Thornless varieties are easier to harvest, but some people find their taste less appealing than the thorned types.
Grapes: Try growing muscadine grapes or European wine grapes. Choose disease-resistant varieties.
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