The dog days of summer are a sweltering time for South Carolina gardeners. As spring vegetable gardens have all but given up on production, now is the time to get started for fall garden success. Though gardeners often give up on their spring gardens when temperatures become too hot, doing so allows gardens to become overrun with weeds, insects, and diseases. Hard work and planning ahead during the summer can really improve and extend harvests through the fall into winter.
Crop Rotation & Planning
Crop rotation is one of the oldest crop management techniques used, and it is still a valuable tool gardeners can use. Planting different plant families in different spots each season can reduce the buildup of insect and disease pressures. Planning a garden on paper prior to planting can be very helpful. Gardeners should note which crops and varieties have done well in past seasons as well as any issues that have occurred. Many diseases can be avoided by choosing cultivars that are resistant to past pests. Following proper plant spacing and planting dates will increase productivity and reduce insect and disease pressure. For more insight on planning a garden, see HGIC 1256, Planning a Garden.
Taking a soil test is critical to the success of any gardening venture, especially a vegetable garden. For information on taking a soil test, see HGIC 1652, Soil Testing. Most vegetable gardens require a pH in the range of 5.8-6.5 and sufficient levels of available plant nutrients. Within 2-3 weeks of submitting a sample, gardeners will receive a soil report from the Clemson Agricultural Service Lab with specific soil amendment recommendations. It takes a few months to change the pH of the soil, so be sure to apply soil amendments as soon as possible in the summer. For more information on soil pH, see HGIC 1650, Changing the pH of Your Soil.
Seed Selection & Starting
Once a plan is made for a fall garden, it is important to select appropriate cultivars from reputable seed companies. Be careful when using seed from a previous season, as germination rates decrease over time leading to poor stands. A decision should also be made as to which vegetables will be direct seeded or transplanted into the garden. For a great resource on how to grow quality transplants, see HGIC 1259, Starting Seeds Indoors.
Weeds are one of the most problematic pest in gardens. Weed management should begin before the growing season starts. If garden areas have existing weeds, mow weeds frequently to ensure weeds do not go to seed. A common way to manage weeds is by a method called the stale bed method. Start by tilling the garden area and allow a few weeks for weeds to germinate. Once the weeds germinate, till the garden area again. This leaves fewer weed seeds to germinate in the fall or future gardens. Next, beds or rows should be laid out within the garden area. Weeds should be allowed to grow for one to two weeks. Once weeds reach a few inches in height, they should be killed either by using herbicide sprays or by using a flame weeder. Most weeds that compete with a crop germinate quickly after the soil is worked. Once the final bed has been prepared for planting, be careful not to disturb the soil, as it will encourage more weeds to germinate. Plant seeds or transplants directly in the beds a few days after the weeds are killed. For more ideas on managing weeds see HGIC 1253, Controlling Weeds by Cultivating and Mulching.
It is extremely important for gardeners to be prepared before the season starts in knowing the fertilizer, water, and pest management needs of the crops. Plan ahead and purchase side dressing fertilizers, such as calcium nitrate, fish meal, bloodmeal, etc. Commonly used pesticides such as chlorothalonil, neem oil, and Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) should be purchased ahead of time and kept on hand so response to a disease or insect outbreak can be handled in an appropriate time manner.