Question: I want to start a vegetable garden and grow organically if possible. I have heard it is harder to grow organically in the south – is that true?
Answer: It is more work at first, but it is possible. The reason is due to our climate, especially our heat and humidity. In general the warmer climate favors insect development. Insects that may have one or two generations further north may have four or more generations in the south. Each new generation will be dramatically larger than the preceding generation and therefore more difficult to control. Likewise, many diseases are favored by high humidity and warm temperatures. Diseases are even more difficult to control than insect pest because we have few organic disease control products at our disposal.
That's the bad news but there is some good news for any dedicated gardener willing to follow some good gardening basics. Healthy plants can withstand pests better than weak plants - or even over-fertilized plants. Healthy plants start with healthy soil. Healthy soil starts with adding lots of organic matter and adjusting the pH (measurement of the acidity or alkalinity). The best pH level for most vegetables is about 6.5 which is slightly acidic. For information about soil testing visit the Auburn University Soil Test Lab.
Too many novice gardeners think the addition of organic matter is a "once and done" techniques. Wrong - the same heat and humidity that causes pest problems also favors the beneficial organisms that decay organic matter. To keep soil healthy you must continually add more organic matter either by growing "green manure" or by adding compost on a regular basis.
Some simple things you can do to help preserve organic matter a little longer. Till the soil as little as possible because the decaying organisms work faster when the soil is disturbed. Use mulch to control weeds because mulch helps you avoid tillage for weed control and it keeps the soil moist and cool. Don't apply mulch too early in the spring because it may keep the soil from warming enough for rapid growth of small roots.
The best organic matter is what you have available - it may even be going to waste in your community. The leaves from the trees around your home and in your neighborhood are probably the least expensive material available. Start your own compost pile to convert your yard waste to black gold. Check with your municipality's waste management department and ask if they compost yard waste. Growing your own "green manure" in unused garden space is not only a good way to increase organic matter it is a smart way to conserve the nutrients already in the soil by recycling them. "Green manure" is a term used to describe cover crops that are grown for their green organic matter and are not grown as a food crop. Buckwheat and millet are great in the summer while ryegrass and clover are good winter cover crops.
If you are interested in starting a vegetable garden and you plan on using an organic or natural approach, make plans to attend a free "Smart Yards" seminar at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens on Tuesday, March 16th at 6:00 P.M. This event will last until 8:30 P.M. and will cover basic organic gardening techniques, soil management and pest to watch out for in the garden.
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