At last, it is time to get the warm-season crops for the home vegetable garden going again. We did our soil testing and liming in December, started tomatoes from seeds indoors in late January or February and planted asparagus, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, collards, kale, spring onions, garden peas, Irish potatoes, spinach and turnips.
Now that all those are in the ground, it is time to plant beets, cantaloupe, corn and watermelon. We’re nearing the end of mustard planting, so you only have until the end of the month to get that crop planted.
Bush, pole and lima beans can be planted starting April 1, as can cucumber, eggplant, okra, southern peas, pepper, bush squash and winter squash. Tomatoes are, by far, the most planted of all home vegetable garden crops. Outdoor planting of tomatoes generally is safe starting March 25, but it is best if what you are planting is a transplant and not a seed.
The plants you started indoors now can go through hardening off before they are planted. If we take them directly from the climate-controlled indoors out into the bright light of the sun and expose them to 30- to 40-degree daily swings in temperature and wind, most of them will die. They need to be toughened up and introduced gradually.
Start by taking them outside to a site that is shaded and protected from wind. Bring them back in when you get home from work. Over the course of a week, gradually move them into sunnier locations for increasing hours each day until they are receiving full sun for most of the day.
For example, leave the plants in the shade the whole time during the first day. On the second day, put them in partial sun for two hours then move them back into the shade. On the third day, put them in partial shade for four hours. Put them in full sun for two hours in the morning and then into partial shade for four hours. On the fourth day, give them four hours of full sun and four hours of shade.
Keep increasing the full-sun duration by two hours a day until they are in the sun all day. Watch closely for wilting. It is all right if the leaves droop in the sun, but they should remain turgid. If the leaves start dehydrating and flopping around in the breeze, move them immediately into the shade and water them.
Resume putting them back out in the sun after they recover. The goal is to stress the plants but not strain them. Think of a metal Slinky spring. The spring is stressed if we stretch it out, and it returns to its original shape when we release it. If we stretch it so far that we kink the spring, it does not return to its original shape and forever will behave differently. The same sort of thing happens with transplants. Once they are properly hardened off, they can be planted permanently outdoors.
One of the basic choices you will make is whether to plant a determinate or indeterminate variety of tomato. If you are looking for a lot of ripe tomatoes at one time for canning, you would select a determinate variety. They are called determinate because we can determine when the harvest comes in from the planting date. Determinate tomatoes generally have a bush-type growth and will mature the entire crop in two to five pickings. After that, you can pull the plants up and color them done.
To extend the harvest season, you can plant several successive crops a couple weeks apart and maximize the total yield for the garden season. If you are more interested in a steady supply of a few tomatoes a day for the table, an indeterminate variety is your choice. Indeterminate varieties will start to fruit and continue fruiting all summer and well into the fall until frost kills them.
I, personally, know of a grower on St. Simon’s Island who got his last fresh tomato in December of this past year.
UGA Extension has an excellent publication called Georgia Home Grown Tomatoes, which you can find at www.caes.uga.edu. Click on “publications” and type “tomatoes” in the search box. It is a great resource for the best varieties and basic culture.
A word of caution: New gardeners have a tendency to overplant. Two indeterminate plants will give you all the tomatoes you probably want for fresh eating. Newbies that plant 15 or more plants have fun giving the first crop to eager friends. But by July, grocery bags of tomatoes mysteriously start appearing on the doorsteps of friends and perfect strangers, clandestinely dropped off in the middle of the night. Folks will write sonnets about a fresh tomato in April but cannot bear to look at them by August. Plant a few each of many different vegetables rather than a ton of one variety.
And finally, for the new transplants to the South, don’t brag about your foot-long okra. Don’t get us wrong; we would love to get a photo of you holding it up like a trophy bass and then post it to all our friends. It even could come back to haunt you as a Christmas card. You have been warned.
Gardner is the extension agent for Bryan County. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.