Post and Courier
August 23, 2014

The foundations of growing great vegetables

Posted: 02/15/2014 01:00 p.m.


By Tony Bertauski

Never shop with a hungry eye.

As my quest to integrate ornamental vegetables into the residential landscape continues, I sat down with a Johnny's Seeds catalog. Thirty minutes later, the pages were dog-eared and my wallet was much, much lighter. Last year, we didn't eat a single purple or white eggplant. Yes, we had white eggplants, but the ornamental appeal was too tempting.

However, we did harvest spinach, kale, sweet potatoes, squash, broccoli, onions, cherry tomatoes, bell peppers and various herbs from both our front and back yards.

While Clemson's planting guide (http://www.clemson.edu/extension/hgic/plants) is my go-to resource, I sought additional advice this year from a local expert that specializes in home vegetable gardening, Rita Bachmann.

Bachmann, a former Trident Technical College horticulture student, owns and operates Rita's Roots (www.ritasroots.com).

Over lunch, we discussed the finer points of garden designing, implementing and harvesting in the backyard.

Seeds

She applauded my binge at Johnny's Seeds (www.johnnyseeds.com), one of her favorites. The catalog not only offers an unusual and wide selection, such as purple carrots and chocolate peppers, but it also contains useful information about gardening.

Southern Seed Exchange (www.southernexposure.com) and Heavenly Seed (www.heavenlyseed.net) are other worthy sources.

Wherever you get your seed, it should be viable.

Seeds that have been sitting on store shelves for a year or more can become a packet of duds. Be sure to store your seeds in a cool, dark environment and not baking on a shelf in the garage.

Transplanting seedlings into the garden is a great way to get a jump on the season. Seeds can be germinated indoors using flats and seed-starter soil.

For some root vegetables, such as carrots and beets, Bachmann prefers to directly seed into the garden.

If you don't want to mess with seeding, transplants can often be purchased at farmers markets, garden centers or places such as Sea Island Savory Herbs on Johns Island.

Sun

Light is one of the most limiting factors in backyard vegetable gardening.

Six hours of full sun is the minimum for fruit-producing vegetables, such as tomatoes and peppers. If your area receives less than that, consider leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale.

One of the services Backmann offers is identifying the ideal location. Sunlight is determined by trees, structures and time of year. In the winter, the sun is lower in the sky so the shadows are longer. It's very difficult to determine the ideal location on one visit, so Bachmann uses a pathfinder tool.

Once she's set up, she can immediately read how many hours of sunlight a particular spot will receive during every month of the year. She even can give recommendations of how to increase sunlight by selective pruning.

Soil

Even with the first two factors in place, nothing will grow in poor soil. Quality topsoil that is rich in organic matter is ideal. Most fans of gardening columns are tired of this sage advice, but it still holds true: Start with a soil test from Clemson (www.clemson.edu/agsrvlb) or another lab, such as A & L Laboratories (www.allabs.com). Nutritional deficiencies and pH need to be corrected at the beginning.

While many backyards have satisfactory soil, Bachmann is an advocate of quality compost. Mushroom compost, such as that found at All Seasons Landscape Supply (www.charlestonlandscapesupplies.com)and Lowcountry Mulch (www.lowcountrymulch.com), is her favorite.

All types of compost can be purchased in bags at garden centers. She warns, however, that while bags of compost may be good sources of organic matter, when they've been cooking in the sun all summer, they may lack micro-organism activity, which is the backbone of soil vitality.

Quality compost is always the best.

It's also important to rotate your crops from year to year. Planting the same vegetable in the same spot can lead to insect and disease problems. Drainage is also essential. One tried and true method to improve drainage is gardening in raised beds that are either mounded or confined in planters.

My goal this year, with Bachmann's help, is an aesthetic and productive yard.

Tony Bertauski is a horticulture instructor at Trident Technical College. To give feedback, email him at tony.bertauski@tridenttech.edu.