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Start simple in first garden
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Gardeners wanting a backyard success this summer can do more than hope it will happen.
Sonja Skelly, consumer horticulture specialist with Mississippi State University's Extension Service, said a soil test and drainage assessment will go a long way to ensuring a successful garden.
"The very first thing you should do is take a soil test from whatever part of the landscape you want to plant something in," Skelly said. "Take soil from several locations to be sure it is representative of the area you will be planting in."
Boxes for the soil sample and directions on how to collect it are available from local county Extension offices. MSU's Soil Testing Lab will analyze the soil's composition and provide an analysis of the soil.
"You will find out what the soil has in it, what it's deficient in and ways you can improve the soil," Skelly said. "Your county Extension agent can help you interpret these results."
Add fertilizer and other amendments according to what the analysis indicates is missing from the garden.
Check the area's drainage when taking soil samples. Skelly said a coffee can with both ends cut out makes a simple tool for testing. Place the can in a 4-inch deep hole and press soil firmly around the outside. Fill it with water and measure the water's height after one hour.
If the water level has dropped at least 2 inches, the area has normal drainage. If more than 5 inches are gone in an hour, the garden has excessive drainage; if the water has barely drained at all, the area is poorly drained. Skelly said most areas of the state have poorly-drained clay soil.
"The best thing you can do if the soil is draining too fast or too slow is to add organic matter," Skelly said. "Organic matter helps improve soil structure and will improve drainage."
Skelly said Mississippi's native soils have little organic matter in them. To increase a garden's organic matter, add compost, shredded leaves, bark, peat moss or grass clippings mixed with something like shredded leaves to prevent the grass from mildewing.
Once the bed is prepared, it's time for the plants. Stacy Brown, Extension area horticulture specialist in Monroe County, said gardeners should plant crops they actually like and that are suited to the area.
"If you plant a particular crop because you like to eat it, you are willing to put forth more effort," Brown said.
Choose varieties that are disease-resistant. With tomatoes, the letters that follow the name, such as "V" for verticillium wilt or "TMV" for tomato mosaic virus, indicate what diseases the plant is resistant to. The more letters, the more diseases a plant is resistant to.
Okra, tomatoes, bush snap beans, southern peas and peppers are a few of the vegetables that do well in Mississippi. Brown said no vegetable is necessarily harder to grow than others if the gardener has chosen the correct variety for the area.
"Some vegetable varieties will take more time because of insects and diseases, but that doesn't necessarily mean they are hard to grow," Brown said.
He encouraged beginning gardeners to start small. Consider raised beds, as these are more manageable. Choose the location with the plants' nutrient, sunshine and moisture requirements in mind. Plant vegetables that germinate early.
"If a person sees something coming out of the ground quickly, they will probably be more excited about the garden and be willing to put more effort into it," Brown said.
A common mistake beginning gardeners make is trying to work too large a plot, selecting plants not suited to Mississippi's planting zones and trying to grow everything.
"If you have a problem with a weed, insect or disease, or have another gardening question, be sure to ask for help. Extension agents are always here and willing to assist," Brown said.
The Extension Service's Garden Tabloid is a useful reference for gardeners. Gardeners can get a copy online or by contacting the local Extension office.