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by Keith C. Hansen, Extension Horticulturist, Smith Co. - Tyler, Texas

There's nothing better than harvesting fresh garden produce right out of a backyard garden. A successful garden harvest depends on many important steps, from the garden site itself to proper care of the plants. Here are a few tips as you get ready for this gardening season.

Site Selection: Shade trees grow larger every year and can slowly shade a once sunny garden spot. Vegetables need sun and lots of it. The more direct sun, the better the yield. Leafy vegetables, like lettuce and cabbage, and root crops such as carrots and turnips, will get by with some shade. But beans, okra, tomatoes, peppers, melons, cucumbers, squash and other fruiting vegetables need at least 8 to 10 hours of direct sun for healthy plants and maximum yield.

Soil Preparation: The best garden soils are rich and highly organic. Unless you have been working a spot for years, constantly adding compost and other organic matter, your soil will need amending. Just prior to planting you can add rotted barnyard manure and finished compost.

The soils in east Texas typically are low in some nutrients, particularly nitrogen, potassium, and sometimes calcium and magnesium. Soil tests for phosphorus usually indicate adequate levels of this element, which can be supplied to individual transplants or the seed row by banding, or with a starter solution for transplants.

Soil pH is a critical factor often overlooked by many gardeners. Most vegetables grow best with a pH of 6.0 to 6.5. Some, like beans and beets, just won't do well at all in acid soil below pH 6.5. Poor growth and disappointing yields result from acidic soils. Our east Texas soils can be very acidic, and often require the addition of lime to raise the pH to an acceptable level. How much lime depends on your soil type and the actual pH of your soil.

Soil Test: For the best results, take the guesswork out of the picture and have your soil tested by a reputable soil testing lab. Every county Extension office has the information you need to submit a soil sample to the Extension Soil Testing Lab at College Station. The report will tell you exactly what and how much, if anything, you need to add. Be sure to take several random samples from you garden spot, thoroughly mixed together, for the test.

Two other very important factors in a successful garden is to plant the right varieties at the right time.

Variety Selection: For every type of vegetable there are dozens, even hundreds, of varieties to choose from. Seed catalogs entice with beautiful pictures and luscious descriptions. But, what produces bumper crops in New York, Michigan or even Arkansas may not necessarily do well in East Texas. Find out what varieties are recommended for our specific area. Every county Extension office has a list of recommended varieties that should produce well under local conditions. Also, local farmers and long time gardeners are good sources of information for favorite varieties.

Some important traits to look for in vegetable varieties include disease resistance, high yield and early maturity. The less time a plant is in the garden before harvest, the less you have to worry about disease and insect pests, watering and extreme summer heat prematurely ending harvest.

Planting Date: Timing is everything. You want most crops to mature before the onslaught of hot weather (except okra, southern peas and sweet potatoes which require warmer weather). So, most crops need to be planted as early as possible. Mid-March is the "average" last freeze date for the Tyler area, so crops sensitive to frost like beans, corn and watermelons can usually be seeded just prior to and after that date. Tomatoes can be transplanted before that time if you are prepared to give them frost protection. A frost blanket or sheet draped over a cage will protect them from a frost, but won't help much in a severe, late freeze.

Cool-season vegetables like broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower should be transplanted in early February. Other crops to be seeded in January and into February include beets, carrots, Swiss chard, collards, lettuce, mustard, radish and turnips. These crops grow best in the milder weather of early spring. Also, try them again for a fall crop.

Not only is air temperature important, but it is also wise to wait until the soil has warmed to the upper 60's or low 70's before planting seed of warm-season vegetables. Peppers do best if transplanted a few weeks later than tomatoes, once the soil has warmed up.

For the Tyler area, here is a chart of suggested planting dates. Again, your local county Extension office osa source of information for vegetable planting dates, plus you can find specific bulletins for most vegetable crops in the Home Vegetable Gardening section of Aggie Horticulture.

Another source of educational information on vegetable production is the East Texas Fruit and Vegetable Conference, the third Tuesday in February, at the Tyler Rose Garden Center. For more information, see the Programs section of East Texas Gardening.