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Start small, stay alert for first-time garden success
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- More would-be gardeners than ever before are planting with hopes of a summer crop of vegetables, but getting to that harvest means handling the inevitable insect pests, weeds, disease and fertilizer needs.
Rick Snyder, vegetable specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, encouraged new gardeners to just plunge in and not worry too much about making mistakes.
“Plant what you like to eat, but also try some new things each year. You may discover that you like vegetables that you have not grown up with, especially when they are fresh from your own garden,” Snyder said. “If you have young kids at home, get them to help. This may be all it takes to set lifelong healthy eating habits in your children.”
Although conventional wisdom says to plant tomatoes by Good Friday, Snyder said early May is not too late to get started with a garden in Mississippi. Snyder works from the Truck Crops Branch Experiment Station in Crystal Springs.
“Start small; buy a six-pack each of tomato and pepper transplants and a few packets of seeds for the vegetables you and your family like to eat, like leaf lettuce, summer squash, beans, southern peas or turnip greens,” he said. “Don’t be overly ambitious. A small, well-managed garden is better than a large one that can overwhelm you by the time the summer heat sets in.”
Sufficient water is vital to keep the garden actively growing. Vegetables need about an inch of water a week, so apply supplemental irrigation if there is not enough rainfall to meet this need.
“Remove weeds with a sharp hoe or other tool while they are small so they don’t get out of control. Sprinkle fertilizer around the plants to keep vegetables productive, but be sure to keep it about 4-6 inches away from the base of the plant,” Snyder said. “Sidedressing like this is especially important with longer-season crops like tomatoes, eggplants and peppers.”
These fruiting vegetables also benefit from the addition of calcium nitrate to prevent blossom-end rot.
An important part of gardening is getting among the plants regularly to check for indications of disease or insects. Spotting problems early makes control easier.
Blake Layton, entomologist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said Mississippi is home to scores of insects that threaten home gardens. Many can be handled with pesticides, careful observation and steps taken to keep garden plants healthy.
“There are traditional and organic ways to control pests, but however you do it, managing and controlling insect pests is one of the keys to successful vegetable gardening,” Layton said.
Some pests feed on fruit, others feed on leaves, and some suck the sap out of plants. Others contaminate the food products being grown, and some transmit plant diseases.
“Even though many different species of mite and insect pests can occur in the home vegetable garden, they do not usually occur all at one time, and you don’t have to spend the summer spraying for bugs to have a successful garden,” he said. “You can use many methods other than insecticide sprays to manage insects and keep them from reaching damaging levels.”
The three primary ways to manage insects are biological, cultural and mechanical control methods.
“Biological control is the most important method to control insect pests. Many different predators and parasites feed on insect pests and help keep populations in check. If we didn’t have these natural predators and parasites, our gardens would be overrun with insect pests. Nature provides these predators and parasites as free insect control. The gardener has only to recognize the importance of biological control and avoid disrupting it when possible,” Layton said.
Always follow label directions when applying insecticides to plants to control pests.
Cultural control refers to steps taken to keep plants healthy and less susceptible to insect injury.
“Healthy, vigorous plants are generally more resistant and more tolerant to insect damage, so practices that promote good growth and plant health also aid in insect management,” Layton said. “Early-planted crops usually have fewer insect problems than late-planted crops because many insect pests complete several generations per growing season, producing more insects with each generation.”
Mechanical control refers to a variety of methods of removing or killing insect pests on plants. Gardeners can remove individual insects or egg masses by hand, or wash aphids off plants with spray from a garden hose. Row covers can be used to prevent insects from reaching plants to eat them or deposit eggs. Other examples of mechanical control include reflective mulches, and aluminum foil or collars of waxed paper that protect young transplants from cutworms.
The MSU Extension Service has a variety of publications available online to help gardeners learn how to grow vegetables and keep them healthy: Publication 2347, “Insect Pests of the Home Vegetable Garden,” https://bit.ly/2VOSoV5; or Publication 3437, “Calendar of Home Gardening Chores in Mississippi,” https://bit.ly/2SiqZJ6.
The newsletter, “Bug’s Eye View,” covers a variety of garden-related insect topics. Subscribe by visiting https://extension.msstate.edu/newsletters/bugs-eye-view.