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Can you dig it? Spring planting advice for Johnson County Gardners.

After a long, hard winter, gardeners look forward to seeing new buds popping out of the earth signaling the much-anticipated emergence of spring. As soon as possible folks begin planning visits to the local greenhouses and garden centers. Everybody is ready to get some dirt on their knees and under their nails, and get busy flower and vegetable gardening, but caution is the key to success in these Tennessee mountains.
“You should take into consideration that our planting dates here in Johnson County are delayed in the spring as compared to other counties in Tennessee,” explained Rick Thomason, Johnson County Extension Director. “I wouldn’t advise taking transplants of things like tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, etc. and planting them in the garden until mid May.”
Spring usually brings roller coaster weather locally, with cold and warm spells alternating unpredictably making it extremely difficult to predict just the right time to begin spring planting. Although it is tempting to plant as early as possible, especially when businesses begin displaying colorful flowers for sale, it is better to resist getting started until the appropriate weather temperature is established. If you transplant too early, you may lose your flowers to frost or a freeze, so it is important to be cautious. Some years, planting time runs earlier and some years later, it depends on the weather. A useful website is the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map, which lists Eastern Tennessee in Zone 6. Many gardening authorities refer to this zone when dispensing advice. Caution is the keyword. It may look warm and inviting, but unless you live in the lower latitudes, you could be courting disaster if you try to plant before your last frost date.
“Most annuals do not tolerate frost, and transplants will do better if planted into soil that has a bit of time to warm up after that cold winter,” said Thomason. “Many hardy perennials, however, can be planted quite early in the spring, especially if they have been kept outdoors at the nursery and are well acclimated to the weather.”
Soil testing and garden pre-planning will increase the odds of producing quality garden vegetables. Begin soil preparation by removing old plant supports, plastic mulches, excessive vegetative residues and other debris from the garden area several weeks before planting to allow the soil to dry out. The amount of plant residue that may be turned under depends on how large the pieces are, how the garden will be turned and how long before the area will be worked.
A soil test is the only accurate method of determining how much lime and fertilizer to apply ot gardens. According to Sally Tugman, an extension program assistant, soil can be submitted at the Johnson County Extension Office at 212 College Street for testing. “It is very important to make certain the soil being submitted is thoroughly dry,” explained Tugman, “and obtained from at least six inches down into the subsoil in various spots of the anticipated garden site.” Only a small amount, less than a cup, is necessary for testing and one small container will test up to 10 acres. The local extension office sends samples to Nashville each Friday and the basic charge is $7. The testing site tends to become backlogged in the spring so gardeners should expect a two to three week turnaround. When testing is completed, the county extension agent will receive a detailed report and will contact the soil submitter.
If one takes the time to plan before gardening, yields will be increased. A garden plan saves time, space, hard work and money. According to David W. Sams, Professor Emeritus of the University of Tennessee, in addition to selecting suitable soil, one should consider the amount of sunlight in a particular location, the typography of the site, accessibility, and the size of garden needed.
“If you really want to be organized, make a scale drawing of your future garden,” said Sams. “Begin with a scale drawing of the site. Graph paper makes the drawing easy to construct and to work with, but any kind of paper will do. Divide the drawing into two sections. Plan to plant cool-season vegetables in one section and warm-season vegetables in the other. The cool-season section will be harvested by mid-summer and can be replanted for a fall garden. Alternate the warm- and cool-season sections each year to reduce plant disease.”
Finally, after an appropriate site is chosen, evaluated and planned, it is time to select the vegetables you wish to plant. It is important to not only consider the likes and dislikes of the family, but also the space requirements of particular vegetables. For example, corn and pumpkins tend to require quite a bit of space. You also need to consider the time to plant and harvest your selections. Vegetables may be separated into cool and warm season crops. Cool season vegetables generally are adapted to average temperatures below 20°C while warm season crops grow best when the average is above 20°C. Cool season crops will withstand some slight freezing while all warm season crops are damaged by frost.
If one is itching to get something in the ground, so-called “cool-season vegetables,” crops where the edible portion is either a root, stem, leaf or immature flower part, can be planted locally in March. These include: beets, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, carrots, collards, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, mustard greens, radishes, spinach, chard, rhubarb and turnips.
For those willing to plan carefully and to perform timely tasks, gardening can be very worthwhile. A vegetable garden can produce a steady supply of vegetables from spring to fall. Vegetables, when harvested at optimum maturity, can be enjoyed or preserved while fresh. Fresh vegetables may be higher in flavor and nutritive value and lower in cost than purchased vegetables. Additionally gardening provides healthful exercise and an avenue for outdoor enjoyment. The entire family can participate. Most gardeners feel a sense of accomplishment and self-sufficiency when harvesting a successful garden.