Two things need to happen before it’s time to plant those warm season gardens: first, nighttime temperatures need to be above 50F, and second, soil temperature needs to be above 60F. Most years in Huntsville, that happens about April 15. Last year it didn’t happen until late April, but this year we turned that corner April 5th. We are a GO for warm season gardens, but there’s no rush: we have a long growing season ahead of us.
Hold off on okra, sweet potatoes and melons for a few weeks yet. They like it to be even warmer.
Starting from Seed
Mother nature starts most plants from seed, and we can do the same thing. Some crops, like corn, melons, cucumbers and okra, prefer direct seeding (sowing seeds directly in a prepared garden bed or row). They will grow faster, be tougher and establish better if their roots are not disturbed by transplanting.
It is common in climates with very short growing seasons to start nearly everything indoors and transplant because those gardeners need a head start. We don’t need to do that here.
However, direct seeding can have some challenges. You must keep the soil evenly moist, and seedlings are vulnerable to pests like slugs and aphids that will either eat the seedlings or kill them. Watch your seedlings outdoors at least as much as you would watch them in a seed starting tray.
Many gardeners start seeds indoors 6-8 weeks ahead of planting time. Those seedlings should be strong and sturdy. Before going into the garden, they need to be hardened off to be acclimated to sun, wind and rain. Start by placing the plants outdoors in indirect light for part of the day and gradually extend the time they are outside and the sun level. If you have been putting your plants outside in the sun on warm days and nights, they are probably sufficiently hardened off to go in the ground right away.
If you don’t have seeds purchased or haven’t already started transplants indoors, you may want to purchase young plants from your local nursery or garden center. Purchasing this way means you have less selection and it’s more expensive, but it is certainly much easier. If you are a novice gardener or just want to grow a couple of plants, this may be your best option instead of purchasing the supplies for starting seeds and learning how to start them. Many purchased seedlings will need to be hardened off as well. Unless you are able to ask the nursery that grew them, most plants have been trucked in and have been living in a sheltered greenhouse.
Some crops, like sweet potatoes, aren’t usually grown from seed at all. I recommend purchasing transplants of these crops until you want to master those propagation skills.
Bringing it All Together in Your Young Garden
Personally, I only start peppers, tomatoes, and basil(s) indoors. Sweet Basil started indoors is almost ready to harvest by the time they are transplanted, and peppers and tomatoes take long enough to mature that a first harvest a week or two sooner is worth the trouble to me. Pepper seedlings also tend to take a long time to germinate, which means there is ample opportunity for something to go wrong. With the price of specialty pepper seeds as much as 25 to 50 cents per seed, losing these seedlings can be expensive.
Key things to remember as you start your summer garden:
- Keep seedlings moist, but let the soil mostly dry out between waterings. As they get older, water more deeply and less frequently to encourage strong root development and drought tolerance.
- Watch emerging seedlings to be sure they are not being attacked or eaten.
- Don’t use insecticidal soap or horticultural oils (including neem) on very young plants. These products can damage leaves that young plants can’t afford to lose. Hand pick pests or use water to wash them off the plant and into a container of soapy water.
- Don’t pull weeds around young seedlings because you risk disturbing their roots. Instead, cut the weeds off at the soil surface and repeat as needed.