in the garden

Test, Prep, Plant!

By | January 26, 2018
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The spring plant rush is about to begin

In my first South Carolina winter just last year, January hit hard. Sure, a few nights into the 20s defoliated my potted lime tree, and hat-and-glove mornings were regular, but the bright camellia blossoms, the big buds bursting on saucer magnolias and the ever-creeping winter weeds rang the alarm: Spring is about to outrun you! Now I know, to reap the most from South Carolina’s blessedly long growing season, January is the time to begin. A little planning, a little cleaning, and fresh greens can be on the table by March.


If, like some of us, a yard full of colorful autumn leaves forms your seasonal decoration, you’ve already started to prepare. Keep those leaves. Several inches of leaf or pine straw mulch blanketing your garden smothers winter weeds, moderates soil temperatures, conserves moisture for seedlings and instills nutrients as it decomposes. However, leaves that are too thick or matted will block moisture and air. If you can, chop them up with a lawnmower, as smaller pieces break down faster and stay in place.

One caveat: Before mulching or amending soil, clear out and dispose of (don’t compost) all dead stalks and leaves from any vegetable plot that may have been diseased. Tomatoes are especially prone to pathogens that overwinter in the soil. It is best to do this by the end of each growing season.


Too many gardeners blame meager harvests on their brown thumbs when the culprit is actually nutrient-poor soil. Most vegetables require a soil pH between 6 and 6.5. How do we get it there? Clemson Cooperative Extension offers an inexpensive soil testing kit to help you discover what you’re working with. Collect a few trowels full of soil in the pint bag, and receive a report listing pH, nutrient values and fertilizer recommendations for the plants you want to grow. Do it early. This is the same service South Carolina farmers use, and they’ll be sending in samples soon, too. Pick up testing bags at a local garden center, at your county extension office or through the mail.

With your report in hand, call the extension office (888-656-9988; M–F, 8am–4:30pm) to talk it over with a horticulture pro and get guidance on soil amendments, both organic and conventional. Calls are free, along with all the information at Clemson Cooperative Extension Home and Garden Information Center. Check out HGIC’s “Planning a Garden” page for tips, planting times, methods and dates to harvest.


Dirty, sap-encrusted pruners get finicky and spread plant diseases across your garden. Mud-caked shovels can have the same effect. Start the growing season with clean, sharp tools, which are more fun to use anyway. Scrub everything with a stiff brush and soapy water, then wipe dry. Work off any rust with the brush, or use sandpaper. Sharpen digging tools with a hand file and bypass pruners with a whetstone. Online tutorials abound, or hardware stores and some garden centers can sharpen pruners for you.

Wipe tools with oil to form a barrier against moisture and rust. The Garden Tool Company recommends rubbing boiled linseed oil on all wood and metal parts, then wiping it off after 15 minutes. Always use caution with linseed oil, never crumpling up used rags (combustion danger). Hang rags to dry in the open. Make a habit of cleaning, drying and quickly oil-wiping tools after each use, and store them covered and hanging up. Last year, I upgraded to Felco pruners after destroying too many cheap ones. These get cleaned at the sink with dish soap, water and a scrub pad. A wipe dry, a drop of oil on the moving parts and this regular care sets me up for decades of use.


Too often, by the time I wish for bouquets of sweet peas it’s too late to plant them. The cool soil and air they need speed right by. Planting dates for all seeds are pegged relative to an average last frost date. Know this, and you can figure how many weeks prior to start seeds indoors under lights before transferring outside, or when to safely plant seedlings. The Midlands are in Plant Hardiness Zone 8a, but the last frost date varies, according to Cooperative Extension data. In Columbia it’s April 17, but in Sumter it’s a week earlier.

Plugging April 17 into a seed starting calculator like the one at A Way to Garden, I learn peas and spinach seeds can go in March 6. They’ll take a light frost, so I’ll likely plant in late February. Calculators can get us close, but variables like mild La Niña years, cold snaps and a changing climate mean that dates can be fluid. Gardeners have been gaming spring for eons by warming the soil with cold frames, milk jugs with the bottoms cut out, floating row covers or old sheets, empty jars and black nursery pots turned over to cover tender seedlings on frosty nights. Experiment with these, and stagger plantings of the same crop a week or so apart to safeguard against unpredictable weather—and enjoy a long harvest.

Your garden is as local as can be when you buy seeds and plants from hometown garden shops, farmers’ markets and events like the State Farmers’ Market Plant & Flower Festival. Ask about varieties that grow best here. With local knowledge, plus your soil test and planting calendar handy, you won’t miss a bit of our precious Midlands spring.

Article from Edible Charleston at
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