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Produce Gardening Tips for Oklahomans

Today it’s over 90 degrees outside, which means spring has most definitely sprung in Oklahoma. Although we are hot, we are also happy, because gardening season is upon us! Some might assume Oklahoma’s hot climate and severe weather make gardening too difficult, but the Oklahoma climate is actually good for many plants if you know what to do. 

Growing your own produce

Although growing your own produce takes a little work, there are many reasons to give gardening a go.

  1. Save money. Growing your own fruits, vegetables and herbs can save you money, especially if you grow them from seeds. You can eat straight from your garden all summer long, and then preserve the extras for winter. A packet of seeds usually costs less than $2 dollars.
  2. Avoid preservatives. Store-bought produce can contain unwanted pesticides and fertilizers. When you grow your own produce, you can choose organic seeds and safe pest control products.
  3. Convenience. If you dread going to the grocery store, gardening might be the perfect solution. You can still go to the store for staples, but you also have the option to "shop" straight from your backyard.
  4. Fresh taste. Home gardeners will tell you, fresh simply tastes better. There is nothing as satisfying as fresh fruits and veggies straight from the garden.

Paul Mays is from Oklahoma City’s SixTwelve, a nonprofit community center in the Paseo District that teaches gardening and offers a cooperative garden. He points out there are many environmental benefits to homegrown produce as well. “Food grown at home uses far less fossil fuels, as there is no need to ship it across the ocean or continent, and can be grown without using chemical fertilizer, which destroys soil life,” Mays says. “Homegrown is far more water-efficient than conventionally grown food and does not tap into fossil water reserves.”

Produce tips from a professional

Oklahoma is known for our red dirt, which can cause some unique obstacles when planning a garden. Here are a few tips for maintaining your green thumb in Oklahoma’s red soil.

Choose produce that will thrive in Oklahoma’s soil and climate. David Hillock is the state coordinator of the Master Gardener Program at OSU’s Horticulture and Landscape Architecture department, which means he knows a thing or two about gardening in Oklahoma soil.

In the cool season, Hillock recommends growing carrots, radishes, lettuce, onions and potatoes. In the warm season, “some of my favorite edible drought-tolerant annuals are malabar spinach, okra and sweet potatoes,” he says. Hillock also likes growing tomatoes, peppers, okra and eggplant this time of year. Hillock says many herbs grow well in Oklahoma, but his favorites include basil, garlic, oregano, sage and mint.

Hillock also recommends planting and harvesting trees and shrubs that produce fruit, berries and nuts. A few great options are pecan, persimmon, mulberry, serviceberry, hazelnut, blackberry, dewberry, hardy kiwi vine and sand plums.

A few other produce options that usually thrive in Oklahoma include kale, chard, snow peas, summer squash, beans, melons, corn and strawberries.

More gardening tips for Oklahomans

In addition to produce type, site selection and soil preparation are both critical for a healthy garden. “Choose the right plants for the level of exposure in your landscape, i.e. leafy crops do well in semi-shady areas, while fruiting crops generally need at least six hours of continuous sunlight to do well,” Hillock says.

He continues, “Most soils will benefit from the addition of organic matter, such as well-composted material.” Compost is simply decomposed organic matter.

According to the website Composting for the Homeowner, the key to good composting is to have a variety of materials and a balanced carbon to nitrogen ratio, and can include things like dead leaves, twigs, manure, grass clippings, fruit rinds and coffee grounds. Brown materials supply carbon, green materials supply nitrogen.

“Adding organic matter helps create a loose, healthy soil. Clay soils are broken up by incorporating organic matter, which leads to better pore space and better drainage. Sandy soils are improved with organic matter by increasing nutrient- and moisture-holding capacity,” Hillock says.

If you’re new to gardening, don’t bite off more than you can chew. “Start small,” says Hillock. “Only plant what you can easily take care of and what you like and will actually eat. Ten square feet of garden can produce a lot of food if planned carefully. If there isn’t much ground space, plant in containers.”

Here are a few other quick tips from Hillock to help avoid common gardening problems that arise in Oklahoma.

        Have a soil test done every three to four years.

        Apply fertilizers per the recommended dose and in the proper manner.

        Use organic materials such as compost where available, since organic matter is the basis for productive garden soil.

        Use recommended plant varieties.

        Thin crop plants and remove weeds when small.

        Use mulches to conserve moisture, control weeds, cool the soil and reduce fruit rot.

        Avoid excessive walking and working in the garden when foliage and soil are wet.

        Examine the garden often to stay ahead of potential problems such as weeds, insects and diseases.

        Clean tools and sprayers after use.

        Rotate specific crop family locations each year to avoid soil-borne diseases.

        Harvest vegetables during the cool hours of the day for best quality.

Pesticides when growing your own produce

One benefit of growing your own produce is controlling what your food comes in contact with. You don’t have to ingest foods treated with synthetic chemical pesticides if that’s what you prefer.

“Your first line of attack should be planting resistant cultivars and monitoring the garden regularly,” Hillock suggests. “By keeping a close watch, methods that don’t require pesticides can often be effective, such as hand-picking insects or knocking them off with water spray, using trap crops and encouraging beneficial organisms.”

Although you may be able to avoid chemical pesticides by keeping a close eye on your garden, if pests are an issue, there are natural options for prevention and control.

"The active chemical ingredients in pesticides acceptable for use in gardens which are often considered less toxic to humans and animals come from natural sources and do not have long residual effects. They will decompose rapidly in the environment (except materials containing elements like copper),” says Hillock. Some of these “less toxic” materials include botanicals, microbials and minerals, along with insecticidal soaps and oils. Products made from natural materials include:

InsecticidesBacillus thuringiensis (Bt), sabadilla

Bactericide or fungicideBordeaux mix (lime-sulfur), sulfur, copper

Broad spectrum insecticideInsecticidal soaps and oils, pyrethrin

“But no matter the product, they are all pesticides and can still result in harm to humans, animals and crops if improperly used,” Hillock warns. “Always read and follow label directions!”

Local Oklahoma City gardening initiative

SixTwelve offers shared gardening space and workshops on gardening and sustainability for locals. “Volunteers at SixTwelve learn the ins and outs of gardening,” Mays says. “Everything from building gardens, planting seeds and plants, forest gardening, permaculture, watering, mulching, pest and weed control, organic fertilization and harvesting.”

SixTwelve workshops happen the second Saturday of the month, excluding June, July and August. “Some of our past workshops have included topics such as rain gardens, mushroom cultivation, seed starting, composting, wildcrafting and herbalism," says Mays.

Another initiative SixTwelve offers is Forever Food Forest, which creates a low-maintenance, perennial food ecosystem rich in useable plants, medicinals and foods such as fruits, berries, nuts and greens.

“As our food forest grows and becomes more diverse with plants and other biology, we can share these plants and knowledge with others so they can create similar gardens in their own spaces,” Mays says. “The system can theoretically be replicated over and over, providing food-producing plants throughout our community.”

For a full SixTwelve workshops schedule, check out the events calendar, but before you get started on your own garden, check out these gardening safety tips from INTEGRIS hand surgeons.

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