P. Allen Smith: Growing Spring Vegetables & Fruits

Strawberries in wood bowl

I’m writing this article on a January morning looking out of my window at a blanket of snow, but you are reading this in April, the height of cool-season vegetable gardening in Arkansas. By now you’re harvesting lettuce, spinach and greens, and your broccoli, cabbage and strawberries plants are well on the way. It’s an optimal time to go over a few common questions about growing vegetables and fruit in spring.

QUESTION: I live in a rental and love to garden. That being said what are the best vegetables, fruits and berries, etc., to grow in container?

ANSWER: The current emphasis on growing edibles and growing in limited spaces has created a new demand for fruit and vegetables that are tailor-made for container gardening. Big box stores and local garden centers carry plants that stay compact while producing an abundant harvest. Look for plants with the words “patio,” “baby” or “dwarf” in the name. Blueberries, raspberries, tomatoes and even pumpkins come in petite versions.

Containers are also suitable for strawberries, beets, peppers, squash, broccoli, cabbage, radishes, lettuce, spinach, carrots and herbs! You can grow any type of herb in a container.

For fruits and vegetables, choose a container that is at least 20 inches across and 18 inches deep. You can go smaller with herbs; 8- to 10-inch diameter pots will do. Use a commercial bagged potting soil, and place the containers where they will receive at least six hours of sun each day.

It is important to water your containers regularly, which may be twice a day during our typical hot, dry summers. Water when the top inch of soil is dry, and fertilize every five to 10 days with an organic liquid fertilizer. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Don’t overdo it — plants in containers are especially susceptible to fertilizer burn because they do not have a large volume of soil to absorb excess fertilizer.

If you only have room for one or two containers, plant a mix of flowers, vegetables and herbs in a single pot. Tomato, basil, oregano and marigolds make a great combination. The marigolds help repel insect pests, and the tomatoes and herbs work well together in recipes.

QUESTION: Help! Every year the birds eat most of my strawberries. What can I do to prevent this?

ANSWER: I can understand your concern and frustration. After waiting all winter for a big bowl of homegrown strawberries, it’s disheartening to see them disappear.

I created a raised bed for my strawberries on a long strip of unused land behind one of my fences — the bed is only about 30 inches wide, but nearly 50 feet long. Every year it seems as though the birds know exactly when it’s time to harvest the berries, because that is when bite marks begin appearing in the fruit.

To solve this dilemma, I use mesh or netting. You’ll find it in garden centers and home improvement stores. It comes in various sizes, so you’ll need to know the dimensions of your bed. Once it’s in place, you’ll hardly be able to see it. I simply attach the netting to the back of the fence with small nails, pull it across the bed and pin it down on the front wooden borders. If your bed is on the ground, you can anchor it with U-shaped pins fashioned from clothes hangers or heavy gauge wire.

The netting is relatively inexpensive, particularly when you consider the cost of fresh strawberries in the grocery store. It can also be used to cover fruit trees and other berry crops bothered by marauding pests. It’s also great for covering water features during the fall and winter to keep the leaves out.

QUESTION: What are the best tomato varieties for Arkansas?

ANSWER: In my opinion, there is no bad tomato choice as long as you plant tomatoes! However, some are better suited for our climate than others.

Tomatoes are a warm-season vegetable, but they don’t like it too hot. By mid- to late-summer we often have extended periods when the temperature gets above 95 degrees during the day. Many tomato varieties will stop setting fruit until the heat breaks. To get around this, choose varieties that are known to be heat tolerant. Here is a short list that I’ve had success with…

  • ‘Heatmaster’ (determinate): This one is good for Arkansas’ heat and humidity. It’s a good one for containers and raised beds because it stays under 4 feet tall.
  • ‘Solar Fire’ (determinate): This variety is ideal for you folks who like to plant tomatoes in mid-summer for fall harvest.
  • ‘Sungold’ (indeterminate): One of my favorite cherry tomatoes because it is so sweet.
  • ‘Arkansas Traveler’ (indeterminate): How can you go wrong with such a great name? This variety is crack resistant and tolerates heat and drought.
  • ‘Bradley’ (indeterminate): Slicing type with pink flesh and a mild flavor — it’s the star of the Bradley County Tomato Festival.

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