This past summer, I was told by a farmer at a local farmer’s market that growing food organically is impossible here on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. However, I have found that to be not precisely true.
What is true is that my organically-managed garden is supplying a small but steady flow of veggies to the kitchen. What is also true is that a lot of those veggies have been eggplants and okra. As long as I love eggplants and okra, my summer veggie garden will be a smashing success. Ditto for radishes in the spring and fall.
Unlike market farmers, home gardeners like me have the benefit of not needing to compete with the produce section of the local supermarket. We don’t expect our gardens to supply all the standard veggies the whole year round. This means we can focus our efforts on crops that don’t need chemical interventions to produce food in our yards.
It can also help if a gardener is a bit flexible in how to measure success in the garden.
Part of the path to success is identifying which exact crops will produce well in our gardens, then growing and appreciating those crops. Another part of the path is to keep in mind the part of the Serenity Prayer that reminds us to not get too fussed about the “things I cannot change” and focusing instead on knowing which things can be changed and which can’t.
My sand-dune-based garden
This Gulf Coast sand dune, 28 feet above sea level in plant hardiness zone 9a, is very different from the location of my previous 30 years of gardening in the red clay of the Georgia Piedmont region in hardiness zone 7b. In the “things that cannot be changed” category, the soil here is, as mentioned already, mostly sand. I can pile compost on top of it, but I cannot change the basic sandiness of the yard. I also cannot add more cold to our winters, which means some plants that need a lot of cold, like Rhubarb and many varieties of apples, will not thrive here. The flip side of that is that now I can grow some sub-tropical fruits.
Many crops are more adaptable than Rhubarb and cold-loving fruits, especially the annuals that I usually grow in the garden. In our move from Georgia last spring, I brought seed packets for some of those crops left over from the past couple of years. Some of those crop varieties have worked well, and some haven’t.
I’ve already noted that eggplants, okra, and radishes have been wildly productive here. However, a whole lot of crops have been less happy here on my sand dune.
A sadness of beans
Bean crops, which always totally rocked the garden in north Georgia, have not done well here. The first planting gave us a few handfuls of beans, not the usual superabundance, before they died, and I was puzzled, but planted more. When the next planting died, I had to start thinking harder about what could be wrong. English peas planted in early fall met the same fate as the second sad planting of beans. They just faded away.
I can see a few possible reasons for the problem. One is a lack of some essential nutrient, and another is a high soluble salt content in the soil. Until I can deliver a soil sample to the state testing lab, those are both just guesses.
A third possible reason is the relatively high pH of my sandy soil, which is way above 7. Beans tend to prefer a lower pH. This year, as I prepare the planting beds, I will be digging in some sulfur to start bringing that down (sulfur can take years to have any effect). In addition, I hope to hunt up some gypsum to use for a calcium source, since that can also help alleviate the high pH — and it might help with the soluble salts, too.
There is a good chance that I can change the soil pH a little bit, and I can amend the soil to bring in missing nutrients. I might not be able to do much about soluble salts, since my garden is only five blocks from the beach. Salt is in the air! If salts are the problem, beans may never do well here. It will be interesting to find out.
Every crop turns a bit yellow as it grows
As my summer crops grew this year, I saw that they all became less richly green over time. Back in north Georgia, a little bit of Epsom salts (an affiliate link to the product), a source of soluble magnesium, would fix that when extra nitrogen (like in a fish-based fertilizer — see article at this link) didn’t seem to help.
I discovered that Epsom salts works here, too, but they need to be applied much more frequently. The sandy “soil” lets dissolved nutrients, like the magnesium in Epsom salts, wash away, down out of the root zone, very quickly. Clay soils, like those in north Georgia, hold on to nutrients much more tightly, keeping them up in the root zone longer.
This summer, I ended up needing to apply a weak solution of Epsom salts (two rounded tablespoons dissolved in two gallons of water, then applied as evenly as I could manage over two 3×12 foot beds) every couple of weeks to keep the plants looking healthy. For my fall crops, this schedule stretched out to 3-to-4 weeks.
One item on my “to purchase” list this spring is a big bag of a crushed-rock-magnesium source that will not wash down through the sand so quickly. Big, gravel-sized chunks are my preference, but more finely pulverized products are easier to find. I am considering Sul-Po-Mag and Azomite (two affiliate links) as possible sources.
With some additional research into sources and work in applying what I’ve found to the garden, there is a good chance that I can fix the low-magnesium problem.
Other crops that grew less well than preferred
My corn patch was a bust. We ended up with a few patchy ears of sweet corn, which was a disappointment. I think the cause was a mineral-nutrient deficiency problem. I plan to try again this coming year after amending the soil more intensively (I had added a lot of purchased compost this past spring.)
Zucchini squash was very productive for a very short time, then was killed off by squash vine borers. The winter squash did not do well at all. I had planted a butternut, which can withstand the borers, but the squashes that the plants produced were tiny. Then, the leaves all got mildewed and the plants died. For winter squashes, I will — again — keep working to improve the soil with composts and mineral amendments and also try some different varieties. I know that ‘Seminole’ pumpkin squash should do well here, but I am hoping for something thicker-fleshed, sweeter, and with a shell that won’t require a sledgehammer to break through (I have grown it before…).
Sweet potatoes were not nearly as productive as I would have preferred. The good news is that I did dig up about 20 pounds of sweets from the garden. My experience in north Georgia, though, shows me that a much larger harvest is possible from the number of plants grown. From similar space and number of plants in Georgia, the harvest was typically twice that amount.
Tomatoes in the spring were not very productive. A couple of plants just plain died (drowned, when the garden flooded) and the rest quit making fruit in mid-summer. Apparently, that is a normal occurrence here, caused by nighttime high temperatures. The late-summer tomatoes that I grew were only just beginning to ripen before our first frost on the last night of November.
These tomato issues can be fixed (I hope) with changes in the timing of my plantings. Luckily, this year I am already here, and the garden beds are dug, so I should be able to get tomato plants into the ground well before April. (Our last frost should be around the end of February.) Last year, I was just starting to prepare the garden beds in April, because we moved here at the end of March.
Beets have been a bust. I planted one set of seeds in the late summer, and they came up, but then the little plants faded away. A second planting produced more little plants, and most of them are still present, but they have not grown much.
Stink bugs! Caterpillars!
In addition to soil problems, there were some pests. This is not really a surprise, since tiny plant-eaters are everywhere. My two largest categories of pests were stink bugs and their relatives, and caterpillars of several species.
Stink bugs and leaf-footed bugs damaged tomatoes, peppers, and the Southern peas. Most evenings beginning in early summer, I spent a few minutes out in the garden with a large plastic cup of soapy water, hunting for these pests. A whole platoon of immature leaf-footed bugs could be dislodged into “the cup of doom”, where they would drown, with one shake of the bean, leaf, tomato, or pepper on which they were gathered.
Caterpillars plagued the garden until late summer. Every leafy green vegetable that is normally recommended for the summer garden was attacked, in addition to tomatoes and peppers. Weirdly, though, the caterpillars that I expected to see on cabbage-family plants in fall never appeared. My kale, collards, and arugula have been unmolested. I count this as a blessing.
Fire ant mounds were all over the yard when we moved in. It took awhile for me to get around to dealing with them, but I did find that the Texas A&M recipe, noted in my second article on fire ants, that uses Medina Orange Oil (affiliate link) and Blue Dawn dish soap works great here. Smaller mounds were destroyed with one treatment. Larger mounds took two or three tries. As new colonies have moved in, I have continued using the DIY recipe. This recipe is not strictly organic, considering the range of ingredients in the Blue Dawn dish soap. When my giant bottle of Blue Dawn is finally empty, I plan to try using liquid castile soap, which does not include the petrochemical ingredients, as a replacement for the dish soap.
Before I started seriously hunting down and destroying the fire ant colonies, the ants were eating okra in the garden. It was a surprise that the ants on the okra really were fire ants, not like the kind of ants back in Georgia that farmed aphids on the okra. Figuring this out was painful. Welts from fire ant bites/stings take a long time to heal.
Some happier crops
Plenty of crops have done pretty well in my sand dune garden. Here are some happy pictures of examples:
The plan for now
One great feature of this garden is that digging holes and creating new planting beds is much easier than in the clay in north Georgia. Even better, wet sand never sticks to the shovel in huge messy globs like the red clay can. However, the big drawback is that the sand doesn’t hold onto much of anything. Water and nutrients — like from fertilizers — wash right through.
To improve this situation, I will keep adding composts — my own compost pile is far enough along to reduce the amount I need to buy this year. In addition, I will be buying those crushed rock sources of nutrients, to improve the health and productivity of my crops, as noted above. These additions should make organic gardening in the sand more successful.
In future posts (I promise, they will be more frequent in the coming year), there will be more information about the actual plants in the garden.
I hope that your gardening has provided good food through 2020, and that the coming year brings more garden adventures and successes! Keep well.