Extension News: Spring gardening in South Dakota: Tips & tricks

  Many may approach this growing season with hope as well as a hefty dose of skepticism.  Spring storms, fall storms, drought, wind, hail…welcome to the world of South Dakota gardening, where every plant tells a story of resilience. It’s important to keep your sense of humor intact. “What would a tomato throw at a cucumber if it told a bad joke?” The answer is SHADE of course, because tomatoes lack opposable thumbs! All joking aside, here are some tips and tricks to best prepare for this growing season.
1. Watch the Weather: In South Dakota, where winter can linger longer than expected, timing is crucial. While the temptation to start planting may arise with the first warm days, it’s essential to be mindful of potential frost dates. The average last frost date in South Dakota varies from May 1- 31. Keep an eye on weather forecasts before planting tender annuals or warm weather vegetables.
2. Prepare Soil: Prior to planting, assess your soil’s condition and make any necessary amendments. South Dakota soil varies from heavy clay to sandy loam. Incorporating organic matter such as compost or well-aged manure can improve soil structure, drainage, and fertility. Getting your soil tested will determine the nutrient and pH levels and adjusting these levels will help create an optimal growing environment. 
3. Select Suitable Plants: Opt for cold-hardy vegetables like lettuce, spinach and peas which thrive in the cooler temperatures of early spring. Choose plants that are well-adapted to South Dakota’s climate and soil conditions. 
4. Use Smart Design: As you’re planning your garden, consider which plants will require full sun and which ones can tolerate and even benefit from some shade. Place shorter plants on the south end of the garden and arrange them in ascending order with the tallest plants on the north end to maximize sun exposure. Utilizing the shade from taller plants in the late afternoon during the hottest parts of the day can extend growing cool season crops in the hottest part of the summer without bolting. Cool season crops like lettuce can tolerate partial shade.
5. Mind your Air Flow: Proper air flow is vital for healthy plants. Utilize trellising and prune tomatoes and cucumbers to increase yield. These methods improve the overall health of the garden by not providing cover for pests. When garden growth is allowed to get out of hand, overgrowth can provide stagnant conditions which may become a breeding ground for diseases. 
6. Mulch: Mulching is a gardener’s best friend, especially in South Dakota, where summers can be hot and dry. Apply a layer of organic mulch, such as straw, shredded leaves or grass clippings (only use if not sprayed with herbicide). Mulching helps conserve moisture, suppress weeds, moderates soil temperatures, promotes beneficial microbial activity and helps prevent soil erosion. 
7. Water Wisely: Adequate water is essential for plant growth, particularly during their establishment time in the spring. Be careful not to overwater, as soggy soil can lead to root rot and other fungal diseases. Aim for deep infrequent watering to encourage deep root growth and drought tolerance.
8. Manage Pests and Disease: Stay vigilant for common garden pests and diseases. Crop rotation and good garden hygiene go a long way to minimize the spread of diseases like powdery mildew and blight. Look for signs of aphids, cabbage worms, potato beetles and other insect pests, and promptly intervene. SDSU Extension recommends Integrated Pest Management (IPM). There are five basic steps to IPM: identify the pest, monitor pest activity, determine action threshold (when enough is enough), explore treatment options and make treatments (pesticide is a last resort), and evaluate results. 
9. Embrace Diversity: Diversity is the cornerstone of a resilient garden ecosystem. Encourage biodiversity by incorporating a variety of plant species which attract pollinators and provide habitats for beneficial insects and birds. 
10. Interplant: Interplanting is the practice of planting a fast-growing crop between a slower growing one to maximize your garden space. For example, interplant radishes with carrots in the same shallow furrow. The radish seed germinates and matures quickly providing shade which in turn, helps retain moisture for the carrot seed to germinate and helps with weed suppression while the carrot plant develops. The root of the radish helps loosen the soil and marks the row early on to prevent unwanted foot traffic.
11. Provide Continuous Care: Stay engaged with your garden throughout the growing season. This enables you to observe changes in plant health, adjust watering and fertilization needs, and harvest your produce at their peak of freshness. Gardening is a labor of love that requires ongoing attention and care. It is as much about the journey as it is about the destination, so take time to savor the sights, sounds and smells of your springtime oasis.
For more information and research-based lawn, home landscape and garden advice, contact Kerry Pile at the SDSU Extension Garden Hotline in Rapid City at sdsu.gardenswest@sdstate.edu or 605-394-6814.

The Pioneer Review

221 E. Oak Street
Philip, SD 57567
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