I’m sad to say that thanks to school, work, and life, my spring gardening season was pretty much a no go. All I managed to get planted was a bed of Irish potatoes and a few cucumbers. There will be no Sweet G-90 corn on the Grant table this year. Greg passed statistics but failed Zea mays. I never even got my plot plowed. If time was for sale, I still couldn’t afford it. Bust just because I flopped, doesn’t mean you have to. Start small!
My first suggestion for getting you started in producing edible crops is to go visit somebody in your area that is doing it. As a matter of fact, visit as many as you can. I always loved learning from older gardeners that had lived a life of producing fruits and vegetables. They’ve tried it all and can save you lots of trouble. I’m very thankful my grandfather, Eloy Emanis, showed me how to run a tiller, how to plow a straight line, how to open a furrow, how to use a hoe, how to pick corn, and numerous other gardening chores. If there’s a botanical garden in your area or a Master Gardener group, check and see if they have a demonstration vegetable garden or orchard that’s open to the public. Also, ask if they have continuing education classes that cover growing your own edibles. The whole concept of producing your own food is once again popular these days and there are generally a number of classes and seminars available.
Be very careful who and where you get your advice from. Gardening books, websites, and YouTube videos are wonderful resources, but you must pay very close attention to where they are produced. Many of them are for the North, an entirely different gardening climate suited for different vegetables and different planting times that we have. My general rule is; if it grows in the North, it will suffer or die in the South. And if it thrives in the South, it probably won’t grow in the North. You must realize that we have no winters equivalent to theirs. The lack of cold eliminates production of certain crops like cherries here. Our winter is the equivalent of their springtime, so crops they grow in the spring, like cabbage and broccoli, we grow in the wintertime. Our spring is the equivalent of a Northern or European summer, so their summer crops like beans and tomatoes are our spring crops. And of course, they have no equivalent to our summer, so we must grow an entirely different set of heat tolerant plants that they aren’t used to. The reason they don’t like okra, sweet potatoes, and Southern peas is because they can’t grow them and didn’t learn to like them (or have never been hungry).
Many beginning gardens make huge mistakes by trying to grow all the things they’d like to eat without finding out whether they will even grow here or not. Some plants are virtually impossible to produce here like rhubarb, raspberries, and apricots. Don’t waste money and time on plants that are doomed to failure.
Time of planting is super critical. There are basically three kinds of vegetable crops you can grow: winter (cool season) plants, spring and fall (mild season) plants, and heat loving (hot season) plants. Spring and fall are pretty much the same in Texas. The temperatures are the same and the day lengths are the same. This means you can basically grow all the same crops in the fall that you do in the spring, you just plant them in reverse order.
Sit down with a paper and pencil every season and plot out what you intend to grow. We can grow crops year-round here and certainly should. Make a winter list, a spring list, a summer list, and fall list. When one crop is finished, pull it up and put in the next season’s plants. Many novice gardeners think spring is the only vegetable producing time we have. And for heaven’s sake if you do only grow a garden during the spring, don’t let it grow up in weeds when you stop gardening in the summer. This just ensures that you will have weeds forever. It’s better to keep it covered with mulch or at least weed free when not in production. If you don’t garden during the summer plant a cover crop of southern peas or sweet potatoes that can take the heat. The same goes for the winter. At least cover the ground with cereal rye, mustard, or turnips instead of letting it grow up in weeds or have your precious soil wash away in a flood instead.
Be very careful reading seed catalogs or looking at packets on a seed racket. I can assure you that a catalog or a seed pack has never been printed with an ugly picture that says, “This won’t grow in Texas.” Unfortunately, all crops and varieties don’t grow here. Also, be very mindful of the season. Just because you see strawberry plants or tomato plants for sale, doesn’t mean it’s time to plant them. There are many strawberry plants on the shelves in the spring when it’s too late to plant them here. There are many tomato transplants on the shelf in May, June, September, and October when it is too late to plant and produce anything from them here. Get you a good Texas gardening calendar each year (Texas Gardener magazine produces a good one and most Texas A&M AgriLife Extension offices offer something similar) that shows you the proper planting times and be faithful to them. Our land grant university horticulturists spent many years figuring out what would grow here and when to plant it. Don’t waste that valuable information.
And please, please, please learn to identify a sunny location. Do not confuse direct sun (when a beam of light shines directly on you) with full sun (a full day’s worth of direct sun from the time it rises in the morning until it sets in the evening). Almost all fruits, vegetables, and herbs need full sun, or at least 8 direct hours of it. As my mentor, Dr. Jerry Parsons used to say, “If you can’t sunbathe there, you can’t grow a vegetable garden there.” Many folks in Texas like to work in the shade but if you are working in the shade in a vegetable garden you’ve made a big mistake and your production will suffer immensely. Many beginning gardeners use shade for cooler temperatures as well. This won’t work either. For instance, tomatoes need mild temperatures to set fruit and full sun. If you plant them in the shade in July so they will be cooler, they still aren’t going to produce because they need full sun to grow.
Summer in Texas is now here which limits you to Okra, Southern peas (two crops are possible if you time it correctly), and sweet potatoes which only produce well if you plant them before summer starts. Grow forth and multiply!