If you didn’t already grow your own vegetables and herbs, then the recent pandemic predicament should have you minding your peas and Q’s. We all know that vegetables are essential for a long, healthy life, and we all know that fresh picked produce is tastier and more tender. Still yet, when we grow our own, we know exactly when and what pesticides have been applied and certainly know the country of origin. And last, but not least, we don’t have to stay masked and six feet apart to grow, harvest, and enjoy our own home-grown veggies.
Knowing we need to do it is the easy part. Knowing how to do it takes practice, patience, and persistence. And even more importantly it requires following some hard and fast rules and heeding experienced advice. There are many things that can go wrong with home vegetable production so let’s cover the basics, so you don’t waste precious time, money, and plants. As a county horticulturist for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service I am literally bombarded with questions from the public, industry, family, and friends, on a daily basis (about 100 a week), via e-mail, Facebook, phone, text, and face-to-face. This gives me a unique perspective on what folks know, think they know, don’t know, need to know, etc. And folks I’m here to tell you that we have a huge problem. The glaring truth is that we, as a society, are now several generations removed from the time when backyard gardens were a standard necessity for all. The bottom line: Most folks don’t have a clue what they are doing. Sadly, many think that all plants can be planted in the spring, grown organically, checked on periodically, and picked weekly or when they need something, like shopping at the grocery store. Even those that are moderately successful often cling to decades old disproven “wives’ tales” or perpetuate their own way even if it’s not the most productive way or doesn’t make good sense.
If I’m talking below you or preaching to the choir, I apologize. Sing away. There are many good vegetable gardeners out there. I learned from some of the best including Dr. Sam Cotner, Dr. Jerry Parsons, and my pappaw. The beauty of the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service is that we use research-based information from years and years of trials, result demonstrations, and combined experience. One can’t know their way is better if it hasn’t been compared with all the other ways. I’m a successful gardener, but I live to learn more and be even more successful. And when it comes to vegetable production for family food, the goal is generally a combination of both quantity and quality. So here we go.
All vegetables and herbs require full sun, a full day’s sun that is. Do not confuse direct sunlight with a full day’s sun. For every minute of shade that your vegetable garden gets, you lose production. Shady areas won’t produce enough to justify even planting a garden. No self-respecting vegetable farmer would allow a tree anywhere near his crops. Also don’t confuse the need for cooler temperatures for the need for shade. We control the temperatures around our vegetable crops by growing them at different times of the year, not by shading them. Which brings up the biggest misunderstood aspect of all, so pay very close attention. All vegetable and herb crops can be divided up into cool season crops (turnips for example) that grow when it’s cool (late fall, winter, and early spring) and can tolerate frosts or freezes; warm season crops (cucumbers for example) that grow when the temperatures are mild (spring and fall) and can’t tolerate frosts or freezes; and hot season crops (okra for example) that grow and produce when the temperatures are hot (summer) and can’t tolerate frosts, freezes, or even cool temperatures. There are planting charts from Texas A&M AgriLife Extension and Texas Gardener magazine that show you when to plant what. If you plant everything in the spring (i.e. on Good Friday like my Granny Ruth did) it’s too late for some crops, just right for some, and too early for others. There are many folks out there that think they can’t grow something because they have simply planted it at the wrong time of the year. Timing is critical in Texas! It’s imperative to plant at the beginning of a growing cycle as the windows of opportunity are fairly small and are often abruptly closed before production is harvested. In my play book there are five different times of the year to plant different vegetables and herbs: 1. Late winter (around February) for cool season crops like basil, broccoli, cabbage, cilantro, collards, kale, mustard, onions, parsley, potatoes, radish, snap peas, and turnips. 2. Early spring (March-April) for warm weather crops such as basil, beans, corn, cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, squash, and tomatoes. 3. Late spring (April-May) for hot weather crops like okra, rosemary, southern peas, and sweet potatoes. 4. Late summer (July) for a fall crop of the same warm weather crops planted in the spring. 5. Early fall (September-October) for another crop of the cool season crops planted in late winter. DO NOT plant any vegetable or herb without asking yourself (or somebody that knows) which crop category it fits into and if you have time to produce a productive crop. Remember unsuccessful gardeners don’t plan to fail, they fail to plan. We can grow different crops year around in Texas. If it’s not time, it soon will be. Don’t waste space and plants that are designed to fail. And always remember to check your vegetable garden daily, not weekly. Stuff happens.
It’s also extremely important to know which crops are best planted directly from seed (like beans, corn, and peas) and which are best planted from transplants (like cabbage, peppers, and tomatoes). It often takes 4-6 weeks to produce a transplant so that has to be factored into your garden planting time. Most these days purchases their transplants ready to plant. Planting seed at the time to put out a transplant dooms one to flop.
All vegetables need loose, well drained, friable soil; the same kind you’d grow annual bedding plants like marigolds and zinnias in. They also need additional fertilizer, including a preplant application, watering in transplants with a water soluble fertilizer, and side dressing different crops according to their needs with additional nitrogen.
Do your homework. There are plenty of resources to help you out. Start with the Aggie Horticulture website which has an “Easy Gardening” fact sheet under “Vegetable Resources” on every aspect of planting a home vegetable garden and one on each crop. There are a number of books written specifically for Texas including Dr. Sam Cotner’s The Vegetable Book (for experts), Bill Adams’ and Tom Leroy’s Common Sense Vegetable Gardening (for average gardeners) and my own Texas Fruit and Vegetable Gardening (for beginners). Texas Gardener magazine is also an excellent source of information on producing your own food at home. So there. No excuses.
In addition to my big garden for peas, corn, and Mrs. G’s beloved Light Brahma chickens, I’ve started a small raised bed made out of cinder blocks where I’ll grow mustard, green onions and parsley during the winter, Irish potatoes during the spring, and okra during the summer. Unfortunately, it started as an oversized, outdoor kitty litter box, but we’ll tackle that mess another day! Until next month, grow forth and garden (and stay well)! -Greg