When gardening fever hits in late winter, there are few of us Texans who are not at least a little inspired to go out and grow something. For many folks it hits about the time they are passing a garden center or shopping in one of the mega home centers, and see those green plants down at the other end of a long aisle.
What begins as an inspiration to grow a garden of flowers or vegetables can end as a lifelong hobby and years of enjoyment. However, it can also end up in disappointment and disillusionment by the time the first of summer rolls around. Some who fail at first may decide they just cannot grow things and must have a brown thumb, when nothing is further from the truth.
The fact is that you all have green thumbs! Trust me on this one. We humans were originally put in a garden for a reason… folks, we were made to garden. The difference between good gardeners and bad ones usually boils down to an understanding of some horticultural basics and a commitment to learn and then put what you learn into practice.
One of the most affirming and enjoyable things about gardening is the fact that we keep getting another chance to get it right. If a planting fails just pull it up and replant. Each season is a new chance to learn, to experiment and to gain expertise. There are few things in life where you can fail so miserably and just start over with a clean slate. It is kind of like one of those Etch-A-Sketch toys. Don’t like the picture you made? Just turn it over, shake it and you get to start creating again.
Gardeners are the world’s premier optimists, as every new season is the start of the best ever! If you are having fun, there is pleasure in every row and every new day. Even disease and pestilence become part of the unfolding drama of a new season in the garden. Our gardens are continually changing and there are no guarantees. What worked one year may not work so well the next. But there are some basics that can help get you going in the right direction and which will go a long way to ensuring a successful garden.
What follows are some tips to guide you past some common pitfalls gardeners face. They are like the wisdom your ol’ mama used to pass on… basically common sense, but often overlooked. I hope they will help get this year’s garden off to the best start ever.
1. Prepare The Soil First “Build on a good foundation.”
Soil is the foundation of a garden. Most of us start with something too sandy, too clayey, or too poor. And unless you have been working on it, your soil is probably low in organic matter, the life of good soil. Before one seed or transplant goes in, build up your soil with a few inches of compost and whatever nutrients may be lacking. A soil test is a good start to let you know where you are, what you need to add, and how much.
If you find yourself the victim of an impulse purchase, standing there with a flat full of transplants staring at a barren plot, just set them down and go lie down to let the fever subside a bit. Then go out and start building your soil with compost and at least a start of nutrients. Even if you have to water those plants for a few days while you get the ground ready, you will be glad you waited to plant until the soil was properly prepared.
It is better, though, to spend a dollar on your soil before you spend a dollar on plants. Compost is a wonderful thing - use it! Build your soil after each crop and each gardening season. My first gardens in new spots have almost always been mediocre at best. But with each turn of the spade they have improved until I built a soil fit for Eden. Soil building is an ongoing part of gardening. If your garden is just one or two small beds, you may want to buy a soil mix from a local source. It helps you shortcut the building process and can help make your new garden a more successful and enjoyable experience.
2. Ensure Good Drainage “When it rains it pours.”
Here in Texas it seems to be feast or famine when it comes to rainfall. When it is dry we can water, but what do we do when it will not quit raining? Plant roots need oxygen and hate to sit in waterlogged soil. Plus, when it is wet you cannot get into the garden to plant or work the soil.
Alden Colsten, a 92-year-young gardener I was privileged to know, used to say, “You can always add water but you can’t take it away.” He built his raised beds in fall or early winter when the soil was not too wet. Then, when late winter and spring rains arrived, his beds were already prepared for planting. Raised beds also warm up faster in early spring for a little head start on the season.
3. Provide Lots of Sunlight “Let the sun shine in.”
Select a good site for planting. Most vegetables prefer a full sun exposure. Many of us in older neighborhoods have wonderful large trees that make a sunny location rare. However, if you want a productive garden, direct sunlight is a must. Crops that are grown for their fruit (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, melons) or roots (carrots, turnips, radishes) must have at least six hours of sunlight. Bright shade or dappled shade just will not do. Crops that are grown for leaves (lettuce, collards, spinach, chard) will tolerate a bit of shade.
Some locations have winter sun when the leaves fall from deciduous trees overhead. While these spots may be too shady for the warm season garden, they might be fine for broccoli and other cool season veggies.
4. Proven, Adapted Varieties “Dance with who brung you.” but “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”
Select varieties that are proven and well adapted to your area. Before you purchase seeds or transplants, find out which have proven themselves. Contender beans and Celebrity tomatoes are usually not the top producers in any trial I have conducted, but they are always near the top and worth growing in my garden each year. Talk to experienced gardeners and your County Extension Office for suggestions of varieties that are well adapted to your area.
Build your garden around the old faithfuls, but do not just plant one variety. You will find that one year a variety may fly and the next year it may flop. Hedge your bet by including two or three varieties when you can. Along with the staple varieties, leave a little room for a few newcomers. I always try a few new varieties and over the years, many of those experimental choices have moved into the ranks of the old faithfuls!
As a general tip, when experimenting choose varieties with short days-to-harvest intervals. We have a short spring season here in Texas and long-maturing varieties that do well in the Midwest, California, New Jersey and other foreign countries will often not perform well here.
5. Plant At The Proper Time “The early birds get the worm… (but what happens to the early worm?!)”
Plant vegetables at the proper time. There is a small window of time in spring between freezing weather and blazing hot weather here in Texas. If you wait too long to set out tomato plants, your yields will be low at best. If you plant cold-tender veggies too early with no protection, a late frost may spoil the show.
Sometimes it is worth gambling with a small, early planting since we cannot predict the actual final frost date. Some veteran gardeners will buy tomatoes early and pot them up to keep growing in a bright window for a head start on the season. I plant a few tomatoes about three weeks early and place a milk jug of water up against them and a clear plastic cover over them. This gets me a great jump on the short season.
6. JUMP START Transplants ȁHe who hesitates is lost.”
Buy good, healthy transplants that are actively growing. Stunted, spindly plants that have not been well cared for will never turn around and be worth a darn. Spend your money on quality plants from a reputable nursery that knows how to take care of them.
When you plant them, give those new babies a good drink of starter solution and then nurse them along with repeat drinks every few days to get them off and running fast. Fish emulsion, seaweed, compost tea, or one of many soluble fertilizers are all popular choices for getting new plants off to a great start.
Just remember, the growing season is short. There is not time for plants to sit around deciding whether or not they want to grow. They need to hit the ground running and not look back!
7. Resist Overplanting “Don’t bite off more than you can chew.”
Zucchini seeds should be sold only four to a packet (with the assumption that two of them will be killed somewhere between planting and maturity). If there are two of you in the house, do not plant a 50-foot row of okra. It is okay to fold the top of a seed packet over and seal it in a jar in the refrigerator for later planting. You do not have to plant all the seeds in the packet. Something inside of us makes us want to plant a big garden.
Unless you are an experienced gardener and have a soup kitchen to support, it is best to start small. You can grow a lot of stuff in a small garden, if you take care of it. If you have never gardened before, I would suggest one or two 4 by 8 foot or 4 by 16 foot beds. I have seen too many new gardeners try to take on the back 40 and end up disillusioned with a giant weed patch by June. Another good idea is to make sure the garden is close to the water faucet and close to the house. If you have to see it every day, you are more likely to venture out and keep things in order. With time and experience, that garden plot can grow to whatever size you like.
8. Provide Plenty of Nutrients “An apple a day…”
Healthy plants grow fast, produce well and in many cases are less bothered by a few pests here and there. By the time you notice a nutrient deficiency, it is most likely too late to do much for that particular crop. It is better to start with a soil test, build soil each season and fertilize plants lightly but regularly to keep them growing strong.
A few weeks after transplanting, sidedress them with a light dose of fertilizer to keep them going. I use a natural 8-2-4 or 6-2-4 blend and sometimes some cottonseed meal or blood meal. Some veggies respond well to foliar feeding with a fish emulsion and seaweed solution for an added boost. Legumes (beans and peas) produce their own nitrogen on the roots and in moderately fertile soil should not need additional fertilizer. But they do need soil with good nutrient levels of all the other elements.
Sometimes at our house we apply a little “Poo de Bonet” (pronounced boh-NAY ), a wonderful little natural pelletized fertilizer the kids gather from beneath their rabbit cages. The plants literally hop out of the ground with this special treat.
9. Detect Pests Early “A stitch in time, saves nine.”
There is an old adage that states, “The best fertilizer is the footprints of the gardener.” To this I would add that the best pest and disease control is also the footprints of the gardener. Pest and disease problems left to reach epidemic levels are much more difficult to control, and by the time you do something there may not be much crop left to save.
Pests are easier to control when young and when the infestation is localized or limited. Stroll through the garden every few days and look things over. Turn over a leaf or two here and there to check for pests huddled up making plans for the big invasion. I like to do this early in the morning with a cup of coffee in hand or after arriving home from work. It is great therapy after a long day at the office.
10. Stop Weeds Before They Start “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Weed seeds are hiding out there in the soil, waiting to spoil the best-laid plans for a bountiful garden. Those tiny weed seedlings in spring turn into giant monsters that make okra look like a bonsai plant. I personally hate pulling and hoeing weeds. So I don’t. I prevent them.
When they first appear, I cover the soil surface with newspaper, about four to six sheets thick, which is quickly sprayed with the water hose to hold it down. Then I cover the paper with leaves or pine straw to pretty up the planting and prevent the paper from blowing away. This virtually eliminates weeds for that growing season. If a weed finds a hole in the newspaper and peeks through, just pull back the mulch, break off the weed and cover the hole with a section of newspaper and then some more leaf mulch. By the end of the season the paper will be mostly decayed and can simply be rototilled into the soil to finish decomposing.
Whether you use the paper and leaves routine or not, just vow to deal with weeds early. When they are tiny seedlings, a light scratching of the surface will destroy them. Left unmanaged, in a few weeks they will have strong roots and will be much more difficult and time-consuming to control.
So here’s to the best garden ever. Try these bits of wisdom out and if your garden is the best ever, just send me half the produce and tell everyone that you owe it all to reading TEXAS GARDENER magazine. On the other hand if it flops, blame it on the weather, the bugs and that darn brown thumb!