During the pandemic shutdown many people turned to gardening as a productive way to spend time, grow nourishing food and interact with family members. It’s been exciting to see so many new gardeners joining the ranks in 2020, and I hope this trend continues. After fielding numerous vegetable-gardening questions last year, I began compiling a collection of tips and ideas that might benefit an unseasoned vegetable gardener. Some I learned from other gardeners and some I jotted down as I toiled away in my own garden. If you find them helpful, please pass them along, and feel free to share your favorite tips with Texas Gardener at www.texasgardener.com/contact-us/.
ACCLIMATE transplants by gradually exposing them to outdoor conditions before planting them in the ground. This step applies whether you are planting tomatoes in cool spring weather or broccoli on a sweltering fall day. After a few days of gradual exposure, plant in the garden on an overcast day or in the evening. Water well after transplanting and give new transplants a short honeymoon period by providing some sort of protection from wind, sun or cold. This gradual hardening-off process helps plants respond more favorably to cold weather or heat stress.
BECOME an ambassador for vegetable gardening and healthy eating by sharing your harvest and knowledge gleaned from growing your own food. Save seeds and pass them along. Grow extra transplants to share with a neighbor. Grow a row for the hungry and donate to a food bank.
CLIPS of all kinds are an indispensable accessory in my garden, and the truth is, most of them don’t come from a garden store. Varying sizes of spring clips, hair clips, binder clips, chip clips and clothespins can be used to attach shade cloth to hoops, secure row cover around a tomato cage or loosely attach the stem of a climbing pea or a vining cucumber to a trellis.
DREAM big but start small and build on your success. Growing vegetables is a satisfying investment of time, money, space, labor and sweat, but a garden that is too big can quickly overwhelm. A small, tidy garden is ultimately more rewarding and enjoyable than a giant, weedy tangle.
ETIOLATION is what tomato seedlings do when they are grown indoors with insufficient light. Plants reaching for light develop spindly, weak stems and pale leaves. It can be hard to avoid this issue when growing indoors; even expensive grow lights can’t match the power of the sun. Fortunately, seedlings tend to outgrow this leggy condition once they are planted in a full-sun exposure. After hardening off, etiolated tomatoes can be planted sideways in a shallow trench, leaving a few sets of leaves exposed. The leaves above ground will grow toward the sun and roots will develop along the buried stem, giving the plant a more extensive and vigorous root system.
FRUITING vegetables (including tomatoes, eggplant, okra, cucumbers and squash) need six or more hours of direct sunlight to produce well. These plants will grow in a part-sun exposure, but they tend to be more susceptible to pest and disease, and also have poor fruit production. Long-time readers of Texas Gardener may recall Dr. Jerry Parsons’ tongue-in-cheek recommendation to “always grow eggplant in the shade because they seldom have fruit.”
GO for the greens! Leafy greens are a nutritious source of vitamins, minerals and fiber; they grow without much fuss; and best of all they can be grown year-round in Texas…as long as you choose the right green for the right season. Winter-loving kale has been riding a wave of popularity for several years, but other prized winter greens include collards, Swiss chard, lettuce, spinach, turnips and mustard. As these plants wane and summer starts to sizzle, it’s best to switch to greens that can take the heat with Malabar spinach, leafy amaranth, molokhia, sorrel and sweet-potato leaves.
HERBS are easy to grow, have few pests and can elevate a dish from so-so to vibrant. Their aromatic foliage adds a sensory component to the garden, and choosing herbs of varying form, texture and colors enhances a garden’s visual appeal. Be sure to plant your favorites close to the backdoor for easy access.
INVITE beneficial insects to the garden and learn to recognize both the adult and immature forms. Provide them with a favorable environment, including a source of water and plants that provides shelter and safety. Tease them with a variety of flowering plants for both nectar and pollen (such as oregano, fennel, thyme, purple coneflowers and garlic chives). And remember that many pests are food for beneficial insects. If you kill off all the bad guys, the good guys will go elsewhere seeking food.
JUST do it. Plant a seed. Dig a hole. Nothing ventured nothing gained. Start with a few large containers or a small garden bed with easy-to-grow vegetables that you like to eat.
KILLING a plant is OK. Every garden expert I know has done it and most recommend it as a learning opportunity. Some plants may die because of something you did (or didn’t do); some will die because of a disease or pest; and some must die when their time comes in order to pass on their seed, which is what they live for in the first place. Don’t fret about it. A dead plant means you have an opportunity to try again or to change direction and grow something new and different. To quote Greg Grant from a post on the Arborgate blog (a great read that I highly recommend: https://arborgate.com/blog/gregs-ramblings/life-after-death/), “Whether you are a Master Gardener or a Master Naturalist, it doesn’t take long to figure out that death is a part of life. They go hand in hand. You can’t have one without the other.”
LUFFAS are multipurpose plants providing edible, zucchini-like fruit when young but mature into an amazing, cylindrical network of tough fibers, along with plenty of seeds to share with family, friends and strangers. The matured luffa “skeleton” can be cut to the desired size and used as a scrubber in the garden, kitchen and bathroom.
MOSQUITOES are a nuisance; nothing sucks the joy out of being outside more than a single, determined mosquito. They can breed in as little as 1/2-inch of water, so it’s important to eliminate all sources of standing water — even the ones you don’t think about or see, like shallow plant saucers, gutters, depressions in plastic tarps or folds in lawn bags. Cover open receptacles and treat birdbaths with granules containing Bti (Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis) to kill mosquito larvae. Products containing DEET or lemon oil of eucalyptus are most effective at repelling mosquitoes.
NURTURE the plants, the soil microbes, the pollinators and, last but not least, yourself. Disconnect. Take a break from the daily grind. Let your mind wander. Pace yourself. Smile at the sun and be grateful, even in the heat of summer. I know it’s hard to appreciate blazing sunshine on a sweltering, 100-degree day but we wouldn’t be gardening, or even be alive on this magnificent planet, without it.
ORGANIC matter is gold for the garden. It aerates the soil, improves tilth, stimulates the soil biology, holds water and retains nutrients. Compost is the best way to reduce our garden waste and turn trash into treasure. If you haven’t started a backyard compost pile, let this be the year. Think of all the things around your yard and home that you can compost — leaves, grass clippings, spent plants, vegetable and fruit peels, weeds, shredded newspaper, dryer lint, coffee grounds. Even that bag of frozen vegetables two years past their “use by” date. Feed the microbes and they will make nutrients available to the plants.
PROCRASTINATION …don’t do it! Benjamin Franklin’s adage, “Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today,” is indeed sage advice for gardeners, especially when it comes to planting or harvesting. Seed will not start to grow until it gets planted in the soil, and when a vegetable reaches its prime, it won’t stop growing just because you are too busy to harvest. Plan ahead and make your garden a priority for optimal results.
QUICK crops can satisfy an impatient gardener and provide success for a beginner gardener. Radishes are notable for their quick germination and growth, going from seed to harvest in about 30 days. Some varieties of squash, bean and cucumber will start bearing 45–50 days after planting the seed. Lettuce and other greens take only 3–4 weeks to produce gourmet baby leaves.
RESPECT Mother Nature. Texas and its people are tough, but so are its growing conditions, and there’s only so much we can do to protect our vegetable gardens. Hail, floods, wind, drought, heat, tornados and hurricanes can take a toll on our plants and test our mettle. There will be times when plants succumb, but there is always another season and with it comes a new opportunity.
SANITATION and other cultural practices go a long way in preventing disease. Provide wide spacing for air circulation and sunlight, rotate crops, mulch soil, avoid wetting leaves, take advantage of disease-resistant varieties and remove infected and pest-ridden plants.
TOUCH your plants. Smell the foliage. Observe the unfurling of a leaf. Taste a tomato warmed by sunshine. Listen to the chirping, buzzing and rustling. Slow down, take the gloves off and get your hands dirty. This sensory aspect of gardening promotes our overall wellness.
USE what you grow and harvest at peak quality. Anticipate and be prepared for any excess. If you can’t eat it right away, freeze it, can it, preserve it, pickle it and share it. Make a rich vegetable stock with onion skins and vegetable parts you would normally toss or compost.
VIABILITY of seeds can vary widely based on the crop, the storage conditions and age of the seed. Short-lived seeds include corn, okra, onions, parsnip, peas and spinach. These should be used or replaced every 1–2 years. Organize seeds for easy access and store in a cool, dark location inside the house. Never store seeds in a hot garage or garden shed.
WEEDS rob vegetables of valuable nutrients and may also harbor plant pests. Some weeds can thrive in the heat, some can survive freezing temperatures, some survive for long periods beneath the soil and some are just a prickly nuisance. Plus, they are notorious for spreading seed, as evidenced by the oft-quoted phrase, “One year of seed equals seven years of weeds.” Pull weeds by hand or chop them down at the soil line with a hoe, rake or string trimmer. Go after them when they are young, before they have a chance to produce seed. They are an excellent source of “green” for the compost pile.
X-FACTOR is that distinctive element that you alone bring to your vegetable garden, whether an heirloom vegetable variety, a time-honored technique, a particular style or other je ne sais quoi that makes your garden uniquely yours. My garden includes a scarecrow sporting a guayabera from my late father, my mother’s metal bench from my childhood home in Midland and ‘Stewart’s Zeebest’ okra from my garden mentors, George and Mary Stewart of Houston.
YIELDS can be improved by using the space you have to grow more efficiently. Vining plants can be grown vertically, and small plants can be planted along the edge of larger ones. Harvests can be improved by planting in the right season with the proper spacing.
ZEAXANTHIN, lycopene, quercetin and other phytochemicals give vegetables their color and provide powerful antioxidants that benefit our health. They also add visual appeal to meals. Eat the rainbow!
By Patty G. Leander, B.S.
Advanced Master Gardener — Vegetables