Do you remember Y2K? As we left the 1900s in the dust and entered a new century, we were advised to garden for survival. A decade later, the message was to garden for happiness and well-being. In 2020, while facing a global pandemic and home quarantine, we were counseled to garden for sanity and food security. Americans complied, and interest in vegetable gardening surged. As we have isolated, masked and vaccinated our way out of quarantine, and as life makes a gradual return to normal, growing food remains a popular activity and now the message, finally, is to garden for fun!
Don’t worry about special tools, crop rotation and complicated rules about gardening. Keep it simple, start with a modest investment and focus on pleasure rather than perfection. Follow the tips below to ease into growing edibles and enjoy the sense of accomplishment, the health benefits and the unbeatable flavor of freshly harvested vegetables grown by you.
Begin with the End: Before a seed even touches the soil, it’s important to think about the end goal of growing vegetables, which is the harvest and consumption of fresh, healthy produce. Most vegetables are at their peak for a short time; they don’t magically stop growing when they reach harvest size, waiting expectantly for the day when you will mosey out and pluck them for supper. I learned this lesson years ago when I went on vacation in late May and returned to a garden full of overgrown squash and bulging green beans. If you are going to invest time and effort into planting, weeding and watering, you’ll want to be sure that you are readily available when your garden approaches its prime. Many factors, including your location, seasonal weather, veggie variety and planting date, determine when a particular vegetable is ready for harvest, but generally late May and June are the primary harvest months for the warm-season garden, and late October to early December for the cool-season garden.
Sun and Water: Vegetables do best when they receive at least 6–8 hours of direct sun each day. This is especially true in late fall and early spring, when days are shorter and sunlight is less intense. Leafy vegetables will grow satisfactorily in part-sun conditions (lettuce and kale, for example), but squash, tomatoes, okra and other flowering vegetables will not produce much fruit or reach their full potential. Remember, farmers don’t plant vegetables in the shade.
Locate your garden in a site that is easy to access and near a source of water. Plants will depend on you when rainfall is minimal, so choose a watering system that fits your budget and needs. For containers or a small number of plants, a watering can or a hose with a spray nozzle is sufficient; drip irrigation or soaker hoses are good choices for a larger garden.
Plant in the Proper Season: Vegetables come in two basic categories: those that like to grow in warm weather and those that prefer cool weather. Broccoli, for example, is a cool-season plant, and it needs to grow in the fall or early spring. If planted in late spring or summer, it will likely produce a tiny head — if it doesn’t die of heat stress first. Tomatoes are a warm-season vegetable and need warm soil and warm sunshine to produce flowers and fruit. If planted too early in spring or too late into fall, plants could be damaged or killed by cold weather.
Gardeners who are just getting started might want to focus on planting just twice a year: a warm-season garden after the threat of frost has passed, generally from March to April, and cool-season vegetables in September and October, before the first freeze. Because Texas is such a big state, pay attention to your local forecast and check with your county’s AgriLife Extension Office or Master Gardener group to find out more specific planting dates for your area. Once you get hooked on fresh, homegrown vegetables, you may want to branch out into summer and winter gardening, utilizing season-extension techniques such as row cover and shade cloth.
What to Grow: The best edibles for new gardeners are those that are quick to mature and trouble-free, but most importantly grow what you want to eat. Green beans, peppers, Swiss chard, lettuce, kale and snow peas are suitable for a small veggie patch because they don’t take up much room and they continue to produce after the first picking. Ever-popular tomatoes are primarily responsible for the spring-garden frenzy but be advised that they are prone to disease and are attractive to birds, squirrels, leaf-footed bugs and spider mites. Boost your chance of a successful harvest with a dependable hybrid variety such as ‘Celebrity’ or ‘Juliet’.
Herbs are especially popular, as they grow well in containers, can be located near the kitchen and are relatively pest free. Vining vegetables (such as sugar snap peas, cucumbers and pole beans) can save space when grown vertically on a fence or trellis. The accompanying chart lists easy-to-grow vegetables for both cool and warm seasons.
Easy Soil Options: As the adage goes, “A bad gardener grows weeds. A good gardener grows plants. Great gardeners grow soil.” Experienced gardeners are indeed crazy about soil. Compost and mulch help build healthy and fertile soil, but this is not a one-time effort; it is a continual process that improves soil over months and years. For this reason, first-time gardeners might opt to postpone the soil-building and get started using planters, grow bags or containers filled with a pre-made potting mix. Or create a small bed edged with cinder blocks, bricks or wood and fill with purchased garden soil. You can even plant compact varieties of vegetables directly in a bag of topsoil; just poke some holes in the bottom for drainage and cut an opening in the top for seeds or transplants. Think of growing an edible garden as a short-term project with room to improve and expand, if desired.
Feed Your Plants: Fertilizing vegetables can be a complex process, but we are keeping this fun-and-easy, so we’ll shelve that discussion for another time. It helps to remember that vegetables have a fairly short lifespan; most go from seed to harvest in less than three months and regular applications of liquid garden fertilizer, such as fish emulsion, help keep them growing vigorously. Water plants every 10–14 days following the directions on the container. Pour the fertilizer mixture around the roots, not the leaves.
Planting and Spacing: A vegetable garden is a little like having a pet — it requires time, money and attention. Jot down a few notes about what you want to grow and sketch out a diagram and planting schedule. It may be tempting to pack in the plants to fill space, but plants that are too close together become a tangled mess as they grow and are more susceptible to diseases. Familiarize yourself with the vegetable varieties you are planting. Seed packets, transplant tags and seed catalogs provide helpful information, including plant descriptions, spacing recommendations, ultimate size of the plant, days to production and harvest tips. Water is key to success when planting both seeds and transplants. Seeds need moisture to germinate, so water the soil before you plant the seed and keep it moist until they germinate. If using transplants, think “wet to wet”: water the transplant in the pot but also water the hole where you are replanting it. This will help the transplant transition to its new environment.
Maintenance: It’s easy to get carried away with beautiful photos in seed catalogs and innocent-looking nursery transplants in 4-inch pots. The planting part is easy, but as plants grow so will the work. Weeds pop up, pests move in, rainfall may dry up and then that innocent veggie patch can quickly lead to an overwhelming situation. Stay a step ahead of pests and disease by observing your plants regularly and inspecting the leaves for signs of stress. Remove yellowing or diseased leaves and hand-pick and destroy pests. Weeds are thieves; they can rob prized vegetables of water and nutrients, and they can also harbor pests. Hoe or pull any weeds before they have a chance to produce seed. As the growing season comes to an end, remove spent plants; if left in the garden they may attract pests or disease.
Keep a journal of planting and harvest dates, favorite varieties and other notes that will be helpful next time around. Take pictures to document the progress. You’ll be amazed at the steady and rapid growth of your plants, from tiny seedlings that burst through the soil to baby vegetables that grow bigger by the day.
There are many ways to garden and many vegetables to grow. Incorporate your personal interests and style, and check out Instagram, Pinterest, garden magazines and blogs for inspiration and ideas. Pace yourself and expand as you gain experience and confidence. Keep it simple, keep it manageable and focus on having fun. Lastly, be leery of garden advice from parts of the country where they don’t grow okra. They probably grow both tomatoes and broccoli in July. And that just doesn’t work in Texas.
Easy-to-Grow Vegetables Easy-to-Grow Herbs
Warm-Season Cool-Season Warm-Season Cool-Season
Beans Broccoli Basil Cilantro
Eggplant Kale Lemon verbena Dill
Okra Lettuce Lemongrass Fennel
Peppers Swiss chard Mexican oregano Parsley
Squash Sugar snap peas Pineapple sage Thyme
By Patty G. Leander, B.S.
Advanced Master Gardener — Vegetables