By Gloria Doty
“I don’t understand what I’m doing wrong,” Kari sighed, as she surveyed the wilted, half-dead plants in her backyard garden. The entire contents in the small parcel looked pretty pathetic. They were definitely not the lush, dark-green plants filled with vegetables she envisioned when she lovingly put them in the ground. “Another year of not harvesting enough vegetables to eat, let alone preserve. This is beyond frustrating. Every year, we plant with great expectations, but either they don’t grow at all or, if they do, they don’t produce anything.”
“Did you buy the right plants?” Jim asked. “Maybe there’s a special kind of plant you have to buy to garden in Texas. This has happened to our gardening efforts for the past several years ever since we moved here. Perhaps we should give up.”
“How much different can it be from one state to another? After all, I’ve been gardening since I was a little girl helping my mom. I know how to garden,” Kari insisted.
It was true. Kari and Jim Shockley had both been raised in gardening families. They were descendants of many generations of farmers, albeit all in the northern part of the United States. Jim was from Minnesota and Kari had lived her entire life in northern Indiana. Both their home states definitely had much shorter growing seasons than Texas, the state they now called home.
Being a tenacious person and never one to give up, give in or be daunted by a situation, Kari made the decision to conquer this Texas soil and heat, one way or another. She found a free gardening class offered at Plants for All Seasons, a local garden center. She enrolled the entire family and convinced Jim and their children, Joseph and Emily, to accompany her on a Saturday morning. Believing it was strictly a “Gardening 101” class, they were surprised to learn the class was about the square-foot gardening method. A friend had told them about square-foot gardening, but it sounded way too complicated and so they never pursued it.
While they were at the class, Joseph found a copy of Texas Gardener magazine among the free literature available. This particular issue contained pictures of some beautiful garden plots with raised beds filled with lush vegetables. As they left the class, they had varied reactions to these newfound ideas. Joseph was ready to start the next day, Kari was cautiously optimistic and Jim was skeptical. They returned home with differing ideas of their new garden dancing in their heads.
Once the information and the possibilities grew, the decision was made to forge ahead. There were many decisions to make before they undertook this challenge: How much backyard space were they willing to sacrifice for this project? Since they owned two dogs, did they need to fence the area? Should they purchase the more expensive pre-mixed soil or mix their own? How many beds were enough or too many or too few? Would they be able to care for and maintain a large area? Should they follow the designs to the letter or be innovative? How much money were they willing to invest for their dream garden?
And perhaps the most important question of all: was the effort and expense going to result in enough fruit and vegetables to make it worthwhile? After all, the main goal was not to just have a beautiful garden, but to be able to provide their family with the freshest, healthiest food possible.
After many discussions, the decision was made to utilize a large portion of the backyard. They also made the decision to fence the entire plot. The reasoning was: if they were going to expend a large amount of labor and resources, they certainly did not want the dogs to think it was a new playground created specifically for them.
After the fence was in place, the gardening process began with constructing the wooden frames for the individual beds. They purchased treated two-by-six cedar boards and cut them the appropriate lengths for the beds. They varied the sizes of the beds depending on where they would be located in the area and depending on what would be planted in each one. Some beds were 4’ × 6’ and some were 4’ × 4’.
Kari and Jim opted for mixing their own blend of ingredients for the soil. This was a labor-intensive task that required several weekends. They purchased the required ingredients: vermiculite, compost, peat moss and three kinds of manure. The nutrient-rich mixture was divided and shoveled into each box or plot. Next it was time for measuring and marking each of the individual beds into one-foot-square increments. A secondary benefit of having the garden divided into separate plots was to preserve water. Instead of watering the entire garden, only the plots needing the moisture would be watered.
It was time to put into practice the new and varied information they had learned when they did some research on gardening specifics for Texas. Kari believed it was infinitely easier for the newbie gardener to adapt to a different environment than it was for a seasoned gardener. Individuals who have had some experience need to unlearn everything they ever thought they knew about gardening and start from scratch.
There was almost nothing similar in the word “gardening” when it is applied to Indiana and Texas. There may be 1,200 miles between the two areas of the country, but there are a million miles between the factors that relate to having a successful garden in the two states.
Kari realized that besides the obvious differences in temperatures and length of growing seasons, the soil was totally different, the quantity and quality of rainfall was different and even the types of garden pests were not the same.
For the most part, northern Indiana has very good soil. Although it may be necessary to till in a bit of fertilizer or compost, it is naturally good for farming. The soil in North Texas is nearly 100 percent clay. Even though Kari and Jim had attempted to improve it in the past by adding compost each year, the compost seemed to disappear into the clay.
The rainfall in Indiana was unpredictable at times, but it did soak into the soil and water the plants. In Texas, if an inch of rain fell in half an hour, it soaked in so quickly that there was no benefit, and if the rain was heavy, it ran off without soaking into the clay soil at all and, due to the extreme heat, soon evaporated.
While it can be quite hot and humid in Indiana, it is not comparable to the intensity of the sun in Texas. The seed packets may state “recommended for full sun,” but that does not mean the scorching full sun for 9–10 hours per day.
Once again, the information gleaned from their research was invaluable. However, they learned early in their mission to make certain their information came from reliable sources. The packets of seeds and the plants put out for sale at the big-box stores aren’t always the correct ones for planting in the month they appear. While it would be nearly impossible for manufacturers to list each region of a state explicitly, a state as large as Texas has several different “best planting times.” That is another reason to make certain you find reliable statistics, graphs and recommended plant listings for every portion of the state — the much-needed advice the new gardener or the new-to-Texas gardener needs.
While the seed catalogs begin to appear in Indiana mailboxes in early spring and residents can wish and dream for several months after receiving them, that is not the case in Texas. There are two basic growing seasons in Texas and various varieties can be planted in every month of the year. The trick is knowing which plantings belong in which season and month. This is where Kari and Jim learned the benefits of educating themselves.
She attended various classes, sucked up every bit of knowledge she could from the experts. She considered that to be one of her best decisions.
If you have lived in the southern states your entire life, you may not realize how drastically different gardening is from the way people do it in the northern states. For instance, in Indiana a person might plant the early vegetables (such as peas, carrots, green onions and spinach) in March or April, depending on whether or not the snow is off the ground and the soil has thawed enough to be able to turn it over with a shovel. When all danger of frost is past, a gardener would put everything else in the ground. Tomatoes, sweet corn, beets and green beans would be among the plants that can withstand the hot weather. Occasionally, a second planting of broccoli and cauliflower can be planted in the fall, hopefully ripening before an early freeze hits.
In Texas, there are various vegetables recommended for planting every month of the year. You have a spring garden planting, a summer garden, a fall garden and a winter garden. Kari quipped, “Never in my life, before moving to Texas, have I thought about what I should be doing in my garden while I was in the stores doing my Christmas shopping.”
When the beds were prepared and ready to be planted, each of Kari and Jim’s two children had their own 4’ × 6’ area to plant their choice of seeds and plants. One of the most exciting parts of the entire process was taking the children to purchase the plants they each chose for their section of the garden. Some of the items they planted were permanent ones. Joseph definitely wanted strawberries and grapes, while Emily asked for asparagus and blueberries.
The first year produced bumper crops of everything. They were so excited about the possibility of having the garden of their dreams, they planted every vegetable they could think of and a few they had never eaten previously. Sweet corn, green beans, radishes, various types of lettuce, kale, cabbage, squash, cucumbers, several varieties of melons, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, carrots, green onions, garlic, peas, pumpkins, sweet potatoes and tomatoes.
The children and Jim and Kari were thrilled with the outcome of their efforts. The raised beds and the square-foot gardening technique worked their magic. The garden produced record amounts of vegetables. The majority was eaten fresh from the garden, but there was enough to preserve and enjoy at a later time.
When asked if there were anything they would change if they knew what they know now and were starting from scratch somewhere else, Kari said, “I would definitely purchase the pre-mixed bags of soil to fill the beds, rather than mixing it ourselves. It would save so much time and labor. By the time we purchased the many, many bags of the necessary compost, manure, vermiculite and peat moss, we spent as much money as we would have if we bought the bags of pre-mixed. Of course we would have missed the hilarious and “fun” times while we attempted to mix the ingredients on a large plastic tarp and we definitely would have missed some very sore back muscles.
“I also would have fenced the entire space we planned on using but planted only half the number of beds the first year and added the rest the second year, rather than trying to do it all the first year.”
The garden was so productive and beautiful that everyone who came to the Shockley’s home noticed it. Kari would post pictures of the bounty on social media and told of her children eating raw vegetables and fruits straight from the garden. People were very interested in the methods and her success. So interested, in fact, they asked her to come and help them. This led to her starting an online business called Backyard Bounty-Gardens by Kari. When individuals contact her, she will go to their home and help them choose the best location for a garden and, if they wish, she will install it and even plant their choice of vegetables, advising them about the best choices.
The Shockleys never dreamed their desire to feed their family the freshest and healthiest food they could possibly grow would lead not only to a pantry full of canned vegetables, jams and jellies, and a freezer filled with containers, but also to a small business opportunity.
To accomplish this, they obviously had to relearn everything they thought they knew about gardening and replace that knowledge with gardening facts specific to their part of Texas.
They took the challenge, conquered it and it all began with a free class and a copy of Texas Gardener magazine.