If 2018 is going to be the year that you ramp up your efforts at growing your own groceries, there are a few points you’re going to have to consider. Fall short on any of the following and your garden may flounder. Follow them all and you’ll have produce to savor.
Pick the sunniest site. Vegetables need sunlight. There’s no negotiating that, and there’s nothing you can add that will make up for it. Find a spot where the sun shines directly for at least 10 hours each day.
Provide perfect drainage. No vegetable crop grows well in waterlogged soil. You can always add water when plants are dry, but when it rains for several days in a row, you need to be sure the excess water will drain away from your plants’ roots. The easiest way is to plant in raised beds. Elevate your garden by just 5 or 6 inches and you’ll solve all the problems.
Start small. Too many gardeners are overly ambitious at the outset, only to become discouraged by their poor results when they can’t maintain all the space they’ve opened up. Choose only crops your family really likes, then specialize in those. You can always expand the second time through, but if you fail you may never come back.
Prepare the soil carefully. Organic matter is your key to success. Add 5 or 6 inches of a blend of sphagnum peat moss, compost, well-rotted manure, finely ground bark mulch and other organic matter and rototill to a depth of 12 inches. If you’re amending a clay soil, include 1 inch of expanded shale as well. Each time you rework the soil for a new season, add an additional 2 or 3 inches of organic matter and rototill again.
Know the proper planting time for each crop that you’re growing. This is a really big issue! Every crop has a two- or three-week window in which it must be planted. If planted too early it may not survive the cold weather. If planted too late it may not mature before heat sets in. This is one of the main places where people set themselves up to fail.
Here are some of the main crops and their timing. Late January: English peas, asparagus (perennial), onions. Mid-February: cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, Irish potatoes. Late February, early March: leaf lettuce, Swiss chard, radishes, carrots, turnips, beets. Late March, very early April: beans, corn, tomatoes, peppers, squash, melons, cucumbers. Mid-April into early May: sweet potatoes, okra, southern peas.
Choose the best varieties of each crop that you grow. Texas A&M vegetable specialists have lists online. In many cases they will be hybrids selected for productivity, yield, flavor and pest resistance. Many of the old heirloom varieties, tomatoes for example, are notoriously poor producers in Texas conditions. Limit the numbers of those that you try.
Care for your plants regularly. Check them daily once they start growing. Know what problems are likely to appear, then take steps to correct them when you see them. Keep your plants properly watered. Letting them wilt often results in bitter or off-flavored produce. Even though you’re growing many types of vegetables for fruit, nitrogen is the one nutrient element that usually shows up lacking in our North Texas soils. Don’t be surprised if soil tests recommend adding an all-nitrogen plant food.
Harvest your produce at the peak of maturity. In many cases, that will be before it reaches full size. Cucumbers, okra and summer squash, for example, should be harvested when they’re little more than half their full size. The same goes for carrots, green beans and lettuce leaves, and you harvest broccoli before any of the flower buds actually start to open.
Use useless space for extra produce. Many vegetables are actually quite pretty. Leaf lettuce, Swiss chard and peppers all fit into color beds quite well. Cabbage can be pretty in pots, and pole beans and cucumbers can be trained to grow up fences. Many types of herbs are actually very decorative and quite nice to have sitting in pots on patio tables and benches.
Extend the season by planting fall crops in the same ground. Truth be told, fall vegetable gardens are often more productive than their spring counterparts. Produce matures at a time when insects, hot weather and drought aren’t such an issue. The problem comes in motivating gardeners to get things started in July and August, when it’s 98 degrees in the shade. But you can get some great results if you’ll just give it a try.
Involve a youngster in your gardening plans. Whether it’s a child, grandchild, niece, nephew or students at a school in your neighborhood, there’s something magical about helping little hands plant big seeds and guiding them in growing vegetables all the way to harvest. It’s something neither you nor they will ever forget.