This may seem like a highly improbable topic in light of the winter we’re still in, but vegetable gardening season is upon us. I’m sure we’ll revisit this as the growing season unfolds, but I’m going to try to give you an overall view of the topic.
Choose adapted vegetable varieties your family likes, and choose the best varieties of each. The Texas A&M Horticulture website has lists of the recommended types. Vegetables need full sun, highly organic and well-draining soil (probably in a raised planting bed), proper nutrients, a good weed control program involving mulching and weed-blocking fabrics and regular maintenance. As my friend the late Sam Cotner of Texas A&M used to say, “Your vegetables need to see your shadow in their garden.”
Timing is critical. You can do everything I just mentioned, but if you plant too early your vegetables will get caught by cold weather, and if you plant too late, they won’t mature before hot weather arrives. And that is the more precise subject of today’s column.
I’m going to assign planting dates by five categories of vegetables, but the key date you’ll want to remember is that the average date of the last killing freeze in the Tarrant County area is around March 22. We’ll come back to that in a moment, but we’ll use Tarrant and surrounding counties as our benchmark. If you’re reading this from afar, you’ll have to adjust the dates accordingly.
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Late January/early February: These are vegetables that need to be planted approximately two months before the average date of the last killing freeze. This list is short. It includes asparagus, onions and English snap peas.
Asparagus should be planted in a spot where it can grow for many years. It’s a perennial, and the plants can grow really tall. It’s best to plant it at the north side of the garden so it won’t shade the shorter plants, and put it where it won’t be in the way. Buy vigorous 2-year-old roots and plant them into 10-inch-deep trenches. Gradually fill in to cover them as they start growing until you fill the trench back to grade level in a couple of months.
Buy healthy onion sets in bundles at the garden center. Plant them so they barely stand up. In fact, when you water them after you plant them, your goal would be that as many as 15 percent fall over and have to be reset. Planting onions too deeply is a sure recipe for failure.
Snap peas are fabulous, but few people grow them. Sugar Snap peas were the first variety. Now there are others. They’re grown to be harvested and eaten pod and all. The vining plants grow tall and heavy, so provide substantial support.
Mid-February: These are planted one month prior to that average last killing freeze date. The list includes all the cole crops (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts). These will be potted transplants that should be quite hardy to whatever remnants winter throws at them. Look for vigorous plants that have been held outdoors to keep them acclimated to cold.
You’ll also plant Irish potatoes in the middle of February. Nurseries and feed stores sell certified seed potatoes. These are spuds that have not be sprayed with growth retardant to keep them from sprouting. Use a sharp knife to cut each potato into two to four pieces. Let the cuts air-dry for a few days before you plant them into well-prepared garden soil.
Late February/early March: These are sown about three weeks before the average last killing freeze date. Leafy vegetables such as spinach, the many types of lettuce (stick with leaf lettuce here) and chard fall into this category. Root crops are also planted at this time, including carrots, radishes, beets and turnips. All of these crops need to mature before it starts to get hot. Hot weather translates to hot or bitter produce with these.
March 20-30: These are the big-time vegetables — the ones most people think of when they think about gardening. Tomatoes and peppers are included, both being planted as transplants. Of the two, tomatoes can withstand a bit colder weather than peppers. Buy plants that have been held in outdoor conditions (not in a greenhouse) to be sure you get acclimated starters.
Bush beans are extremely productive, and squash and cucumbers are easy and quick. You may have to pollinate them by hand, but it’s quite easy to remove the pollen (anthers) and daub it onto the female flower parts. Melons and corn round out the group, but they require large gardens. Melons sprawl, and corn must be planted in 20-by-20-foot blocks to ensure good pollination by wind.
Early to mid-April: These plants need heat. These are the ones that grow into the summer, but they’re intolerant of frosts and cold soil. Eggplants are for those people who like them. Southern peas (black-eyes, creams, purple hulls and crowders) will produce all summer long, as will okra, but they’re all big plants that require ample space.
Sweet potatoes are good, but they must have sandy loam soils. Our black clay gumbos will not yield quality yams. Feed stores and some nurseries sell them, and they can actually be planted through all of April and into early May.