Sunday, March 09, 2008

Backyard Gardening in Houston

Sorry folks, it's a filler writings weekend. This time you are getting an article I wrote about gardening for our neighborhood newsletter:

How Does Your Garden Grow?

Anyone in the neighborhood with a mouth and a wallet is probably becoming acutely aware of rising food prices. Fuel costs for trucking in those red tomatoes and ripe cantaloupe tack on a surcharge that’s becoming harder and harder to pay. Here in Houston our growing season is twelve months long. With a little time and effort a person can replace a lot of their store-bought fare with fresh yummies straight from their backyard garden. Everything from asparagus to watermelons can be easily grown here, often using just a small amount of your backyard. In this article I’ll give you tips on what to plant, when to plant it, where to plant it, what to plant it in, and how to care for your plants so as to get the biggest yields.

So, what to plant? Well, what does your family like to eat?! Pretty much every type of vegetable can be grown here. However, to be a truly successful Houston gardener you can’t just go down to Walmart, buy a bunch of seeds and stick them in the ground. There are definite varieties of your favorite veggies that handle Houston better than others, the trick is to know which ones are optimal for here. Luckily, someone has already figured that out for you. Simply go to http://harris-tx.tamu.edu/hort/pubs/vegherb.htm and click on the “Vegetable Varieties for Harris County” link and you get a list of exactly which seeds will do best in Harris County. For instance, if you like okra you should get “Clemson Spineless”, “Cajun Delight”, “Emerald”, “Louisiana Green Velvet”, or “Silver Queen”. If the packet of seeds isn’t listed on that sheet, put them back on the shelf!

So, now you have the proper seeds for the area you can just stick them in the dirt and let them grow, right? Wrong! While you can grow vegetables all year round here, different plants thrive under different mixes of sun and temperature. Some plants thrive in the summer heat while others prefer the cooler summer and fall. To find out when you should plant your seeds I once again direct you to http://harris-tx.tamu.edu/hort/pubs/vegherb.htm and this time click on the “Vegetable Planting Calendar for Harris County” link. It brings up an easy to use calendar telling both ideal and marginal planting times for all your veggies.

The next step is figuring out where in your yard to plant your garden. A general rule of thumb is leafy and root plants such as lettuce, cabbage, collards greens, beets and radishes can tolerate light shade. More ‘full-bodied” plants like beans, cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes require full sunlight to reach their full potential. Study your yard to figure out where the sun always shines and where shadows fall. Will your house or a tree cast cause too much shade? Remember also that the sun will be coming from a very different angle during the summer than during the winter. Take that into account if you as you pick a place (or places) for your garden. As usual, you can find more information at http://harris-tx.tamu.edu/hort/pubs/vegherb.htm, this time click on “Vegetable Gardening in Harris County”.

Now let’s discuss the dirty part of gardening, your soil. Most of the lots in our neighborhood had a layer of sand laid down over thick clay. This is not a good medium for growing most plants, especially vegetables. For a small fee Texas A&M will test your soil and tell you exactly what fertilizers, compost, lime and other additives you will need to add to make your yard soil productive. You’ll probably have to rent a rototiller to mix all these nutrients into your soil. This is a real pain.

It is much easier here to build a raised bed garden. A raised bed garden is simply a box approximately 12-18 inches deep which sits on top of your current soil and is filled with premixed, nutrient-rich dirt. The sides of the box can be made out of wood, stone, cinder blocks or even wine bottles stuck neck-down in the dirt. This box can be any length and width or even a funky shape as long as you can reach the center of it from outside the box. The soil can be purchased premixed from any of the local dirt sellers or you can buy the components and mix them yourself. I personally like a mixture that is 1/3 peat moss, 1/3 pearlite or vermiculite, and 1/3 compost, as recommended by Mel Bartholomew, author of “Square Foot Gardening” (www.squarefootgardening.com). With a raised bed you will know right from the beginning that your plants will have the nutrients, proper drainage, and weed-free soil they’ll need to thrive without all the back breaking labor involved in turning our soil into something in which things will actually grow. Once a year you just need to mix in some more compost and maybe a little more peat moss to keep the soil healthy and ready for plants.

Finally, how can we maximize our harvest. The two keys tips here are water well and patrol for pests! The Houston summer sun can dry plants out in a day or two, so check them every day. The best time to water your garden is early morning before going to work. This will prepare the plants for the day without leaving them wet at night. Being wet in the dark is prime conditions for fungus and other problems. A thick layer of mulch will also trap the moisture in the soil, reducing the need for watering. One other note, if possible collect rain water to use on your garden. Ordinary tap water is treated with chlorine which the plants don’t like. I collect rain run-off from my roof in three 55-gallon plastic barrels and they’ve supplied me with enough water to get my 140 square feet of gardens through every drought so far for the last five summers.

It’s easy to keep your garden watered, but keeping it pest free tougher. We have to contend with assorted bugs, birds, squirrels and possums, all of which love the food of your garden as much as you do. Examine your garden every day to make sure nothing is attacking it. Caterpillars and snails can strip your bean plants down to nubs in just two days if you aren’t alert. Many people like to use “organic” pesticides and recipes for many of these can be found on the internet web sites such as http://vegetablegardens.suite101.com/article.cfm/organic_pest_control_and_pesticide. personally, I find commercial products like Sevin give me the best results.

Against larger pests like birds and squirrels I’ve had to cover my strawberries and tomatoes with homemade chicken wire cages. This is cheap and very effective. I had tried hanging bells, aluminum pie pans, and rubber snakes around my precious fruits but those only scared the critters away for a few days. The local mocking birds are especially voracious eaters but since putting up the protective cages they haven’t stolen a single berry from me.

Let me finish by directing you to one more free resource, the Master Gardener community volunteers of Texas. These volunteers have been extensively trained by the Texas AgriLife Extension Services and they can answer any questions you may have. They can be reached by calling 281-855-5600 Mon-Fri from 9am-3pm or e-mail them at hcmga1@yahoo.com. Your tax dollars have paid for them so take advantage of their knowledge.

May your garden grow rich and green.


Adventure! Excitement! Filling With Food!

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