By Elizabeth Wilkinson, Dallas County Master Gardener
Illustrations By Bambi Edlund
Harvesting food that is healthy and fresh can be as easy as a step out your back door. When you grow your own vegetables and herbs, a basket of basil for summer pesto is a few snips away. Few things in life are better than a salad of your garden tomatoes, warm from the June sun. If you haven’t tried vegetable gardening yet, this may be the spring to pull on some gardening gloves. March and April are the perfect time to start a Texas garden. Herbs and vegetables need to be planted aft er the last freeze, usually around March 20 in North Texas, but with enough days to mature before summer heat.
Herbs flourish in North Texas heat and sun. Summer favorites are basil, chives, mint, oregano, rosemary and thyme. Herb lovers are limited only by the space in their gardens. Sweet ‘Genovese’ basil is a must with vine-ripened tomatoes, but a cook could also fill containers with varieties like ‘Mrs. Burns’ Lemon’, ‘Sweet Thai,’ or the purple leaves of ‘Dark Opal.’ Herbs are also charming in flowerbeds or tucked in vegetable gardens with your favorite produce.
As days warm in mid-March and early April, gardeners can begin planting favorite summer vegetables. Most vegetables are started by planting seeds. Use transplants (small seedlings) of tomatoes, eggplant and peppers. In North Central Texas, plant beans (snap, lima, yellow and pinto) and cucumbers (slicing and pickling) from March 20 – May 1. Tomatoes can be planted in early March to April 15, being sure to cover if the temperatures dip below freezing. Squash (summer, pan and winter) and watermelon can be added from March 25 – May 1 and pumpkins from April 1-April 20. Peppers love Texas heat; plant hot, sweet bell and sweet salad varieties from April 1-May 1. Southern peas, including black-eyed, need warm soil; plant these from April 1-May 20. Cantaloupe and eggplant go in the garden from April 5-May 1. Okra finishes up spring planting from April 5-June 1.
Sun and good soil are the keys to successful gardens in raised beds or containers. Plants need at least six hours of full sunshine to thrive. (Crops that grow in cooler weather, like spinach, leaf lettuce and broccoli, will tolerate partial shade.) When planning the location of your garden, watch the sun pattern in your yard. Where does the sun shine in the morning, at noon and in the aft ernoon? If you need sunglasses and sunscreen, that’s probably a good spot for your vegetables.
You can bring home a garden in the back of a pickup. A raised bed, a frame filled with purchased soil, bypasses the hard work of tilling compost into the North Texas clay. First build a frame of cedar boards or stone. An 8’x4’x1’ garden holds 32 cubic feet: 16 bags of topsoil, 10 bags of aged compost and six bags of cow manure. Don’t fill your garden only with topsoil; plants need the micro-nutrients in organic matter. For a small project, stick with screened bagged topsoil. Bulk landscape mixes sometimes contain nut grass (nut sedge), one of the toughest weeds to eliminate in the garden. Run a soaker hose along your crops for slow drip irrigation. Time-release fertilizer can be mixed in the garden when planting. Actively growing plants love organic fish emulsion or seaweed extract. Add a 2- to 3-inch layer of mulch to retain moisture and prevent weeds.
Containers are the easiest way to tuck a mini-garden on a balcony or patio. Bushel baskets, garage sale finds, ceramic pots, even old trash cans can be filled with a portable garden. Be sure each container has holes for drainage. Plant large vegetables like eggplant, tomatoes and peppers in pots that hold at least five gallons. Herbs and radishes grow well in smaller pots.
Think small when growing vegetables in pots. Large gangly tomatoes can grow unfettered in backyard gardens, for example, but will overwhelm most containers. Vegetables designed for small spaces are now available, like ‘Patio’ and ‘Small Fry’ tomatoes.
Containers should be filled with rich potting soil, ideally a mix of compost, pasteurized soil and perlite. Potting soil quality usually goes up with price; spend a little more on rich soil and be rewarded with a more abundant harvest. For additional nutrients, add composted cow manure, green sand, lava sand and a time-release fertilizer. Never use native clay soil in containers. Clay can make a pot too heavy to move, restrict drainage and cause soilborne diseases.
Can’t wait to get started? Check out your local organic nursery for vegetable and herb transplants, seed varieties for North Texas, fertilizer and compost. North Haven Gardens at nhg.com schedules short how-to classes on specific vegetables and more in-depth seminars for beginning gardeners. For info check out the “Eazy Gardening Series” on the Texas A&M Horticulture website: aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/vegetable
Grow your own vegetables this spring and enjoy the fruits of your labor at the dinner table
Elizabeth Wilkinson grew her first green bean in a Styrofoam cup in preschool. She earned degrees in English and journalism fr om SMU and is a Dallas County Master Gardener.