Gardening for Beginners

Why not start your first garden right now? The weather is still mild, there are chances of spring rains and it’s your best opportunity to get the warm weather crops planted, such as beans, cantaloupe, cucumber, eggplant, tomatoes, squash, okra and peppers. While the idea of growing food and flowers for the first time might seem overwhelming, the good news is there’s lots of help out there. Gardeners not only love growing plants, they’re also generous about sharing their knowledge, because that’s most likely how they got started. Learning from other’s mistakes can save you lots of time and help you avoid the “I just can’t garden!” tantrum you may feel like throwing after yet another plant bites the dust. Like anything else worth doing, successful gardening just requires a little preparation.

Suzi Fields of San Marcos uses her organically grown herbs in tea blends, soaps and shampoos. (photo by Chris Reid)

Suzi Fields of San Marcos is one of those growers who enjoys sharing her gardening tips and experience. “I’m all about trying to help people grow their own food,” she said recently. That was the motivation behind the blog she designed at ediblesanmarcos.wordpress.com which has many articles, guides and resources dedicated to helping Central Texas gardeners. Fields makes teas and personal care products for her company, Suzi’s Naturals, and grows many of the necessary ingredients in her home garden.

Fields recommends that beginning gardeners study their growing area before doing anything else. “The very first thing is to look at your garden and see where the sun and shade are,” she said. Also, be conscious of where to put walkways, Fields pointed out, as you want to make the garden fully accessible. Whenever possible, plant herbs and vegetables close to the house, so that they’re easier to harvest and use in cooking. Make sure you have a source of water nearby and that there are sunny areas available, as most food crops require six to eight hours of full sun a day to thrive.

A frequently heard piece of advice is to start small. First time gardeners “get discouraged if the garden’s too big,” Fields explained.

Pick a few things that you really like, such as tomatoes or peppers, and go from there. Four feet square would be large enough to accommodate several plants. As you gain confidence and your skill level increases, you can expand the garden in the next growing season.

Beneficial insects are a big help in the garden. (photo by Chris Reid)

Fields, along with other experienced gardeners, firmly believes in getting the soil tested before starting a new project in an unused area. She had hers done at Texas Plant and Soil Lab in Edinburg (texasplantandsoillab.com). Once you know what the soil needs, it’s time for the real fun: preparing the bed. Loosen the soil at least 6 to 10 inches deep with hand tools or with a tiller. Clear the planting area of weeds and mix in any necessary soil amendments. Keep in mind that most soils benefit from added compost, which improves drainage and water retention and also adds nutrition.

Except for those living in the Hill Country, Fields doesn’t recommend gardening in raised beds. They dry out, she said, and using cinder blocks or rocks to form the structure retains too much heat. If you must garden in a raised bed, make the frame from untreated wood or metal.

Some crops are best direct seeded, such as beans, cantaloupe, squash and okra. Others, such as peppers, eggplant, tomatoes and most herbs do best as transplants. Read up on what and when to plant and go from there. Most important–grow what you and your family enjoy eating.

Using organic products is not only a good idea when growing food, it also means your garden will be able to attract and keep pollinators like birds, bees, butterflies and other beneficial garden helpers around. These natural predators will feast on pests like aphids, mites, caterpillars and more.

Finally, maintaining a compost pile and using mulch are two of the best gardening habits you can practice. As mentioned earlier, compost helps the garden in several ways by adding nutrition and organic matter to the soil. And mulch, be it shredded cedar, leaves, straw or bark, is one of the easiest and least expensive ways to retain water and keep plants and soil cool in the summer heat. According to Fields, using anything less than four inches of mulch around established plants won’t work as well.

Referring to the advice related here and the gardening information on the Edible San Marcos blog, she said, “These are the small tips that can make a huge difference in your garden.” So, when it comes to growing things, start small and ‘grow’ large!

From One Gardener to Another

Local growers weigh in with gardening advice

Catch pests like cucumber beetles or grasshoppers in a dish of soapy water. In the early morning, when the beetles are easier to catch, hold the dish under the plants and knock the insects in. Go after grasshoppers at night, when they’re slower. Feed to the chickens.
Alisin Genfan of Genfan Family Farm, Martindale

Prepping the soil is the most important thing you can do. Work in compost and keep the soil soft. I use the tiller and also hand till. And get a soil test done–it can make all the difference in your produce yield.
Susan Warren, Manager of the San Marcos Farmers Market

You need to grow your soil; the plants are just the byproduct of that effort. Always protect your soil, whether it’s with intensive plant canopies, mulches, cover crops, tarps or cardboard. Do your best to not have it exposed for too long. Late summer, prune the heck out of your pepper plants and eggplants and you’ll have a brand new crop till the first freeze.
Derek Emadi of Emadi Acres Farm, Lockhart

Don’t plant tomatoes before mid-March, unless you’re willing to take a chance of losing them to a freeze. Use organic products because you’re eating this, after all! Consider the space that a full grown plant takes. Start small with your garden.
Eric Telford, Maxwell

I love using cattle panels in the garden! I cut them into four-feet sections and hinge them at the top so that I can tent them over tomatoes. That way, it there’s a cold snap, I can easily cover them. You can also put them around trees for protection, use them to make a compost bin and install the uncut ones down the middle of the garden bed to make a structure for climbing peas and beans. Since we have such changeable spring weather, hedge your bets by planting half your tomato crop early and holding the other half in the greenhouse, where they can be potted up as they grow, ready to go into the garden when threats of frost are gone.
Betsy Robertson, cofounder of Sustainable San Marcos

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