By Christine Reid
Ever since COVID-19 reared its ugly, spiky head more than two years ago, there’s one pandemic induced trend that’s actually been welcome: an increasing number of people are turning to gardening to provide themselves with sustenance as well as renewal. They like the concept of having some control over their food source and also getting a chance to lower their stress levels in a natural environment. If this sounds like you and you’re new to Texas gardening, or gardening in general, read on.
Check your soil
Before starting a home garden, make a plan about where to locate the garden and how and what to grow in it. Since all gardening begins with the soil, getting it tested is a good idea. Most Central Texas soil is highly alkaline, which may be suitable for growing native plants but not vegetables, which usually thrive in a more moderate pH range. Also, for good production, a garden needs an appropriate amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, along with other minerals. Without improvements, soil here often contains varying levels of phosphorus and potassium and is usually low in organic matter such as compost and critical nutrients like nitrogen. So, to avoid adding possibly unnecessary amendments to your soil, get it analyzed. Two frequently used soil testing labs are the Texas Plant and Soil Lab in Edinburg and Texas A&M. After you send in samples, you’ll get a report listing which amendments are needed and in what quantity. Keep in mind that the saying, ‘if a little is good, more is better,’ seldom applies to gardening. Follow the amount recommendations and directions for best results.
Find the right spot
Choose a site in your yard that gets at least 6 to 8 hours of sun a day, as most spring and summer vegetables require that much. However, peppers and a few other vegetables and herbs need some shade in the afternoon, especially in the summer. For those who have deer that would delight in visiting backyard ‘salad bars,’ fencing or some other barrier may be necessary.
In-ground vs raised bed
Next, decide if you want an in-ground garden or a raised bed. Both have their advantages and will require some work to establish. With an in-ground garden, there’s no need for a truckload of soil to be brought in, which saves time. However, additions like compost, fertilizer and more, will need to be dug into the planting area with hand tools or a tiller, which breaks up the soil. A garden in the ground needs to be cultivated from 8 to 10 inches to provide room for the plant’s roots. A good size for a beginner garden is 4 feet by 6 feet or smaller.
A raised bed garden requires having garden soil and amendments deposited into a frame formed of untreated wood, concrete blocks or other supports made from nontoxic materials. Depending on the crop, a growing depth of 8 to 12 inches of soil is considered sufficient. Not only does the raised bed warm up earlier in the spring, this type of garden has the advantage of being easier to work in, especially for people with limited mobility, as it can be established at a height that is most convenient for the gardener. While the soil test can act as a guide, a rule of thumb is to fill the bed with half garden soil and half amendments made up of compost and perlite or vermiculite, mineral-based materials that provide aeration and affect moisture retention. Fertilizer should be added as directed. A common size for a raised bed is 3 feet by 6 feet, making it easy to plant, cultivate and harvest the garden crops.
Revitalize your soil
The soil in raised beds and in-ground gardens might need to be revitalized with amendments and fertilizer at the beginning of the next growing season, as the previous crops may have depleted it of nutrients.
For those who don’t have access to a yard, there’s always container gardening. You can put the same soil mix that’s used in raised bed gardens into pots and then go on to grow herbs, vegetables and pollinator-friendly flowers. Depending on the container’s size, almost anything can be used to grow things, as long as it drains well and gets the appropriate amount of sun, water and nutrients. If you’re growing food, just make sure the container is safe for that purpose.
The internet has a vast array of gardening information available that can help new gardeners pick popular vegetable varieties to grow as well as the best time to plant them. Gardening guides cover which vegetables should be transplanted and which can be planted by seed. Some of the cool-weather crops, like broccoli, cabbage, carrots, chard, kale, lettuce, radishes and spinach, go in first. Later, as the soil warms up, snap beans, cucumbers, squash and everyone’s favorite, tomatoes, can be planted. Tasty cantaloupes and watermelon will follow. At this point, spending time in the garden could keep you so pleasantly busy with weeding, watering and watching that you might even ask, “Pandemic? Is that still going on?”
Christine Reid is an experienced gardener/farmer in the Maxwell area and is a regular vendor at the the San Marcos Farmer’s Market.