Excitement builds as the time to plant vegetable crops approaches.
You dream of enjoying fresh tomatoes, peppers and squash, impressing your family and friends with homemade salsa and achieving your goal to eat healthier. Forget past failures and frustrations. Don't give up the dream. You can improve your gardening success by following three rules:
1. Prepare soil to nourish your plants
2. Select the right time to plant
3. Choose varieties proven to grow well in North Texas
Old farmer's wisdom tells us that while good gardeners grow plants, great gardeners grow their soil. Having nourishing soil for a vegetable garden is challenging if you have only the poor top soil added to new construction or the heavy clay soils that make gardening difficult.
The secret to improving your soil (and your harvest) is the addition of composted organic material — 6 to 8 inches worked into existing soil. Alternatively, a gardener may choose to use a raised bed filled with rich soil.
Testing your soil — annually in the beginning and biannually after soil improvements — is highly recommended. Texas A&M offers low-cost soil analysis at their AgriLife Extension Service Soil, Water and Forage Testing Laboratory (http://soiltesting.tamu.edu/). Your soil analysis report provides recommendations on fertilizing and shows deficiencies in the minerals that feed vegetable plants.
Whether you are planting seeds or transplants, your vegetables do best when the soil or ambient temperature favors growth. Cool-weather seeds including peas, spinach and greens like soil temperature in the mid-70s, while warm-weather crops such as corn and melons germinate best when soil temperatures are around 90 to 95 degrees.
However, waiting for the soil to reach the ideal germination temperature is frustrating when you are itching to plant something. So if you must plant before the ideal soil temperature is reached, sow seeds more heavily and expect a germination rate closer to 70 percent than 100 percent.
Planting seedlings too early is very tempting when the nursery shelves are filled with healthy transplants. A best practice is to remember that warm-season vegetables grow best between 60 to 80 degrees and continue to produce as the temperatures reach into the low 90s.
Cool-season vegetables, such as lettuce and spinach, should be grown between 50 and 70 degrees. They will stop producing as temperatures reach the mid to upper 80s. If you must plant early, be prepared to offer plants protective covering when night temperatures dip below the mid 50s.
If you spend cold winter days scanning seed catalogs and admiring the pictures of beautiful vegetables, you are not alone. Seeing someone's bountiful harvest just makes your fingers itch to get into the soil and plant what is shown in the pictures. Beware! Vegetable varieties that succeed in North Texas are often different from those shown in catalogs from Oregon or Maine.
Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Office provides guidance on selecting the best varieties using a North Texas Vegetable Variety Selector at http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/publications/veg_variety/.
So, grow your own vegetables. You can do it.
If you have horticulture questions, contact the Master Gardener help desk at email@example.com or 940-349-2892.
BARBARA BROWN is a member of the Denton County Master Gardener Association through the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Office in Denton County. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 940-349-2883.
FEATURED PHOTO: A 4-inch layer of mulch in a garden helps retain moisture, moderates soil temperature and reduces weeds. Courtesy photo