The most common questions about gardening come from people just starting out: What do I do? How do I start? Most any experienced gardener will tell you they never stop learning, so don’t wait until you think you ‘know it all’ to get started; try following some common guidelines, get started NOW, and learn as you go.
The first thing is to understand ‘the deal’. You want plants to produce food. These plants have special needs because they are bred to produce tasty food, but usually aren’t so good at survival against all the other types of plants. There are certain things they need, and in return for their food, you need to provide them a certain level of comfort, security, food, water, and a nice environment.
Thinking big in the beginning is good, but understand that nature is complicated, and most beginning vegetable gardeners run into all kinds of issues in the first few years. It is easy to become overwhelmed and frustrated. Try starting with one or two beds to begin with, build up your skill level and knowledge base as you expand.
Most of our soils in the DFW area are hard to deal with. It is possible to amend the soil, but it generally takes a good deal of time and effort (and maybe money) to do this. The quick and easy solution is to build a raised bed. Some books say 6″ of soil will be enough, but I think we need at least 9″ of good soil to hold enough moisture to get plants through our hot days. Raised beds can be made with lumber, stone, concrete blocks, or most any other material, or the simplest of all is just create a raised pile of soil. Raising the bed gets the plants up away from the native soil to promote good drainage.
Choose a Good Location
Full Sun: One of the most important ingredients for a vegetable garden is sun. We need at least 6 hours of full-strength sun for most vegetable plants. If the area doesn’t get enough sunlight, vegetables won’t grow there, it is simple, but some people want it all: a piece of land fully shaded with 200 year old trees AND a vegetable garden. Sometimes you can’t have it all! Find or create a good sunny location.
Ideally, your garden will be somewhere that you will walk through every day and will have easy access to a source of water. If the vegetable garden is located along the pathway between where you park your vehicle and your home, then you will likely notice possible issues very early.
Also consider the drainage of the area your garden will be in. A low-lying swampy area will always be a problem, so pick somewhere else. The ideal location will also have protection from violent winds, but will offer a gentle breeze most of the time.
Chances are excellent that the native soil at your home is not ‘good soil’. Fortunately, there are some excellent sources for blended soils that will almost guarantee vegetable plants will grow well. If you are going to spend money on something for your garden, it should be good soil. Ideal soil is a mixture of minerals, sand, clay, and organic matter, and should be full of life. Adding quality compost is almost always a good idea.
Having a source of water near your garden makes life much easier. Storing rainwater is the best choice, but a faucet nearby works also. I’ve hauled water in 5 gallon buckets for a season, which encouraged me to add some underground pipes to bring in water the next year.
Fertilizer / Food
Rarely will the soil have enough nutrients by itself to encourage the kind of growth we want to see. Extra fertilizer will provide for our plants. Avoid highly concentrated (NPK numbers above 10), fertilizers. Slow-release is best. (organic fertilizers are slow-release) Balanced and complete fertilizers are ideal. A vegetable plant is generally fertilized once when it is planted, and then again when it starts to set fruit. Finished plant-based compost (humus) is a good fertilizer. You can also make your own fertilizer from natural ingredients.
Avoid bare soil! The hot sun bakes the soil, which isn’t good for much of anything. Mulch helps retain moisture and promotes more even soil temperatures. Mulch made from shredded native trees is considered the best, but many other types can be used, such as hay, grass clippings, leaf litter, or unfinished compost. Don’t let the mulch touch the stem of your plants and don’t let the mulch mix in with your garden soil (especially wood mulch). Most all plants need to have their stems exposed to the air.
Unintended Consequences (A plea to go organic)
Our need for instant gratification has a few downsides. If you see a bug eating your plant, your instinct might be go to the store to buy something to kill it. (and there are plenty of stores that are very eager to sell you something to kill it) Realize that spraying a chemical will almost always have unintended consequences. That action will likely do something that will further harm the cycles of nature. Take the time to understand why that bug is there in the first place. Are your plants weak or diseased? Home gardeners can easily overpower and upset the delicate balances of nature. It is best to understand what is happening through observation and education. Usually, the best action is the absolute minimum necessary. Sometimes the best action is to do nothing. Focus on plant health, soil health, diversity, and co-operation.
Plant the Right Variety of Plant
Most plants were developed to grow in climates different than Dallas, Texas. If you are going to the trouble of growing a garden, you should make sure the plants you are using are adapted to the climate and conditions. Big-Box stores do not excel in expertise in this area, local nurseries do. There are plenty of online resources to help decide what to plant in the DFW area.
Plant at the Right Time
We have 3 general growing seasons in the north Texas region: 1) cool weather, 2) warm weather, and 3) way too hot weather. The good news is that we can grow food all year round, and we get two chances at growing the warm weather crops. The bad news is that the timing is critical for growing certain plants that like it warm, but not too hot. Be sure and consult a local planting calendar to figure out what will grow at a certain time of year.
This is an excellent book for new vegetable gardeners. Mel has created a simple, all-inclusive method for getting good results. This book covers all the topics needed to be successful.
If anyone is considering starting their own garden, I hope the tips here will be helpful. Remember to Observe, Experiment, Use Your Noodle, and Take Responsibility. Growing your own food is very rewarding. There is no question about the quality of food that was grown in your own backyard, and the nutritional content and taste are much better than most things you can buy in a store. Working with plants and soil also provides happiness. I don’t know any sad gardeners. Someone said that if everyone gardened, we wouldn’t need psychologists or mind-altering drugs!
Since this article was written, the Citizen Gardener education program has become available in the DFW area. This program aims to package the main concepts discussed here in one easy to understand method and teach the method in a learning-intensive hands-on workshop format. Please visit the Citizen Gardener website for more information.