Planting a vegetable garden is not only fun; it also makes good sense. If you grow your own food, you know where it comes from. You know who is handling it. You know whether it has been doused with toxic pesticides or grown in soil soaked with herbicide.
You know what varieties you are growing so that if you love something, you can find it again next year. There are a lot of good reasons to grow your own, but I’m hoping that this year’s crop of new gardeners realize there is more to growing food than buying seeds and planting them.
We are now getting to the crucial time of vegetable gardening in Central Texas. The time of too much heat, not enough rain and, this year, people going back to work and spending less time at home. We had a lovely spring with well-timed rains and clear days to encourage growth. The gardener was primarily responsible for putting in seeds and pulling up weeds.
While it might look like your work is done — tomatoes are ripening, most plants look healthy — you want to keep them happy for a few more months.
Most plants will use up the reserve of nutrients in the soil in their first burst of germination and early growth. Now is the time to fertilize them to keep them going.
Add some compost to the top of the soil. (Keep pulling weeds.) I like to use water-soluble fertilizer blends of seaweed, fish emulsion, humate and more goodies. You can pour the stuff into a hose-end sprayer and feed everything in the garden. The seaweed and humate provide good, basic organic fertility, and the seaweed provides micronutrients that help plants fight off disease and cope with the stress of heat and drought.
Several companies make such a product, and any one is good. Shop local nurseries and you’ll find it. It’s a good idea to use that spray every two weeks or so while the plants are growing.
Remember that different plants grow at different rates. Things like melons, pumpkins and okra take a long time to mature and grow well into the dog days of summer. Others like radishes, lettuce, onions and sweet peas produce early and are done by early summer or late spring.
My garlic, which grows all over the place, is ready to be pulled out of the garden by late May or early June. That leaves room for melons and squash that are sprawling and wanting more room. I also plant some hot weather flower seeds like zinnia among the garlic and they are ready to take off when the garlic is done.
Most important for new gardeners to recognize is the importance of staying optimistic and realistic. Gardening, like every other pursuit, has its successes and its failures. Bugs, rabbits, birds and others want to share the fruits of your labor. Sometimes you buy seeds that aren’t adapted to our climate. Sometimes your dog decides to take a long nap in the middle of your lettuce patch. Sometimes plants just fall over and die for no apparent reason. That’s why we have compost piles and farmers markets.
Keep in mind that growing veggies in Central Texas means you’ll have to water them when the rains stop. Conserve water by collecting rainwater, using soaker hoses or drip irrigation or watering early or late rather than in the heat of the day, but water you must. A good, deep soaking is better than frequent splashes, especially if you have good, deep soil. If you don’t, you might have to water more often, and if you are gardening in containers, you will definitely have to water and feed more often.
It is truly worth all the effort. No tomato tastes as good as one from your garden. No melon is sweeter, no pepper more piquant and no sweet potato more tender. If this is your first year to grow food, concentrate on the successes, not the failures. Enjoy every tasty, healthy nugget you bite into. Know that you have done a good thing.
Judy Barrett is the author of several gardening books, including "Easy Edibles" from Texas A&M Press.