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It's not too late to grow your own food this summer

Judy Barrett / Special to the American-Statesman
Pumpkins can make pretty ground cover in your yard. [Judy Barrett]

Some gardeners don’t grow vegetables because they think they’ll have to transform their pretty yard into a farm — complete with row after row of unsightly cages and fences. Others think it is too much work. Still others are intimidated by all the rules: planting time, watering requirements, companion plants and such.

In fact, it is easy to incorporate vegetable plants into your existing landscape, and by including them, your garden becomes more beautiful, more productive and you become healthier.

Why grow veggies anyway? There are a lot of reasons, but the basic one, for me at least, is the deep satisfaction that comes from picking food in my yard that I’ve grown myself. It doesn’t have to be perfect looking, but the first ripe tomato is a thing of exquisite beauty and flavor.

Consider how far most produce travels to get from the farms in California to the grocery store in Austin. That distance means the fruit or vegetable is generally picked green, packed in an airless and sunless box, driven across country for a couple of days, then put out on display. All those factors reduce flavor and freshness.

On the other hand, walking outdoors to pick a plum tomato at the peak of juiciness results in top flavor, vitamins and minerals, and the knowledge that your tomato wasn’t sprayed with poisons.

When you grow your own food, you know its life story. You know it was grown in good soil with no harmful chemicals. The wealth in nutrition doesn’t degrade on that arduous journey from garden to kitchen. In fact, a lot of fresh fruit and veggies are consumed in the garden without ever making it to the kitchen.

Munching in the garden is not only fun for adults, kids like it, too. Teaching youngsters that fresh fruits and vegetables — grown organically and at home — are tasty and interesting is an invaluable lesson. They are often much more likely to taste something they have helped grow than a weird thing you bring home from the store.

Along the way, you get some good exercise as you dig and bend and pull weeds. You get sunshine, vitamin D and those magic microbes in the soil that act as antidepressants.

Many gardeners find stress relief in the garden in a variety of ways. Not only do the microbes increase serotonin levels and make you feel more relaxed and happy, but focusing on pulling weeds or planting seeds rather than stressing about work or other problems is helpful. Taking out your frustrations on bugs and unwanted plants is much healthier than taking them out on your family and friends. Mycobacterium antidepressant microbes in soil are also being investigated for improving cognitive function, Crohn’s disease and even rheumatoid arthritis. If you enlist your family in the gardening projects, they may get those same benefits.

Other benefits of growing your own include saving some money at the grocery store, teaching you some lessons about how things grow and encouraging an appreciation for nature and our fragile planet.

It is impossible to spend time in the garden without becoming aware of the world around you. Hear the birds? Feel the breeze? Smell rain in the offing? We are often so busy we don’t even notice that we are living in a natural world. It is our home. Pay attention to it and you’ll find it fascinating!

But, you say, it’s too late to plant a spring garden! I don’t have room for a big garden! I don’t have time! All good excuses, but not necessarily reasons to give up on growing some of your own vegetables and fruits.

First, you can grow one tomato in a pot and get a lot of satisfaction from that. A big garden is not the only kind of garden to grow. Adding fruits and veggies to your existing flower beds is easy as is growing in containers. Vegetables and fruits are lovely plants and can be just as decorative as flowers and shrubs.

As to timing, not only are there some vegetables that can be planted in June and even July, but there is plenty of time to start planning your fall vegetable crop. You might think about adding some fruit bushes or trees to your landscape next winter. They are easy to grow and produce for a long time. Peaches, plums, elderberries, blackberries and other goodies grow happily in Austin and surrounding areas.

According to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, cantaloupes, okra, Southern peas, Swiss chard, sweet potatoes, pumpkins and watermelons can all be planted now — either in the ground or in pots. You also can pick up a citrus tree at a local nursery and grow it indoors or out to enjoy the scent and flavor.

Fall gardening starts in August, so now is a great time to improve your soil and clear a patch where you can plant some other goodies for fall harvest. And as the heat increases, it is a great time to read one or two of the good local gardening books available (mine included!). Planning is part of the fun of growing, and getting good information on organic gardening, is time well spent.

Vining plants like melons and pumpkins make good ground covers as well as good fence covers and have big showy blooms. Swiss chard varieties offer stems in red, orange, golden yellow and look ornamental while they are growing and taste good when you eat them.

Remember that herbs are easy to grow plants, too. You can add tasty and useful herbs such as rosemary, thyme, oregano and basil to your garden today, and they will add flavor for months or years to come. All of these love the heat, don’t need a lot of care or water, and look good generally year-round. Pollinators like herbs and pests don’t care for them — other good reasons to add some to your flowerbeds.

There are so many good reasons to grow some of your own fruits and vegetables, and really no good reasons not to.

Judy Barrett is the author of several gardening books, including "Easy Edibles" from Texas A&M Press.