Growing Tulips in Texas

Not sure why I love tulips, but I do.  And, I am not alone.  I saw a survey the other day that said tulips were second only to roses as the most loved and most recognized flower in the world.  No matter how much I love them though, they always break my heart.  My relationship with them is like a bad romance.  Each fall, they promise to do right by me.  I take them back into my home (again), kick the moldy vegetables out of the crisper for them, wrap them in the breathable bags they love and then keep them cool and dark for the next five months.  Come February I place them is the richest, loosest soil I can find.  I buy them lovely accessories and plant companions for them so they won’t be lonely.  Then, come March, they break my heart (again) by blooming on squat little stalks with spindly petals that never last. 

Texas_Tulip_1 This fall, Sally and I bought a cute little antique wheelbarrow at an auction.  Despite my experience I thought, “Won’t that look great full of tulips?”  So, with the wheelbarrow still in the back of the truck, I went to my local nursery and bought another bag of tulip bulbs.  I took the wheelbarrow home and drilled my drain holes.  In January, I filled the wheelbarrow with potting soil and planted 24 alyssum plants around the rim.  Then, I took the tulips out of the refrigerator and prayed.

Texas_Tulip_2 I am very happy to report, this year the tulips finally did right by me!  Their stalks are tall and jaunty.  The flowers are an amazingly beautiful pink.  For the past week it has been a true joy to come home and have these lovely ladies waiting for me at the back door.

Texas_Tulip_3 While I am so proud of my tulips this year, the Lord made sure I did not get too prideful or boastful.  Two weeks ago he sent a massive, late season ice storm that killed all of the alyssum that I had planted to enhance my lady’s beauty.  I guess this is appropriate as it is Lent.  We would not want me to become too prideful during this season of preparation.

Texas_Tulip_4 If you are not afraid of a broken heart, my experience has shown me that you can grow tulips in Texas.  Buy them early in the fall and keep them refrigerated for months.  Then plant them in early February in deep, rich soil.  Keep the soil moist and pray for a cool spring.

Home Gardening Statistics

Infographic from “The Mother Nature Network”

If I haven’t mentioned it before, I am a numbers guy.  In my real job, I create and maintain computer applications that analyze all of The M.D. Anderson Cancer Center’s numbers.  Because I crunch and report numbers all day, every day, I am kind of a nut about them.  So, when I found a website that that had numbers relating to gardening, I was ecstatic.  All of the statistics that we are about to discuss came from a very cool web page on the Mother Nature Network.  MNN got all of their stats from the National Gardening Association.

The Average Gardener – According to the National Gardening Association, the average gardener in the U.S. is female.  She is over 45 years old and there is a 79% chance that she has a college degree or at least some college education.  She spends an average of five hours a week working in her 600 square foot food garden.  Each year she spends about $70 on her hobby and harvests $600 worth of food.  In my recent interview with Central Texas Gardener, Linda Lehmusvirta asked me if gardening was worth it.  Well, thanks to that last stat, I have scientific proof that at a bare minimum, my hobby is worth at least $530 per year.

Does Size Matter?– Evidently, my little potager is just about average.  My potager is 24’X24′ for a total of 576 square feet.  According to the stats on the MNN site, the average food garden in the U.S. is 600 square feet.  This stat was the one that hit me the hardest.  Was it coincidence that my potager was so close to the average?  Probably not.  I bet the average garden is 600 sq ‘ because that is about the perfect size for a middle aged, college educated gardener to maintain in five hours per week.

Another interesting stat in this line was the reported median size of a garden.  In case you have forgotten, the median is the point in a population where half of the values fall above a certain point and the half fall below.  So, with a median garden size of 96 square feet (or 12’X8′), that means that there are a lot of people gardening in very small spaces.  While this was a little surprising to me at first, it dawned on me that a lot of those middle aged college grads are urbanites that just don’t have a lot of space to garden in.  I say YEAH!  It is better to have gardened small than to have never gardened at all.  My wife’s school garden is based on Mel Bartholomew’s square foot gardening method.  It is only 8’X3’, but her second graders grow a lot of produce in that 24 sq ‘ space.  So, if you don’t have the space or time to grow an average sized food garden, plant some containers or put together a couple of 3’X3’ sqaure foot gardens in your yard or on your patio.

What Does Our Garden Grow? -It should come as no surprise to you that the most grown vegetable in the American garden is the tomato.  Tomatoes are the most grown vegetable in home gardens all around the world.  However, I have to admit I was shocked by number two and three.  Cucumbers and sweet peppers rounded out the top three.  Even though I grow them, I had no idea that everyone else did too.  Probably has something to do with how versatile they are and how easy they are to grow.  BTW, when you read the chart and you see “Tomatoes 86%”, it means that of the total respondents, 86% grew tomatoes in their garden.

Where We’re Growing – According to the survey, no region of the U.S. gardens significantly more than any other.  If you look at the map on the left, you will see that what they call “The South” has the highest number of gardeners.  If you look closely you will see that this is the smallest geographic region in size but 29% of the folks that live in that area garden.  The second largest region is called “The Midwest”.  It is the largest geographically and 26% of the people that live there garden.  23% of the folks that live in “The West” grow their on food. Finally, 22% of “Northeasterners” grow some of their own food.  “The Northeast” may have the lowest per centage of gardeners and yet it has the highest population density in the U.S.  Because of this, I don’t think these folks garden less because they don’t want to, I think it is probably a result of the VERY urban environments that they live in.

The State of Our Hobby – Right now, the state of our hobby is strong!  In 2008,  31% (or 36 million households) of Americans had a food garden.  By 2009, that number had grown to 37% of households (or 43 million households).  I am not sure what drove this increase but it truly incredible.  Whether driven by a desire to eat in a more healthy manner, or the desire to save money because of the economy, over one third of your neighbors are now growing at least a part of the food they consume.

Compared to 2008, 6 million more Americans kept a garden in 2009.  This bodes very well for the future of our hobby.  However, the most encouraging news in that stat is the fact that 21% (or 1.26 M) of that 6 million were first time gardeners.  How exciting is that?  Historically, gardening was a hobby practiced by the middle aged and the retired.  Not anymore!  More and more young people are rolling up their sleeves and getting dirty.  These newbie’s are going to ensure that the state of our hobby is strong for a very long time.

Tomato Tips and Tricks by Patty Leander


Nothing beats home grown Texas tomatoes. Photo by Bruce Leander

There are tomato lovers and tomato haters. Tomato haters are the ones who pick chunks of tomatoes out of their pasta or leave a neat pile of tomatoes on the side of their salad plate (you know who you are, BWL). Tomato lovers tend to reside in one of two groups: those who love tomatoes so much that they don’t care if they get their fix from a can, a bottle of ketchup or a supermarket tomato, and the other camp who eschews bland winter tomatoes and commercial tomato products and opts to eat the juicy fruit in season, fresh from the garden and whenever possible while standing IN the garden! Like most vegetable gardeners I prefer my tomatoes in season and hyper-local – direct from my garden to my table. My penchant for home-grown tomatoes means that I gobble up my last fresh tomato sometime in December and I don’t have a new crop until mid-May, and that’s if I’m lucky, so when spring planting season rolls around I am giddy with anticipation.


‘Tomatoberry’ and ‘Jaune Flamme’ are some of Patty’s favorite varieties for the Austin area. Photo by Bruce Leander

March brings the promise of mild days and warm weather but seasoned Texas gardeners have no delusions about our ideal tomato-growing conditions. We have but a small window of opportunity between our average last frost (mid-March here in Central Texas) and that first string of 90 degree days (June if not earlier) when plants slowly succumb to the heat and pests of a typical Texas summer. We want to plant as early as we can yet we must be prepared to protect our charges if unpredictable spring weather brings a late cold snap. Be sure to have a supply of floating row cover, boxes, milk jugs, buckets or other means of protection on hand to cover tender transplants if frost threatens. Even without the threat of cold weather I like to wrap the outside of my tomato cages with row cover or plastic to protect plants from strong winds.


A tomato laid on its side will quickly turn up and grow towards the sun. Picture by Bruce Leander

Row cover can sometimes be found at local garden centers or it can be ordered from a variety of online sources, including Texas Gardener (, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange ( and Johnny’s Seed (

Before planting transplants in the ground it’s important to harden them off by gradually acclimating them to the outdoors. Start by setting them out in a protected spot on a patio or under a tree for an hour or two, gradually increasing their exposure to sun and outdoor temperatures. For best growth and production space plants 3-4 feet apart in the garden. Resist the urge to plant your tomatoes deep. Instead, remove the lower leaves and plant your transplants sideways in a shallow trench. This will keep the roots in the uppermost layer of soil where it is warmer and new feeder roots will sprout all along the stem, adding to the plant’s vigor. The stem will turn towards the sun and straighten out within a day or two.  Water new transplants with a half-strength fertilizer solution and as they grow gently direct their stems to keep them corralled inside their cage – this is much easier to do when they are young. Spray every 2-3 weeks with a liquid fertilizer and sidedress each plant with 1-2 tablespoons of granular garden fertilizer when the first fruit starts to form. Provide 1-1½ inches of water per week, and if possible use drip irrigation or soaker hoses to keep soil from splashing up on the leaves as this is sometimes how soil borne diseases get their start.

Nothing beats the complex taste of hierlooms like "Black Cherry".  Photo by Bruce Leander

Nothing beats the complex taste of hierlooms like “Black Cherry”. Photo by Bruce Leander

Most of the heirlooms that we love to eat take 80-90 days before that first juicy tomato is ripe for picking.  The intense heat of summer is not far behind so be sure to include some quick-maturing hybrid varieties that start producing in 65-75 days as insurance for a successful tomato crop.  ‘New Girl’ (62 days from transplanting), ‘Early Girl’ (57 days) and ‘Juliet’ (62 days) are all good bets. Most heirlooms don’t produce as reliably or prolifically as the hybrid varieties, but their beautiful colors, juiciness and complex flavors are hard to resist.  ‘Cherokee Purple’ (74 days), ‘Green Zebra’ (75 days) and ‘Black Krim’ (80 days) are popular varieties, and some years are better than others. Cherries are always a favorite – ‘Black Cherry’ (65 days), ‘Black Plum’ (82 days), ‘Sun Gold’ (57 days) and ‘Tomatoberry’ (60 days) bring interesting color, flavor and shape to the tomato harvest. If you have the space try experimenting with different varieties.  You just never know when you are going to find that perfect plant that fulfills all of your tomato expectations. When you do I hope you’ll share it with us here at the Masters of Horticulture!


“Black Plun” is another great heirloom for the Austin area. Photo by Bruce Leander

EarthBox Makes Gardening Accessible by Mark Hartley

EarthBox, Inc., the manufacturer of gardening boxes, touted its community outreach efforts last week, providing examples of how schools and senior citizen groups are discovering the joys of gardening in unlikely locations such as roofs, parking lots, and playgrounds.

Students at a Pennsylvania elementary school grow enough in their Eartbox gardens to feed the entire school on World Food Day each year.

Students at a Pennsylvania elementary school grow enough in their Eartbox gardens to feed the entire school on World Food Day each year.

Molly Philbin, the education director for EarthBox, explained the company’s strategy in a press statement: “Gardening can teach everything from science to nutrition while being fun and rewarding at the same time. And since our EarthBox® container gardening system provides ideal growing conditions without the need to dig or weed, groups find that they can enjoy great yields with very little effort.”

EarthBox produces large yields of high quality vegetables with much less work

EarthBox produces large yields of high quality vegetables with much less work

The rectangular, tub-like containers produced by EarthBox, Inc. features a self-watering reservoir at the bottom of its boxes to enhance “maintenance-free” aspects of gardening.

 While purists desire hands-on maintenance of gardens, EarthBox is appealing to groups who lack the time to devote to every aspect of gardening, as well as limited physical skills.

EarthBox is not just for vegetables.  These self contained gardens grow beautiful flowers as well

EarthBox is not just for vegetables. These self contained gardens grow beautiful flowers as well

For example, an EarthBox garden was designed for senior residents in Florida who are confined to wheelchairs. The engineer behind the design said the garden “offers them a place where they can grow fresh vegetables, socialize, and relax.”

 EarthBox also presented the example of young children ages three to five participating in a nutrition club hosted by a Tampa, Fla., community college. The EarthBox garden focuses on herbs, and the kids tend to the garden, pick the herbs, and learn about the various qualities of the herbs. The club has a weekly “smelling party,” and its president said the young gardeners have a “blast with this weekly activity.”

EarthBox allows you to grow big, beautiful tomatoes right outside your door

EarthBox allows you to grow big, beautiful tomatoes right outside your door

EarthBox also cited the examples of scouting organizations for both boys and girls using the convenient gardens to earn badges.

 Again, the basins produced by EarthBox are not yielding the type of crop output that most gardeners are trying to achieve. But the self-container market continues to reach its demographic niche, and EarthBox has demonstrated that its products successfully kindle interest in gardening among school-based groups, as well as rekindle interest among our seniors.

 The company, which was started in 1994, develops “sustainable” container garden systems for all secondary grade levels in schools. With the national interest in combating obesity among schoolchildren, this type of gardening helps foster to concept of a healthier lifestyle as a result of what’s planted in the garden.

Group several containers together to create a beautiful back porch landscape.

Group several containers together to create a beautiful back porch landscape.

Harry Cabluck’s Tips for Growing Healthy Tomato Transplants

If you want to grow and harvest the best tomatoes possible, you need to grow your own plants from seed and then get those little plants in the ground as soon as possible..  Growing your own plants at home ensures that the varieties you want are available and that they are at the optimal size for transplanting on your optimal planting date.

Some of Harry Cabluck's home grown tomatoes are almost ready for transplanting.  Photo by Harry Cabluck

Some of Harry Cabluck’s home grown tomatoes are almost ready for transplanting. Photo by Harry Cabluck

I have a long time reader (and long-time tomato grower) from Austin named Harry Cabluck.  Many of my Austin readers know Harry as an award winning photographer that snapped some of the most iconic sports and political images of our generation.  What you may not know about him is that when he was not covering politics at the state capitol he was home working very hard to grow a perfect tomato.  The main thing he has learned is that early harvests of tomatoes come from plants that were planted as early as possible.  To do this Harry grows from seed in a home-made grow center in his garage.  Harry was kind enough to share some of the secrets he has learned about growing tomatoes from seed.

Media – Harry starts his seeds in expandable coir pellets.  These pellets provide a loose media that is perfect for germinating plants.  Early on, the expandable pellets fit nicely into a specially designed rack.  After the plants form their true leave, Harry transfers the entire pellet to 3-ounce bathroom cups that come from the supermarket.  These cups are just the right size to hold smaller peat-pellets and they fit perfectly into the pellet rack.  A red-hot nail head is applied to burn a hole in the bottom of each cup and felt-tip pen makes it easy to label the plantings.


Coir pellets fit nicely in a 3 ounce cup.  In addition, the cups are easy to label. Photo by Harry Cabluck

Coir pellets fit nicely in a 3 ounce cup. In addition, the cups are easy to label. Photo by Harry Cabluck

Warmth – Even though we live and grow in a mild climate, it is not mild enough to grow tomato seeds without some protection from the cold.  As Harry said “The recent cold front that blew through Austin has prompted the need for heat again for our tomato seedlings.”  To speed up the seeds germination and early growth, he places his coir pellet racks on heated grow mats.  Tomatoes grow best in temperatures above 50 degrees.  These warming mats ensure the soil that holds his seeds stays a toasty “70ish” degrees even in his garage.

Heat mats ensure quick germination and rapid growth.  Phot by Harry Cabluck

Heat mats ensure quick germination and rapid growth. Phot by Harry Cabluck

Light – All plants need light.  If you are going to grow your plants in the absence of natural sunlight, you are going to have to simulate that light for them.  Harry uses T5 fluorescent tubes to provide light to his young plants.  While florescent are not an exact match for sunlight, you can get pretty close by buying bulbs that emit light in the warm and the cool spectrum.  This is usually listed on the packaging.  Harry keeps four tubes above his seedlings.  He also recommends keeping them very close to the plants to avoid making the plants produce weak, spindly growth.

Strength- One of the true secrets of growing healthy tomato transplants at home is “keeping them moving”.  If tomato plants are grown in an enclosed area with no air movement, they can look very pretty but be very brittle.  To avoid this, you need to either run your hands gently through your plants on a regular basis or create some way to have a slight breeze blowing over them at all times.  Harry’s home-made grow center incorporates a whisper-fan that he salvaged from an old desktop computer.  According to him, this small fan provides the air circulation needed to strengthen stems and it also helps cools plants on warm days.

A salvaged fan from an old computer provides the movement needed to ensure Harry's transplants are strong when moved outside.  Photo by Harry Cabluck

A salvaged fan from an old computer provides the movement needed to ensure Harry’s transplants are strong when moved outside. Photo by Harry Cabluck

If you live in Austin it is a little late to start your tomato seeds at home.  However, if you live a bit further north, you may still have plenty of time.  By following Harry’s tips you can ensure that you never have to search for your favorite variety again.  If you follow Harry’s advice and start your seeds at home a couple of months before their recommended planting time, you will have strong healthy plants that will provide you with the earliest and best tomatoes anywhere.

This post has been shared on the HomeAcre Hop.  Be sure to stop by and check out some of the best gardening and homesteading information available on the web.