It’s Go Time in the Vegetable Garden! by Patty G. Leander

spring-vegetables For weeks now the thought of fresh tomatoes, beans, cucumbers and okra, home-grown and sun-drenched, has been dancing across my consciousness. It’s a form of visualization that I just can’t escape this time of year and it is what drives me to dig, plant, weed, water and sweat. I’m sure you are experiencing similar spring fever symptoms! DSCN2971

Here in Central Texas we may well have even experienced our last freeze (?!?) but Easter, which falls on April 16th this year, seems to be a magnet for cold weather so pay attention to the forecast in case Mother Nature decides to throw us a curve ball. Be prepared to protect or replant if damaging weather ensues. Even if we don’t get another freeze this month our young and tender transplants are vulnerable to strong winds, hail and heavy rains. vegetable-garden

Fortunately the mild days of March are easy on both garden and gardener. Our goal in the spring vegetable garden is to plant as early as possible so we can harvest as early as possible, not so much for bragging rights (wait, this is Texas so that’s not entirely true!) but rather to avoid the misery of insects, disease and stress that comes with summer’s blistering heat.  It’s hard to imagine such torment during these premiere gardening days, but it will come.

Below are six tips to help get your vegetable garden off to a good start: harlequin-bugs-kale

Harvest and remove cool season crops. As cool weather crops reach maturity go ahead and harvest and enjoy; leaving them to grow past their prime as the weather gets hotter will only invite pests and disease. The exception, of course, is if you are growing to save seed (more on saving lettuce seed in a future post). growing-vertically

Grow vertical. If you have limited garden space consider growing up instead of out. Pole beans, cucumbers and small-fruited melons or winter squash can be trained to grow on an A-frame, a trellis or other vertical structure. Every couple of years I rotate vining morning glories or moonflowers on my trellises to give the soil a break from growing vegetables. watering-the-garden

Plant into moist soil. Seeds need moisture to germinate; if it hasn’t rained in your neck of the woods then water the area where you will be planting. Really let the water soak in and saturate the soil. The same goes for transplants, water the transplant and the hole before planting.  If, on the other hand, it has rained where you live allow the soil to dry out slightly before you start planting. Working wet soil can damage the structure and form long-lasting clods. Pick up a handful of soil and squeeze it into a ball then drop it onto the ground. If it breaks apart it is ok to dig but if it stays in a muddy wad it’s best to let it dry out a little longer. Spring-Weeds

Keep up with weeds. Warm, sunny days coupled with spring rains encourage weeds seeds to sprout and quickly get out of hand. They will greedily suck up any water and nutrients you provide for your vegetables.  Invest in a long-handled weeder to dispatch weed seedlings in and around the garden. Above all – don’t let them go to seed. Even if weeds are not growing in the garden their seeds can blow in and they can also provide refuge for damaging pests. zinnias-vegetable-garden

Plant some flowers. Plant now and you will provide habitat and attractive blooms for beneficial insects and pollinators as the season progresses. Texas-Gardener-Planning-Guide

Keep records. It’s a good idea to keep a simple diagram of your garden plot which will help as you rotate your crop families from year to year. I like to also make note of varieties, planting dates and days to harvest so I can gauge growth during the season and keep track of productive or tasty varieties for next year’s garden. The Texas Gardener Planning Guide & Calendar  pictured above is a great resource – I’ve been using it for years:

Last of all (and note to self), show a little restraint. It’s extremely easy to be enticed by warm sunshine, the smell of fresh dirt and the expectation held within tiny seeds, but as everything grows so does the time required to water, weed, scout for pests, harvest, prepare and preserve. Stick with the vegetables that will yield the most satisfaction and dining enjoyment for you and your family and go forth and have a great gardening season!


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Planning the Spring Garden by Patty G. Leander

We are well into the second month of the new year and I am loving the mild winter weather we are experiencing here in Central Texas. It is perfect for the gardener – sort of makes up for all the gardening we must do in the mosquito-infested heat that often starts in late spring and lasts till early winter!

Kale-collards-mustard greens

A bed of brassicas – kale, mustard and collards – almost too pretty to pick

The spring gardening season will be here soon and I am giddy with anticipation, itching to plant and obsessed with the weather forecast. January is normally our coldest month of the year yet it has come and gone and now February, a month that can bring snow and sleet and 80°F days, even in the same week, is halfway over…and my winter coat still hangs at the ready, unworn.


Gauge planting time by soil temperature rather than air temperature.

The current 14 day forecast for Central Texas shows a string of 60-80F° days with nights in the 40s and 50s. The weather screams, “It’s warm and sunny, come outside, plant some seeds!” But at this time of year soil temperature is a better gauge of when to plant than air temperature. Direct-seeded beans, cucumbers, squash and other warm-season vegetables have their best chance at germination when soil is consistently above 60°F, which usually doesn’t happen around here until early March. If planted now the seeds would likely rot or suffer multiple setbacks as they struggle to get a start in cool soil. And despite the gorgeous weather we could still get a freeze – if you have lived here long enough you know that Easter tends to be a magnet for freezing weather.


Colorful pottery and fabric pots are suitable containers for vegetables.

Planting too much or too early is a perennial conundrum in spring and it’s best to follow the forecast, monitor the soil temperature and have a plan that takes into account the space available in your garden and how long it takes a crop to reach maturity. Right now the soil in my garden hovers around 45-60°, an acceptable temperature for cool season plants like carrots, beets or broccoli. But those plants take 60-65 days to reach maturity and if planted now they will be taking up valuable space when the time comes for warm season planting next month.


Lettuce and mesclun mixes grow happily in containers, large or small.

As we transition into spring I always wish I had more garden, but one way to extend the cool season harvest without taking up room in the vegetable garden is to grow in containers. I’ve grown lettuce, beets, radishes, carrots, broccoli and more in large clay pots, fabric grow bags and steel tubs. And at this time of year containers are less likely to dry out as they tend to do later in the season.


An excellent example of interplanting from a past season in the Children’s Vegetable Garden located at the San Antonio Botanical Garden. Broccoli and cabbage, planted 6 weeks before tomatoes, beans and squash, are ready for harvest, leaving more space for the remaining crops.

Another approach to squeezing in more is to plant quick-growing, cool season crops along the edge of a bed or in the area between future plantings of warm-season vegetables with larger space requirements. Mark the spot reserved for larger plants, such as tomatoes or squash, then plant beets, Asian greens, turnips, Swiss chard, cabbage or broccoli in the area between the markers. These plants will be ready to harvest before the tomatoes or squash take over. Commonly known as interplanting, this technique will help optimize space in the garden. It also increases diversity, confuses detrimental pests and attracts beneficials.

I share these posts on Our SimpleHomestead Blog Hop.  Be sure to stop by.  The “hop” has tons of great information from gardeners and homesteaders all over the world!

President’s Day Potatoes

Last weekend I met Chris Corby (Owner of Texas Gardener Magazine) and Patty Leander (co-blogger and staff writer for Texas Gardener Magazine) in Waco for a little writer’s workshop.  As often happens with Texas Gardeners that are eating Thai food together (instead of gardening) on a beautiful January Saturday, we began to discuss whether or not to trust the weather and do some early planting.  Now we certainly know better.  I don’t care that the groundhog didn’t see his shadow, we have all lived here long enough to know that nothing guarantees a late season freeze better than planting an early spring garden.  Regardless, this warm winter weather has given all three of us a bad case of the itch that often occurs once one has been bitten by the gardening bug.  While we agreed we would wait for the middle of March to do the majority of our planting, we began to talk about the one thing that needs to be planted in the February garden – potatoes!


It is time to plant potatoes! I grow mostly Red La Soda and Kennebec. However, there is a huge number of varieties that do great for us in Texas

There is an old Southern saying that says you should plant potatoes on President’s Day (in Zones 8A through 9B).  President’s Day falls on Feb. 15 this year so if you are going to rely on the potato to give you a reason to get outside and do some early gardening you need to hurry.  You have less than two weeks left to buy your seed potatoes, get them cut up, scabbed over and planted.

February is not the only time you can plant potatoes in Texas. Save some of your harvest this year and try them in the fall.

February is not the only time you can plant potatoes in Texas. Save some of your harvest this year and try them in the fall.

There is no doubt that President’s Day is a great time to plant potatoes in most of Texas and the Gulf South.  However, after years of growing potatoes I would like to point out that the President’s Day saying is not, in my opinion, completely accurate.  It has been my experience that the saying would be a little more accurate if it said something like “President’s Day is the LAST day to plant your potatoes”.  Potatoes are very hardy plants and they will grow and produce in all but the hottest of months.  If you plant on President’s Day you can be relatively certain that your plants will have time to grow, bloom and produce spuds before our hot weather kicks in.   However, that is not the only time you can, or should plant potatoes in Texas.


I planted these Red La Soda and Kennebecs in September of of 2013. I harvested them in February of 2014. As you see I had enough to eat and enough to plant again for my May harvest

The only thing that potatoes will not tolerate is high heat.  Because of that, they will do absolutely nothing in the Texas garden from late June to mid-September. However, once temperatures begin to fall in late September, you can begin planting potatoes. Thanks to their cold hardiness, potatoes can survive most of the freezes we get in the Gulf South.  If you are willing and able to give your potatoes a little TLC, you can plant your potatoes as early as September (for a winter harvest) and as late as President’s Day (for a spring harvest).  Plant potatoes in mid to late September and you can expect a decent harvest in December (as long as you are willing to cover them during cold snaps below 28 degrees).  If you plant potatoes in December, in an area that is protected from the north wind (and you can cover them in a hard freeze), they will be ready for harvest before President’s Day (read about my friends at Boggy Creek in Austin harvesting potatoes right now).  Growing potatoes this way will allow you to produce up to three potato harvests per year.


Each year Patty Leander loves to experiment with new varieties of potatoes. She is also a big proponent of growing them in containers.

If you have never grown potatoes I highly recommend trying them.  You can grow them successfully in long wide beds (click here to see how I grow mine) or you can grow them just as well in containers on your back porch (click here to read Patty’s awesome article on container grown potatoes).  Through the years I have learned to really appreciate the humble potato.  They truly are one of the most adaptable, and easy to grow vegetables available.  While planting on President’s Day is a good rule of thumb, don’t let it stop you from trying to grow potatoes at different times of the year.  This year, why not save some of your February planted potatoes for replanting in late fall and early winter?  With a little management and just a little extra care you can produce up to three potato harvests per year.


Growing potatoes in containers is fun and easy. Plus harvesting them is a snap!


I share these posts on Our SimpleHomestead Blog Hop.  Be sure to stop by.  The “hop” has tons of great information from gardeners and homesteaders all over the world!

Week 44 Tips for the Zone 9 Garden

I am happy to report that I got 7.5” of rain last weekend.  While I was grateful for the rain, it really did a number on my garden.  Sad to say that I was watching my best fall tomato crop ever develop.  Now, I am watching my best fall tomato crop ever split open from all of the rain.  Ugh!!!  Oh well, I can still eat the bottom halves!

All of this rain is making my fall tomatoes crack open.  I harvest them anyway and eat the bottom half!

All of this rain is making my fall tomatoes crack open. I harvest them anyway and eat the bottom half!

On another note, winter is coming.  Even though it doesn’t feel like it right now, your first freeze is just around the corner.  Since most of my planting, weeding and mulching are done for the season I will be using this rainy weekend to prepare for that inevitable first freeze.  Here is what I do to prepare for winter in my Zone 9 garden.

  • Determine your freeze dates – Your first and last feeze dates are probably the single most important thing you need to know to garden successfully. If you think you know them I suggest checking again.  Thanks to climate change, freeze dates are changing.  Several years ago my first average freeze date was November 16.  I knew this because it was my anniversary.  I got in a small bit of trouble one year because my wife was very upset with me when I chose to finish up some cold frames instead of leaving on time for our romantic get away!  There are tons of tools on the internet to determine your freeze dates.  My favorite is on Dave’s Garden.  Click here to determine the freeze dates for your area. 10-30-2015 6-55-43 PM
  • Oil and sharpen tools- I buy good tools and I take care of them. When you have time, like now, give them a little attention to extend their life and usefulness.  Wash them with soap and water.  Let them dry.  Take a file to the edges of your hoes, shovels and larger blades.  Once they are sharp, wipe down the blades and the wooden handles with linseed oil.  Come spring, they will be clean, sharp and rust free.
  • Row cover – Row cover is the one thing I cannot get enough of. Just about anything can be used for row cover.  However, I recommend using something that is permeable.  I get my row cover from Texas Gardener (click here to purchase the cover I use).  I really think it is a good Idea to get your row cover out now.  I bunch mine up beside my rows and hold it down with T-Posts.  That way, I am not scrambling around to find it and get it laid down in a blowing wind the night that first freeze comes.

    Take cuttings of begonias and geraniums now to ensure you will still have them in the fall

    Take cuttings of begonias and geraniums now to ensure you will still have them in the fall

  • Take cuttings – I have two heirloom begonias and an amazing heirloom geranium that are truly precious to me (and my wife). To make sure that I have these in the spring, I always hedge my bets by taking tons of cuttings.  Begin by filling your pots with a high quality potting mix (I use Miracle grow) to within a half inch of the rim.   My pots are small solo cups. I use a soldering iron to burn drainage holes in the bottom of them.  Once full, water thoroughly and let them drain while you take your cuttings.  Cut your plants on a 45 below a node.  Remove all of the foliage except a couple of leaves and stick them in the potting mix.  I keep these cuttings in my mud room under fluorescent lights and keep them moist all winter.

I share these posts on Our SimpleHomestead Blog Hop.  Be sure to stop by.  The “hop” has tons of great information from gardeners and homesteaders all over the world!

Weed Free-Organically

The cover of this month's Texas Gardener magazine. In it you will find my first "published" piece, "Weed Free-Organically".

Well, this is a banner day for the yupneck.  My first published piece came out today in Texas Gardener magazine (  My article is entitled “Weed Free-Organically”.  It is a pretty in-depth piece on controlling weeds in your flower beds and vegetable gardens without the use of chemicals.  Of course my wife, kids and mother think it is the best thing they have ever read.  I hope you buy a copy and let me know if you agree with them.  It will be available on news stands by February 28th and also on the web around the same time.

Texas Gardener is the second largest gardening magazine in Texas.  It was started in 1981 by Chris Corby in Waco, Texas.  For thirty years now he has been providing gardening advice to Texas gardeners by Texas gardeners.  Chris has built an impressive stable of very well-respected garden writers.  Their articles provide invaluable tips and tricks for growing things in the wildly variable and difficult Texas climate.  This month, he is doing a special promotion with the garden centers in over two hundred Texas Wal-Marts.  Look for your copy at the check out stand.  You can also find copies wherever magazines are sold.

When I started my master’s degree at A&M, I had no idea what I would do with it.  Thanks to some prodding and encouragement by some very special people, I may have found my niche.  Seeing my work in print is very exciting.  I am humbled to know that some people think that other’s might actually enjoy reading the things I write.  I would like to say a special thanks to my wife.  Without her encouragement, none of this would have happened.   I would also like to thank Cynthia Mueller for asking me to write for HortUpdate (  That first potager piece led to my blog and now this.  Also many thanks to Dr.  Bill Welch and Dr. Doug Welsh for their support and encouragement.  My son-in-law, Ramez Antoun is a very talented photographer.  His photos made this article and my blog come alive.  Thanks Moose!  And finally, thanks to my kids.  You always read what I write.  And even if you think it is boring, you never let it show!  I love you all!