Get Yo Harvest On: Fall Garden Planning, Part 1

What do I plant and when?

This is the biggest obstacle for most people just getting into gardening. Maybe they’ve gone to the big box store and bought a tomato plant, put it in the ground, and then it didn’t produce anything before it died. It is easy to feel defeated and convince yourself you have a black thumb when this happens.

Plants are particular: different species germinate in the soil at different temperatures. So it is important to know when you can start a seed in the ground, or transplant a seedling, in order to maximize your chances of success.

Your county extension office should have resources to help you know what will grow when. Our local extension office in Bexar County has two planting calendars (and a wealth of other resources) available. This one is for spring, and this one is for fall. if you live in the area go ahead and bookmark those now. Here is a sample:

The left column provides the general category of vegetable with the specific varieties that do well in our area. It also tells you if it can be planted by just poking a seed in the soil or if you need to transplant a seedling. Some plants take a long time to mature from seed, so nurseries supply seedlings that they have already started to make things easier. This is the case with tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, etc..

The right columns show the planting ranges for that species based on area. If you are in north Bexar county or higher in the hill country, use those dates. If you are in Atascosa county and south, use those dates. I live in northeast Bexar county, near the border with Guadalupe county, so I use the middle column. These dates are based on temperature. The soil temperature will be too high to plant any earlier than these dates, and if you plant later you will probably have the frost in November kill them before you get anything to eat.

What I’m doing

Right now I’ve pulled up all my squash plants and am about to do the same to the green beans.  They have stopped producing and are just taking space. They get thrown in the compost and I use a machete to chop them up so they’ll break down easier. I’m slowly doing my weeding now and I’m thinking about where I want what for the next season. The tomatoes and peppers are still working, so I’ve left those alone. I’m making a trip to Fanick’s this week to get more and will go ahead and get those in the ground now. Most eEverything else wont get planted till August so I have some time to survey my seed stores and see what I need to re-order. I hated the variety of green beans I sowed this year so I’m going back into my records to see what variety worked better to order those seeds.

Click here to read about my favorite seed companies, and stay tuned for a post on our local and independent nurseries in San Antonio. Part 2 of the Fall Garden Planning series will be how I keep track of when I need to schedule plantings.

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What’s Growing: Sauerkraut and Pickles

On Friday (02/15/2019) after a post-Valentines Day date with Amanda, I sowed two new crops I haven’t tried before, Minuet Chinese Cabbages and Green Onions.

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Notice the germination rates and date of testing. Johnny’s is meticulous. Copyright Matt Watson

 

The Minuet is a Napa type of cabbage, and we bought it to make some live-cultured sauerkraut. Transplanting is recommended, but we do not yet have our seed starting operation set up, so we are direct sowing a little early. Hopefully by the time they sprout and begin to mature, we’ll be past any frost danger in Bexar County. They only take 45 days to mature so we should have some good kraut in time for summer grilling season.

The green onions, also known as bunching onions, are a variety called White Spear. They are a heat resistant variety, which is needed in South Texas. These are cooked in some recipes and used as a garnish in others. Great on posole, fish tacos, or in cheese dips.

Lastly, I sowed another round of radishes. Planting in intervals makes sure you have a steady supply of vegetables without getting too overwhelmed with them all at once. I’ll be doing that with the cabbages too in order to account for the early sowing time.

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Cherry Belle Radishes from Botanical Interests. Copyright Matt Watson

We love radishes in salads, as well as pickled. Seriously, try some pickled radishes with brisket next time you smoke one.


What is growing in your garden? Have questions about these crops, or want recipes of our favorite ways to prepare them? Let us know below!

“Why isn’t my plant sprouting?” Maybe, because you bought the seeds at a dollar store, Sharon.

Want to have successful sprouting plants? Buy seeds where producers buy seeds.

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I’ve been to several small organic farms in various states, spent time in college horticulture departments, and have heard from various county extension agents. You know what they all don’t do? They don’t buy their seeds from a big display at a store where you can also get a bunch of nails and caulk. They buy them directly from professional seed companies.

Most of us probably don’t know any different. I sure didn’t until my Extension Agent told me otherwise. The two main reasons why we don’t purchase seeds directly from professional seed companies is cost of the product, and availability.

For the price conscious among you it could be tempting to go the cheap route. Seeds packets can be expensive. Some may be $3, $4, or more each for a packet of seeds and that adds up quick when re-sowing a garden. So why pay that when you can pay $.99 at a big box store? Quality. There are hidden costs to a cheap packet of seeds that include time, effort, and maybe more money, because you chose a lesser quality product.

Secondly, we buy generic seeds from retail stores because, “If its in the garden section then its good for my garden, right?” Not necessarily. On a recent beach trip we stopped in at a dollar store for some emergency flip-flops and found an old display case of generic seeds tucked away in the back. Without doing the research, there is no way of knowing if those seeds would actually work well in growing conditions specific to that area: high winds, sand, and salt. Buyer beware.

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Look at the pretties!

To get this out of the way, there is a federal law that regulates how seeds are labeled and transported to help the consumer. This means seed companies have to print accurate information on their seed packets, and maintain a certain threshold of quality, measured in germination rates. This is a minimum. However, that doesn’t mean the seed packets have been taken care of by store-employees, are stored in climate-controlled areas, or are always rotated out for freshness as they should be by inventory control. Lastly, as I mentioned above, these display units are not necessarily particular to your area and growing zone.

And that is ok. Big box retail stores don’t work with specialty items because they don’t make any money on the 20% of people that need to purchase that special tool for their weird project. Instead, they make their money on selling to 80% of people that just need a hammer. This isn’t bad; it’s just business. But know what you are buying.

The same concept could be said about eating out. When you go to a new city, you could just eat at a national chain restaurant and get the same baby back ribs available in every other city, even though it is not a restaurant specializing in barbecue. Or, you can eat where the locals eat and get something new, exciting, and most importantly, good.

Seed companies specialize in seeds. That is what they do. They exist to sell you products that will help you grow plants where you want to grow them. Big box stores exist to sell you toilet paper, $5 movies, cheap clothes, carbonated beverages, and anything else you might need on average. They generalize. At seed companies, you’ll get all the extra information like pest resistance, varities, how to harvest your vegetables, and bonus information like that. At retail stores, the only information you’ll get is usually what was printed on the back of a seed packet. Can you grow from seeds purchased at a home improvement store, big box retail store, or even the dollar store? Sure, probably. Can you grow seeds that have been obsessively developed for quality and success for producers who make their livelihoods on that success? That is a safer bet.

In the next article in our #BlackThumb series, we’ll talk about which seed companies I prefer and why.

 

 

 

 

 

What’s Growing: My Own Salad Bar

As of Jan 31, 2019, we have Parsley, Malabar Spinach, and Radishes in the test garden.

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Copyright Matt Watson

Parsley is slow to germinate and needs to be soaked overnight to assist it sprouting. Same with the Malabar Spinach. We very scientifically eyeballed an amount and dumped it into a half pint mason jar with some water. Oddly, the spinach seeds gave off a red pigment to the liquid.

The Malabar Spinach is not a “true” spinach but is more of a vine and can be trellised. They have red stems like rainbow chard, so maybe that has something to do with the red pigment whilst soaking. I’m doing keto right now and spinach gives me a great dose of veggie vitamins without having a ton of net carbs.

Radishes are just about the easiest things to grow, and this heirloom variety is marked as frost tolerant. We have about a month to go before we are out of frost danger in Bexar County, so these should serve us well till then. We also look forward to our Easter Egg radish seeds expected to be delivered in March.

Raised Beds: A Small Garden Solution

Ever notice how every seed packet says the plant grows best in loam soil? Loam is the perfect balance of sand, silt, and clay which allows for the best drainage and soil nutrition. The thing is, most people don’t live in an ideal, well-balanced world with perfect soils. So what happens then?

Here is what we have in Bexar County, Texas:

  • If you live in the middle of Bexar County, say inside the 1604 loop of San Antonio, you have heavy, alkaline, clay soils. It has a high pH and doesn’t drain well.
  • If you live in the northern part of Bexar County, closer to the Hill Country, well, good for you, but your soil is all rock. You might have an inch of top soil.
  • If you live in south Bexar County, closer to Wilson and Atascosa counties, then you have acidic, sandy soil. It doesn’t hold water.

There is a solution that solves all of these problems and more: Raised Beds.

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Raised beds at a school garden. Copyright Matt Watson

Raised beds are garden beds where the soil has been raised up, and usually held together by some sort of structure. Most of the time it is a wooden frame, but it doesn’t have to be. Potato cages and mounded rows are also examples of raised beds.

They can be made out of anything and fit most anywhere. I mentioned my friend who put a baby swimming pool on his apartment balcony so he could grow his own food. And it worked! I have another friend who used cinder blocks and then planted marigolds and herbs in the holes of the blocks.

 

Here are seven ways raised beds help the gardener grow in all soil conditions:

1. Soil Correction

It is near impossible to change what years of geology has already created. In a raised bed you typically add soil to the frame and can localize where and how much you add amendments and fertilizer. It is prohibitively expensive to truck in soil from the Ohio River Valley and change your entire property, but it’s not that expensive to add soil to a 4′ x 8′ frame. Therefore, your native soils of clay, sand, or rock, are no longer problems.

 

2. Soil structure

Any root vegetable, like carrots, turnips, potatoes, etc., grow down into the soil. If it is rock or compact clay, then they can’t do that. The soil structure needs to be looser, or else you’re going to have stubby little nothings instead of food. On the other hand, you don’t risk damaging soil structure in raised beds because you aren’t tempted to step into the bed in order to pick a veggie, whereas that is A LOT harder to instinctively avoid in ground beds.

 

3. Intensive Growing

Raised beds allow you to grow intensively, which means you can maximize output by planting or sowing seed close together. You can really pack in the plants and have an abundance of food production in a raised bed. This also helps keep weeds down because the close proximity of the plants can out-shade the weed seedlings (because you’ve already picked out the more fully grown weeds, right?) and then they die off.

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Example of intensive planting. Copyright SRL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Raised_bed.jpg

 

4. Proper Drainage

Related to soil structure is drainage. Sand has large, coarse particles and doesn’t bind up, so the water easily drains through it. That’s unfortunate when the roots of plants need that water to, you know, live. Clay particles are fine and they bind up really tightly. Then our Texas sun bakes the clay and you basically have pottery urns for garden soil. Soil in raised beds can easily be mixed with organic matter to create proper drainage which allows roots to drink deeply, while not drowning.

 

5. Proper pH

Now for some science: pH measures the acidity of a thing. On a scale of 1-14, with neutral being 7, something is acidic if it measures below 7 on the scale, and alkaline or basic if it measures above 7. There are soil tests you can do to find out the pH of your soil.

Most plants like a balanced pH. They can survive in un-ideal conditions, but you might not be able to get the best out of your acid-loving carrots and potatoes in alkaline soils. Here is a link to the Farmer’s Almanac on pH levels. You see how many vegetables like higher pH soils? Not many. Raised beds let you focus your soil amendments (like lime for acidic soils, or peat moss for alkaline soils) so that you can have the proper balance for your specific growing needs.

 

6. Weed Control

Weeds are going to happen. But they can be planned for and managed. Weeds compete for nutrients that you want in your leafy greens and vegetables instead. This applies to turf grass too. We have a lot of bermuda grass in this region; great for golf courses and lawns, but horribly invasive for your landscape and garden beds. In a raised bed you can control weeds by having a biodegradable weed barrier at the bottom of the frame, and then filling the frame with a quality soil. This means the weeds that do show up are fewer and further in between than they would be if the bed was just tilled up turf in the backyard.

 

7. Space!

Within city limits properties get teeny, and space is limited. When we think of crops, we think of commercial farms with long rows spaced about a tractor tire’s width apart. Most people do not have that kind of space in their garden. Raised beds take up just a limited amount of space. If you use the cinder-block method, then you can modify the bed to fit anywhere like side yards and odd angles made by your fence (just make sure you get enough sun light in those places).

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Apartment raised bed. Copyright Bobby “Royal Flush” Kazanski

 

That is seven ways raised beds can help you grow your own food in any soil condition. Let us know if you have used the raised bed method, and if there are other ways they can help the home gardener!