Getting Started Growing your Own Food

Most of this is adapted from Master Gardener Mary Demeny’s  Tips for a successful garden in our area & Starting Your Fall Garden in July talk at HUG.

Easiest crops for the new gardener:  Greens, long beans, sweet potatoes, Okra.  Maybe peppers. But the last two will need a lot of sun and Okra needs a lot of space. The beans need a structure to climb on. You can use a fence or make a teepee out of bamboo poles or trimmings from your trees.  Sweet potatoes make a lovely potted patio plant and you can eat the leaves.  Then in the fall, you’ll get some sweet potatoes.

Tips for a successful garden in our area:

1) Build Raised Beds. Build up with good soil.  About 8″ will do.  We recommend they be 3-4 feet wide, depending on your reach, so you will be able to reach the plants in the middle from either side comfortably.

2) Use the best soil and compost you can afford.  Don’t skimp. Look to our best organic soil yards, sold in bags at vendors like Wabash Feed & Buchannan’s Nursery.

3) Takes steps for good germination. More below for what to do to get a jumpstart on fall.

4) Choose a location with adequate sunshine. Flowering, fruiting fruits & vegetables need at least 6 hours, but more is better for more yield. Greens will produce with less sun as you don’t want them to flower.

5) Even moisture is essential. Try drip tape, soaker hoses, Ollas.

6) Fertilize. She shared her recipe, see below.

7) Mulch with compost, leaves, newspaper, shredded tree trimmings. Mulch in summer keeps soil cool & moist. Mulch in winter keeps soil warm.  And year round it retards weeds.

Germination:  Mary uses ice cube trays.  Fill the trays with water and add a seed to each cell.  She freezes the whole tray until it’s just hard (4 to 5 hours).  The cubes are then “planted” in the garden or container & watered every day.  This is especially helpful for germinating cool weather crops while the soil is still hot, i.e. Kale & Collards in July. Which is when you should start many of your fall crops to get them going while the days are long.

Mary & Roger’s Fertilizer: Mix 2 cups alfalfa pellets, 2 cups Epsom salt, 1 cup Hasta Gro (lawn food fertilizer; Google it), 20 drops SuperThrive, and 1 cup fish emulsion in a 20 gallon garbage can.  Fill with water.  Mix with a shovel.  Use rubber gloves to avoid skin contact.  Use a watering can with the sprinkler removed to apply to the base of plants.  Amount to apply: Pour for 3 to 5 seconds for large plants, less for smaller plants.

Mary’s Mulch Method – First she sprinkles epsom salts, Tide detergent or diatomaceous earth to deter slugs. Then she lays down several layers of newspaper. Then tops with mulch.

Starting the Fall Garden–July & beyond:

Mid to Late summer is the time to start Brassicas if you want to start picking in October or so.  Especially the slow growing brassicas that flower or form heads before you pick such as cabbage & broccoli. If you wait until the soil is at their preferred temperature for germination, the days will be getting short & less sunny so growth will be slow. Too slow to be ready for Thanksgiving dinner!  So, use the ice cube trick to start kale, collards, broccoli, cabbages, cauliflower, kohlrabi, pak choi & related Asian brassicas. You can also start your first crop of lettuces.

Through August, you can also start your late summer crop of squashes & cucumbers, beans from seed & sweet potatoes slips. Or buy tomato & pepper plants. (You’d have to start these from seed in June).  Pre-soak dried beans before planting, except the Roma variety bush beans.

In September, seed other cool season vegetables, herbs & greens such as Parsley, Dill, onions, leeks, carrots (freeze the seed), fast growing greens like arugula & mizuna (you could start them earlier as well).

Note, onion starts are planted shallow–they need sun on the bulb. Leek starts are planted deep, because only what’s underground will be white.  If you buy both and get confused, leeks have flat tops, onions have hollow round tops.

In October, seed beets, radishes, cilantro, green peas. November onward, start your potatoes.

And of course, you should succession plant more winter greens & veggies all winter until mid-spring or so. (Another tip from me is you can plant those radishes among your cabbage, broccoli & the like. Radishes are fast & you will be picking them long before they are overshadowed by the larger brassicas. Also, you can cook radishes. Slice em up & saute. Taste like squash.)

Mary then showed us how to choose good planting dates according to astrology. She gave everyone a copy of the 2016 American Almanac Calendar with instructions how to use it on the first page. Certain signs are “fruitful signs” and you want to plant when the moon is in a fruitful sign. Scorpio, Pisces, Taurus & Cancer are all fruitful signs and several days each month fall under these signs and are marked on the calendar.

Mary also shared some favorite super herbs, greens, fruits & vegetables loaded with anti-oxidants and other disease fighting polyphenols.  Purslane, which is probably growing in your garden right now or in a sidewalk crack near you. Stop weeding it & start eating it. Dandelion & Amaranth aka pigweed are two more superfood summer weeds. (Amaranth leaves can be eaten like other greens, and they also produce a protein rich seed used like a grain.) African Blue Basil, which can survive year round most years. Chives (which are also a good companion plant for roses as they are anti-fungal.)  Cilantro, a cool season herb. She said to plant it in November.  Blackberries (or any berry, but blackberries are the easiest & top the charts for anti-oxidants. You can also pick them wild, usually in May or June.)


A few random varieties Mary likes that do well in Houston: Tycoon Tomatoes (beef steak hybrid), Big Bertha Bell Peppers, Vardamon Sweet Potatoes. And she said if you only have a little space for one fruit tree, pick a Satsuma.


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