Houston Vegetable Gardening 101

This is short list of tips for those new to growing in our area.

Most of this work-in-progress is from the top of my head, so includes resources I am most familiar with. Apologies to those I’ve left off.


Raised Beds
Because most of us have clay soil, most of us build raised beds. This helps with drainage and flooding rains.

You only need to build up 6-8 inches with soil rich in organic matter. This means acquiring good soil or building it by composting, but that takes time.

If you don’t have the funds, start small. You don’t even need to edge the beds. The soil isn’t going anywhere.

Make your beds no wider than about 3 feet. This makes it easiest for most people to reach the center of the bed.

Turf Grass doesn’t need to be removed, especially if it’s San Augustine. Bermuda is more problematic. Putting down layers of cardboard or newspaper before compost or soil is helpful, but essential with Bermuda grass. Overlap sheets a lot! It will worm it’s way up through the layers.

Sources for Quality Soil
Farm Dirt Compost, east of downtown, Natures Way Resources in Conroe are two local sources of quality soil and compost created from local food and tree waste diverted from landfills. Even if you buy soil, you should start collecting leaves. Pick up those bags at the curb from neighbors that you know don’t use a lot of chemicals in their landscape.

Preparing Soil to Grow in Ground
Where building up raised beds isn’t feasible due to scale or expense.

In 2018 we had two speakers that talked about growing in the ground and how to prepare the beds. Justin Meyers from Recipe For Success spoke about creating Hope Farms. And Joseph Stark farms using other people’s yards so doesn’t go to the expense of bringing in garden soil and building raised beds. 

Hope Farms was built on the grounds of an old school. Part of the property was very compacted because of the buildings and pavement, so in those areas, they either have raised beds or their greenhouse & other structures. In the less compacted areas, they killed the grasses and weeds via a technique called tarping or “occultation”, which means covering with a dark cover, usually done from fall until the spring planting in cooler climates. This lets the weed seeds germinate but then die due to lack of sunlight. The covering also speeds the decomposition of the plant matter so adds some compost to the soil. 

Joseph used the term “stale seedbeds.” This refers to encouraging weed seeds to germinate then destroying the weeds before sowing your crop or putting out transplants. It can be done in different ways for different situations. Joseph used occultation. He spread compost or compostables where he wanted his beds, then covered them to trap heat to germinate then kill the weeds and to speed the composting process. 

In the spring it should only take a few weeks to accomplish the weed-killing part. Timing would vary with the heat, the compostables, and the amount. Remember that nitrogen-rich “greens” like your veggie scraps create heat. This would be a great thing to do in late summer to prepare your fall beds or in fall using free leaves to build soil for your spring garden.  


Anything that flowers and sets fruit needs at least 6 hours of full sun at minimum. More is better. So you have to watch and note where you have adequate sun when selecting a spot for your garden.

If you do not have at least 6 hours, you can still grow greens, some herbs and root vegetables such as beets and radishes. Many can even grow in shade, though growth will be slow. Note, most of these are grown fall-spring.


Everyone wants to grow Tomatoes. But tomatoes are difficult in our area. They have short production periods because they can’t take a freeze, but also don’t set fruit on hot nights. We start seeds around New Year’s, set them out in spring and get a couple of months of production in late April-June. Then start seeds again in July for fall tomatoes.

However, many cherry tomatoes will produce a bit longer than large beefsteak types. Cherry tomatoes are easier, more productive crops for the new gardener or those short on space. Juliet Grape tomatoes are a hybrid with a long season and few problems.


The easiest summer crops include basil, sweet potatoes, peppers, eggplants, okra, green beans, blackeyed peas and other field peas. Stick with the easiest and keep it minimal to reduce laboring in the summer heat.

Sweet potatoes have long vines that can cover a lot of space. They try to set roots all along the vine and will produce potatoes everywhere it roots. This means if you aren’t careful, you’ll have sweet potatoes everywhere. And if you don’t dig them all up, they’ll be back next year. And the next. Sweet potatoes are something you don’t want to grow in the same spot year after year to reduce pest issues. I like to plant them in a large coffee sack and stuff the most of the vines into the bag. Plant them in a large pot and it will make a lovely patio plant. Bonus–You can eat the greens! Treat them like spinach.

Yard-long beans are a very prolific green bean variety you’ll want to grow on a trellis or fence. Just cut them up and cook like you would any green bean. Strategically place your long bean trellis to the west of other crops where it can provide shade from the brutal afternoon sun. Then you can stand on the shady side to pick. While they aren’t really a yard-long, it still only takes a couple of beans for a serving.

Most other green beans and field peas are bush beans, which means they grow in low plants. You’ll need quite a few plants so they’ll take up space and it’ll take time out in the heat to pick enough for a meal. And to keep green beans picked before the seeds inside mature.

I believe you can eat the leaves from the long beans as well as most other edible legumes, but I’m looking to confirm any exceptions.

Okra takes up a lot of space and you’ll want several plants. Only a few pods are ready to pick on any given day. Zeebest is a popular, prolific variety for our area. CowHorn is a variety that grows very long while still being tender. Test by bending the tips. If they don’t bend, you’ve let the pods get too old & woody. Leave it to mature and save the seeds for next year. This is another plant you should put to the west so you don’t block morning sun, but do block the brutal after noon sun.

Squashes, Cukes & Melons

Squashes, cucumbers & melons also grow and produce well throughout the summer, but are susceptible to pests so we ideally start them early to beat the bugs. Early means March. Some are bushy, but most put out long, space-eating vines. You can trellis, but then you may need to support the heavy fruit by fashioning a cloth or net sling.

Note, winter squash like butternut squash & pumpkins are grown in the summer. They are called winter squash because their thick skins let you store them for winter.

Fall, Winter, Spring

We grow most greens, lettyce, cabbages, beets, radishes, carrots, potatoes, onions, leeks and most annual herbs except basil in the fall through spring. You’ll start most of these in late summer/fall and succession plant most of them through March.

Because winter days are short and often overcast, things grow slow. So we recommend you start the seeds of slow-growing brassicas such as cabbage, kale, broccoli, brussel sprouts, etc as early as July and keep the small plants sheltered from the sun until the weather cools. Use an ice cube tray and freeze a few seeds into each cube, then plant. This tricks the seeds into thinking winter has occurred and spring is here.


6 Responses to “Houston Vegetable Gardening 101”
  1. Janie Varley says:

    I enjoyed the HUG presentation on preparing for the fall garden very much. I could not find a way to send a question or a comment, though, I am not the most computer literate person in the world…I have to live with that. I had a comment to make about growing in containers, and it is something that has worked for us for many years.

    We have just built a new house. WE built this house with our own hands. We did hire the sheetrock done, but that was because it was 5/8″ sheetrock, and we didn’t want to still be hanging sheetrock, but the rest we did ourselves. The problem being that our house took our garden space.

    When the COVID started, I looked around for some good things to do, and gardening has always been a good thing for us to do. Besides keeping me out of trouble, it gives us good things to eat. But we had no space for it, because the space where we are going to have a garden in the future is covered by a 14′ x 80′ mobile home. We are in the process of tearing it down, but that takes time, too. So my husband cleared a little space that had been flower gardens, which just happened to have good sun since he had cut down two big trees to get to the trailer.

    We looked for containers, and we happened to have several (a LOT) tires that Bobby had learned to cut and turn inside out years ago. I think we have had these things for at least 15 years, and they don’t look worn out at all. They will probably last another 50 years! We have had a wonderful harvest from these tires! Tomatoes (which are still loaded, but I expect they will not be for long), yard long beans, cucumbers (now beginning to sputter), squash, zucchini, okra, garlic, peppers (my husband’s hobby!), Swiss Chard, radishes, and black-eye peas! We also have hyacinth beans, bird house gourds, zinnias and cardoon in the garden, and we did have 5 different varieties of lettuce. This garden has provided many jars of pickles, many quarts of icicle pickles (frozen), many quarts of black-eye peas, frozen squash, zucchini, and okra. We have had many fun hours of making salsa…to me it is work, but to my husband it is fun.

    So, they were talking about the containers getting too hot for the plants to do well, but these tires don’t do that. You need a jig saw to cut them, with a blade that you grind all the teeth off. It is just slick and sharp, and slices through that tire, easy. These are not huge truck tires, but regular car tires, and try to get some that don’t have steel bands in them- those are harder to cut, but not impossible. Cut them so they look like they have flower petals, and they are easier to turn inside out. We used latex paint to paint the outside of them.

    The tires are not tall, but kind of low to the ground, (12″-18″ tall) and I think that has a bearing on whether it stays cooler, and they do not dry out like many containers do.

    And you can usually find old tires for nothing.

    The only thing we have that bears any resemblance to a regular garden bed is one that my husband built for the black-eye peas. They cover it so completely that they shade the whole bed and the soil never dries out. I am thinking I want another bed of black-eyes, for I know I can plant them through August.

    We live about 100 miles south of Houston, in Jackson County. Not many people have a garden here, although it is a rural area. More people are deciding to try it though with the idea of supplementing their diet.

    I appreciate you offering your program, I will watch on Thursday for the garden ponds, too. I love ponds, we have a large one in the back yard. I have been known to use that water for watering my transplants. It is rainwater, so everybody is happy.

    Just wanted to share. Thanks

    Janie Varley,
    Jackson County, Texas

  2. GardenHubs says:

    Hi Linda Foss,

    Wow! great site for gardener. You have done great job. Thanks for the sharing such a great post.

    Greatefully. GardenHubs

  3. Susan says:

    Hello…I enjoy reading your newsletters (I DO donate!)

    I have recently solarized an 8′ X 20′ in-ground home garden bed. I would now like to place several elevated beds on this same plot which would be easier for me to manage. I have a design for the planter boxes themselves but I’m hoping you can steer me to a reliable source for filling the planters. Many internet sources instruct the boxes to be lined with screen, then black plastic through which holes are randomly poked for drainage. I am uncertain about the advisability of this.
    Thanks for your time and any resources you might be able to pass along!

    • Linda Foss says:

      Are you in Houston? Here, we love Nature’s Way, though they are near Conroe and the delivery fee can be high. But if you are getting a lot of soil, it evens out. The owner of Nature’s Way, Dr. John Ferguson, is a soil scientist and he lectures for us on the topics of soil, compost, compost tea, mulch, etc all the time. He was going to speak this spring, but wanted to wait until he could do it live, in person again. I will have to ask if he’s changed his mind yet. Farm Dirt is another source. They are just east of downtown Houston and they create soil by composting powerline tree trimmings and a food waste from suppliers like Wholefoods.

      If your planters are very deep, a foot or more, you might put tree limbs in the bottom, then top with soil. This will save you money and the decomposing tree limbs act like a sponge to soak up and release moisture. The technique is called hugelkultur. Glen Miracle of Laughing Frog Farms in Hemptsead grows this way, though he just makes mounds from the branches and soil. No boxes.

      I would not put down plastic. You want microbes, worms and other critters that benefit soil to be able to move freely. If you have moles or other burrowing animals, then some wire mesh might be a good idea.

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