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The weather is gradually warming and those that have the gardening bug are just itching to get their fingers in the soil and start prepping for their spring vegetable gardens. Freeuse photo

Growth in gardening: Spring is calling

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Are you hearing the siren song of spring and just itching to get out into the vegetable garden? Gardening seems almost like and instinctive, primal, desire and perhaps it is. Over 10,000 years ago, ancient man stopped living a hunter/ gather lifestyle and settled into communities becoming gardeners. That's about 400 generations of grandparents calling out to us – urging us to get out and work in the soil.

Besides that, planting a vegetable garden is a sustainable and affordable way to provide healthy and hardy food for your family. If you are new to the area or are just thinking about creating a vegetable garden for the first time this spring, or even if you are a life-long gardener, I have a few tips for you.

Let start off by sharing a wise piece of advice that my great-grandmother gave me many years ago, “You are better off being proud of a small garden than being frustrated by a big one.”

One of the common errors for both beginners and those of us accused of being "over-enthusiastic" gardeners is planting too much, too soon, and way more than anybody could actually eat. Unless you want to have zucchini taking up residence in your attic, plan carefully. So, take my great grandmother’s advice and start small.

Ready to start? Get out and enjoy this beautiful weather by spending some time pulling rocks and weeds away from where you’ll plant your garden. It’s important to fully pull out the weeds as just turning them over with your garden spade will allow them to regrow alongside your new plants – no one wants that. For the first-time gardener, I recommend a single 10’ x 10’ traditional layout or two 4’x4’ raised beds. Either of these options will provide enough produce for a family of four to enjoy all summer long and well into the fall.

Water the soil to soften the ground and loosen it with a shovel to get it started. If you think that you want to till – I never do because it disturbs the microscopic life of the soil and allows precious nitrogen to escape the soil – then now is the time. If you didn’t get to kill the grass in the fall, it will be harder to till, and the grass may regrow in your garden, that is why I choose to grow in raised garden beds. If you are planning on a more traditional "in ground" garden, you may want to dig up the sod and move it to another area of the property, replacing it with gardening soil and compost, rather than turning it under.

Speaking of gardening soil, many people will tell you to get all kinds of special garden soil mixes. Some people swear by certain brands or formulations, but let me lay a few magic words on you – compost, compost, compost. If your garden plot is too rocky with very little soil, adding basic soil and compost can solve the problem. If your soil is hard clay gumbo, adding basic soil and compost can solve the problem. If your garden plot already has good, rich, healthy soil, compost still helps add water retention, proper drainage and lots and lots of important micronutrients to you garden. Small things matter. By that I mean micronutrients and micro-organisms. Our plants need them both and good compost helps encourage both to thrive in our gardens.

If you plan to till, you will need to start tilling at a shallow setting to loosen the soil, then add compost and adjust the depth setting on your garden tiller to go deeper. Don’t try to apply pressure to your garden tiller to make it dig deeper, let it do the work – you just need to guide it. After you have your soil tilled, use an edging tool to create your rows, make your signs and plant your seeds. Follow the instructions on the packages for planting depth and proper watering to help them grow.

Keep in mind that you want to locate your garden in the most advantageous spot you can find. You will want to be close to a water source. No one wants to position their garden so far away that the hose will not reach. If the garden is close to the kitchen, you will be more likely to step out back for a few herbs or veggies while preparing meals. And of course, you will want to plant in a sunny location, one where your plants will receive "full sun." Vegetables need at least 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight each day. The more sunlight they receive, the greater the harvest and the better the taste. But also, keep in mind that "full sun" in our part of Texas is not the same as it is in say New York or Oregon. If you think about it, by 7 a.m. most summer mornings, the sun is already up, eight hours of sunlight will take us to the early afternoon of 3 p.m. After 3 p.m. in June, July and August, it can get darn hot here. If you get a bit of late afternoon shade in your garden many of your plants will certainly appreciate it.

Speaking of your plants, I would suggest that your first garden attempts involve transplants. These can be found at many nurseries, big box stores and even the grocery store. Planting from seed is great fun but transplants get your garden off to a jump-start. Find a friendly nursery man and let him know that you are new to gardening, he will be glad to help you choose the right plants for you garden.

Time to water the garden. Gardener’s watering habits vary widely. One group gets busy in their non-garden life and allow their poor plants to sit dry and thirsty until they’re withered before they get water. Another sector pampers their plants by drowning them in too much water. With either extreme, you stress your plants. Weakened plants are the first to fall prey to bugs and diseases and produce fewer blooms or vegetables. Watering seems simple, but actually takes a little finesse to do properly.

Most folks will tell you that a good general guideline is an inch of water per week, either by rain or watering. In hot weather, vegetables may need even more water, up to about half an inch per week extra for every 10 degrees that the average temperature is above 60. The average temperature is the daytime high plus the nighttime low, divided by two. A high of 95 with a low of 73 gives an average of 84.

In this case, the garden needs at least another inch of water. This explains why most of us Texas vegetable gardeners just laugh at the “1 inch of water per week” recommendation. That simply doesn’t work in really hot weather for squash, eggplant, tomatoes and other crops that need lots of water and have big leaves that wilt easily.

Thoroughly soaking the soil with infrequent watering is better than shallow regular watering. Deep soaking encourages plant roots to reach deep into the soil while shallow watering keeps roots close to the surface, leaving the plants susceptible to drought. Gardeners might think that too much water is better than not enough. But there is potential for damage either way. Besides wasting water, there's a possibility that you can harm your plants if you keep the soil waterlogged. Roots need air to breathe and when the soil pores are completely filled with water, root systems become compromised.

Now, get out and play in the dirt.

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Joe Urbach is the publisher of GardeningAustin.com and the Phytonutrient Blog. He has lived in the Central Texas area for over 30 years. Urbach is a certified Texas Master Gardener from Hays County. For more information on the Master Gardener program contact the Hays County AgriLife Extension Service at 512-393-2120.