Amber Pollei writes, cooks, and gardens in Austin, Texas, with her husband Ryan and their dog Fin. Read more about her backyard-farm-to-table adventures at sustainable-diet.com.
While we know some of you might not be singing spring’s praises just yet, those of us in Texas are watching wildflowers emerge and seeing the trees herald in the season. With perfect days beckoning us outside, my husband and I cleaned out our winter gardens in mid-March and began the early summer vegetables, planting heirloom tomatoes, pole beans, zucchini and more.
As you begin your early summer garden, whether it grows in a small patio container or spans across rows and rows, I hope some of the lessons we’ve learned in our few seasons of backyard gardening will help your garden grow.
- Plant what you love. In our home, we don't eat beets, radishes, or collard greens (shame on us!); why use our valuable real estate for vegetables that we don't enjoy? By keeping a journal of successful plants we also enjoyed eating, we plan on growing more of the same in upcoming seasons.
- Sometimes, quantity trumps variety. With limited space, we've pared down the garden variety, having learned a lesson after jam-packing the garden in our first season. With better planning, a season later, we had enough of each veggie to really make it useful — and to share with neighbors and friends. That's a happy garden!
- Plants need space. In the beginning, we figured about one square foot per plant. While some vegetables grow well in small spaces, many need room to stretch their legs. Reading seed packet instructions or the tags on transplants will save you a lot of hassle later on. If you’re truly limited on space, try patio or dwarf varieties that are bred to have higher yields in smaller spaces. And thin as instructed. While a little piece of me dies every time I pull a tiny seedling, overcrowded plants won't produce big yields, or even produce at all.
- Ask questions and continue to learn. Unless you have a degree in horticulture, chances are you’ve got plenty to learn about gardening (like we do!). Head to your local nursery and ask tons of questions. Bring in diseased plants to find out what ails them, and keep notes for next time. Ask the experts what their best practices are; they’re happy to share their gardening secrets!
- Raised beds make it easier to tend, reap, weed, plant and water. Refill your raised beds or containers with hearty mixtures of compost and high-quality dirt each season to ensure every batch of plants gets a great start. Build the beds out of untreated cedar — it’s naturally rot resistant and it won’t leach chemicals into your garden.
- Urban pests do exist. Cats, squirrels and birds will come after your urban garden without regard. To keep cats at bay, cover your beds in pine straw (not mulch) and sprinkle ground cinnamon on the beds once a week. For squirrels and birds, invite them to species-specific feeders in a place away from the gardens. As for bugs, turn to insecticidal soap, bacillus thuringiensis (BT), diatomaceous earth and other all-natural methods to keep the plants safe while leaving beneficial insects to do their work.
- Have a plan. Planning your plot, regardless of its size, will help you throughout the season. Pay attention to your region’s planting calendar and start seeds accordingly. Your plants will tell you when it's time for them to go by wilting, bolting (putting out flowers) or turning brown; all signals to get the next seasonal garden underway.
While there is still plenty to learn, we are really looking forward to our early summer garden. We hope these tips will help you get yours off the ground, too.
Have tips to share? I’d love to hear them — and happy planting!