Growing vegetables in Central Texas is a real challenge. We all agree that vegetables and fruits are much harder to grow than our landscape plants or trees. Diseases and insects are always a challenge, as is our soil and our water.
Here are some general rules to help you grow some great vegetables:
• Be diligent about soil preparation. Enrich the soil with the addition of up to one-half the volume of your beds in organic matter. Organic matter includes decomposed manure, compost, and decomposed leaves. Do not use peat moss; it causes water to bead up, and it does not add anything to the soil that is needed. Work these additions into the top 12 to 24 inches of the soil.
• Cover all of the soil in your beds with at least 3 inches and up to 6 inches of mulch. Leave the ground bare around the seedlings until they have produced their second or third set of true leaves, usually when they are about 6 inches tall. Then gently pull the mulch up around them so that it covers the soil around them but does not touch their stems.
• The ground should be moist, but never soggy. Over watering is also a leading cause of death in all plants. If you can, collect rainwater and use it to water. Water deeply so that the roots will go deep, and water at ground level but keep water off of leaves and fruit as it will cause diseases.
• Fertilize regularly with a good complete fertilizer with N-P-K. Read the instructions and follow the recommended amounts and application times. Remember that “if a little is good, a lot will be better” is not true always.
• Your plants will need to receive full sun for eight hours of the day but a little afternoon shade is good, if the eight hour requirement is still met. Know what time of the year to plant. Some vegetables are for the cool times of the year and some are for the warm. Planting at the wrong time will almost ensure failure.
Fall vegetable crops are categorized as either long-term or short- term crops. Long-term, frost-tolerant vegetables include beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, chard, collards, garlic, kale, lettuce, mustard, onions, parsley, spinach, asparagus, and turnips and should be planted at the same time.
Asparagus: This is one of the few perennial vegetables that we can grow. First pick a spot that can be devoted to it for years. You will need rich, deeply dug soil and full sun. You must also have good drainage. Make the planting bed three to four feet wide and however long you want. After you have dug and enriched the soil with lots of compost, dig a trench 10 to 12 inches deep. Place the crowns into the trench and carefully cover with soil and then mulch. Harvest only a few of the spears after two years. Then you can increase your harvest in year three. Remember, don’t let your beds get weedy in the mean time.
Beets: Plant beets three inches apart in full sun in well-drained fertile soil. This is a cool season vegetable so it is best to plant the seeds in September through October or about the last week in January through first week of March. Thin the seedlings to get larger roots. Fertilize when they are six inches tall.
Carrots: Grow in full sun, in deep, rich soil without any rocks. Do not over fertilize carrots. Plant them in January and February. You can also try for a fall crop, planting the middle of September through October, but the heat may prevent a good harvest. Mulch around the growing carrots to help prevent weeds and preserve moisture.
Garlic: Garlic needs to be planted in the fall just after the weather cools off in your area. Plant a long row of garlic along the border of your garden or flower bed. Garlic can take a light shade for part of the day. The plants will grow all winter. In the spring, check the bulbs to see if they have matured. You will probably harvest in late May. Let them dry with the stems attached, and you can hang them up in a braid. Garlic is very good for you, especially fresh from your garden.
Onions: Bunching onions need to be planted in the fall after it starts to cool off. The best variety for larger onions is the 1015 onions. You may have a hard time finding these until November. They are supposed to be planted from seed on Oct. 15 - that is the source of the name. Or from bulb (transplants) in January or February. These are the big sweet yellow onions you find in the spring in the grocery store. Don’t over water.
Spinach: Spinach must be planted and grown in cool weather. You can plant in the fall through the spring. The usual bed preparation is all that is needed. The secret is timing. You have to grow it and harvest it before it gets hot, or before it freezes in the winter. And once it starts to go to seed the quality will be lost.
Swiss Chard: This is the only vegetable we consider full proof. You would have a hard time killing Swiss Chard with a black thumb, really. Plant it in the fall or early spring. Swiss chard can live through freezing weather or boiling summer heat. You will have to water it in the summer. Most insects don’t like it and most diseases don’t affect it. We have had all the plants around it eaten by pests, while the Swiss Chard lived on unaffected. You may be wondering what to do with it. Use it in salads or lightly steam it like spinach. It is very healthy for you too. Swiss Chard can live several years. Don’t pull up the whole plant; just harvest the leaves you want and it will make more leaves for the next time. Swiss chard sometimes will develop a stalk and can get a few feet high in a couple of years.
Plant short-term, frost-susceptible vegetables together so that they can be removed after a killing frost. Frost-susceptible vegetables include beans, cantaloupes, corn, cucumbers, eggplants, okra, peas, peppers, Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, tomatoes and watermelons.
Late August (20th): Plant broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower transplants. These usually go in right after my melons have exhausted themselves. I clear the old melon patch and prep for the winter garden around Aug. 20. At the same time I direct seed plant kale, collards, carrots and turnips.
Around Halloween is when some of the winter harvest begins with collards and kale, and the carrots will last until early February. As long as temps are moderate, everything listed will survive OK. But once there’s 2-3 nights in the teens then things go downhill quickly. In such an event you can use row cover to protect your vegetables.
Be adventurous and try something new like Chinese Cabbage, Kohlrabi, Leeks, Sugar Pod English Peas (cook in pod, no shell peas), Bok Choy and Daikon just to name a few.
One of the benefits to living in Texas is the extra-long growing season. The Lone Star State actually has two growing seasons, spring and fall. The intense heat of summer compels most gardeners to take a break during the hottest months and plant their second vegetable garden in fall. Take advantage of the weather and learn how to grow a fall vegetable garden in central Texas.