Big ideas for small gardens

Yes, it is possible to grow a successful kitchen garden in the tight confines of your typical Southern Denton County backyard, but for those of you who are greenhorn gardeners or moved here from out of state, there are a few things to consider before you start.

Orient the Plot
First and foremost is the location of your plot.  During the growing seasons in Texas–I said ‘seasons’ plural on purpose–vegetables need 6-8 hours of continuous sunshine per day.

The average distance between houses in many neighborhoods is 10’ feet.  You can’t grow Bermuda grass or salad goods in the side yards of north-south lots because your half of those itty-bitty alleys only gets about 3 hours of sunlight on any given day.  If your lot faces east-west your side yards get all the sunshine you could hope for–year round.

I have to make a true confession here, I heard a rumor that one enterprising homeowner grew mouth-watering tomatoes among the shrubs in his east-facing front yard. 

If, like mine, your backyard faces north, situate the vegetable plot as far away as you can from the morning/afternoon shadow cast by your house.  If your backyard faces south you’re in the chips as they say in Las Vegas.  The sun should travel across the sky and your garden over the course of a day.

Clay Versus Normal Dirt
In the case of my lot, the builder graded the black clay dirt then spread a uniform 10-12 inch layer of roadbed gravel for good drainage.  Road bed stones are 1-2” in diameter.  He covered that with 4 inches of local red topsoil–that turns to the consistency of concrete when it dries out–then laid the sod.  I’ve noticed many other builders skip the drainage gravel.

Road bed gravel or not, sooner or later gardeners have to confront the “Black Gumbo” clay dirt that covers the ancient Cross Timbers area of the great State of Texas.  Black Gumbo also comes in orange and white varieties.  If your garden is big enough it may straddle a little of each.  Gumbo dirts are so dense even worms can’t munch their way through it.  The way I see it, you have three choices if you want to garden in gumbo.

The Slow Boat to China
If you’re not in a rush take a pitchfork, and turn the garden area into big clay clods then start adding LOTS plant matter to decompose–fallen leaves, twigs, sawdust, kitchen vegetable waste, grass clippings, manures, whatever you can get your hands on.  It takes about three years of constant composting to “amend” gumbo dirt into what master gardeners call “friable” dirt.  When you start seeing worms you know you’ve created loamy dirt. 

The Musclehead
Second, you can haul out your trusty garden spade, and load up your wheelbarrow many times with gumbo from the spot you choose for the garden.  I personally know two crazy souls who chose this route.  They dumped the gumbo in nearby empty building lots then filled the garden holes with a truckload or two of purchased “friable” dirt, worms included.  The side benefit of this plan is that you get excellent pecs if you’re interested in body building.

Raised Beds
This third method is the most costly.  You decide the dimensions of your proposed garden then buy enough cinderblocks to create an unmortared 12” high wall around the perimeter.  The beauty of cinderblock walls is they don’t rot or crack, you can straighten them out or rearrange them at will, and best of all, termites look for something else to chew up.

Line the enclosed grassy garden spot with thick overlapping layers of newspaper.  The operative word regarding the layer of newspaper is “thick.”

Haul in 12” of the aforementioned purchased “friable” dirt and worms, and in the immortal words of Napoleon Bonapart, “Voilà, mon jardin est prêt!”  (Translation:  “Well lookie there boys, my garden is ready!”  I don’t have a source for the quote.)

Here’s a little bit of info from The Voice of Experience.   Bermuda Grass is a life form of very little brain, and will take about 2 seasons to give up trying to grow under, around, and through the thick layer of newspaper.  You may want to move the dirt to one side of the garden the second year, and add a new thick layer of newspaper.

If the grass gets the best of you, just take a pitchfork, and start turning the garden dirt.  The grass will come up easily.  Shake the dirt off the roots, and toss the grass into the trash or that empty building lot.  (If you don’t want dirt under your fingernails, wear gloves OR run your fingertips over a bar of bath soap to get that under your nails before you begin.)

Two Growing Seasons
Listen up because this is critical. Texas ain’t like the rest of the gardening world; it has two vegetable gardening seasons separated by generally 8 weeks of weather so hot the plants refuse to bloom.  Texas mid-summer heat = no flowers, no veggies.  Comprende?

Early Spring – Gardening Season #1
Due to the climate, you have to start thinking about germinating some seeds indoors by mid-to-late February.  If you’re wallowing in cash, wait until April when all the vegetable plant starts are for sale here, there, and everywhere around town, but be forewarned, starts can be expensive.

Those of us who get a charge out of germinating seeds set up a Valentine’s Day nursery in a south-facing window.  In my case the germination nursery is an old table and a bunch of table lamps for light and heat.  To keep the seedlings warm I pull down the blinds at night or on cold gray days.  This has never affected my electric bill.

In mid-February I germinate tomatoes, lettuces, and fennel (a licorice flavored celery-type of vegetable I happen to like in salad).  I start everything in 3” pots covered with transparent sandwich wrap.  Remove the wrap when the seedlings touch it.  When the tomatoes are 4-5 inches high I transplant them into gallon pots.  I keep all the pots damp which means watering most evenings.

By mid-March I plant the lettuces and fennel out in the garden.  They’re perfectly happy to freeze and thaw out, and do it again and again.

About Tomatoes
Tomatoes are persnickety about freezing.  They stay in my house until the 15th of April unless I’m feeling in the mood to gamble and put them out around April 1st.  Pay your money, and take your chances.

Here’s the important thing:  tomatoes need to be in flower by April 15th if you want fruit before the 100 degree summer heat shuts down production.

Other typical garden vegetables like green beans, snow peas, spring onions, eggplants, carrots, herbs, melons, etc. can be planted in the ground from seed between April 1 and 15th.  If you’re not a gambler, wait until April 15th to be sure you don’t get nipped by a late frost.

Once green beans and peas have given you a crop they close up shop.  I usually leave them in the dirt for awhile because their roots “fix” nitrogen in the soil, but when they get ragged looking I pull them out, cut them up, and use them for green mulch compost.

If you buy tiny onions called starts, you can plant them any time.  They don’t give a hoot about freezing, defrosting, or heat, they just keep on trucking.  Plant some in August to “winter over” then let one or two bloom and make seeds you can plant the next spring.

Parsley germinates in the ground after April 1st, and if you cut it regularly, it will produce all winter and a second summer season before it gives up the ghost.

Late Summer – Gardening Season #2
As I said, many vegetable plants refuse to bloom, and fruit production stops around July 4th until that first big fron
t blows into the area around September 15th most years.  I always circle the date on my calendar, and I start getting real snippy if the weather doesn’t cooperate.  Keep an open mind about the arrival of that first autumn front, and water your plants all summer so you get that bonus crop in the fall.

Carrots have a long growing season.  The sweetness and length of carrots depends on the variety you plant, and the “friability” of the soil around them.  I pull carrots late in the summer, but they can stay in the ground until November.  I hear they winter over under a good layer of mulch, but by November I’m sick of gardening.

A word to the wise:  if you keep carrots too wet, the bugs will nibble them before you do.

I buy garlic at the grocery store, break apart the bulbs into individual cloves, and plant them.  Garlic behaves like onions except that it has a longer growing season.  Texans plant garlic cloves, pointy end up, in August.

Garlic bulbs winter over and pick up a serious head of growing steam in the spring until about July.  When the green top wilts and dies, the root is ready for some good eating.

I have been known to sow garlic in the spring just for the joy of being ornery.

Our Friends the Fire Ants
Those wicked little beasties hate poisons, but they also hate corn meal, diatomaceous earth, and agricultural molasses.  You can buy all three at any farm feed store.  Head west on FM 407 toward I-35W and right around the bend, a quarter mile from Lantana, you’ll see Argyle Feed Store, a fascinating place.

I have been known to buy cornmeal at the grocery store, and that works fine too.  Generously spread any or all of this stuff in the garden a couple of times a year, and the ants will move under the fence, guaranteed.  Stir a whopping handful into any mounds just to make your point.  All’s fair in love, war, and gardening.  Corn meal, D.E., and dried molasses also decompose, and plants snack on them.

And that is “the basics” of gardening in your backyard.


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