Since this is the first year we've had a vegetable garden, I knew that there were going to be lessons learned along the way. I was totally clueless when we decided to start this venture, but I had high hopes that we'd be overrun with vegetables to share with friends, neighbors, and co-workers. However, that hasn't happened, but I have learned a thing or two.
1. Start with good soil. This is absolutely crucial. We have horrible soil here, so we have added lots of good finished compost from our compost pile, mushroom compost, cotton burr compost, a little bit of horticultural cornmeal, a little bit of dried molasses, some lava sand, and some composted soil mix from a local company. We've found that the veggies from the beds with just the composted soil mix don't taste as good as the veggies that are grown in the beds with some native soil.
2. Mulch is absolutely necessary for your plants to survive and thrive in the HOT Texas weather. Not only does mulch keep the weed population down and help with water retention in the soil, it helps cool the soil and protect the roots of your plants from getting scorched. There are a variety of mulch alternatives, but my three favorites are shredded native cedar, grass clippings which can be turned into the soil at the end of the season, and straw.
3. Do NOT overwater and water at the appropriate time of day! This was a hard one for me to learn and came only after losing more than half of my pole beans to disease because I'd overwatered them. Most veggies don't require a lot of water. It's better to water deeply about once a week than to water daily at a shallow level. I marked my moisture meter at 2" from the tip of the probe. When it's on the moist side of the dry line, I water to a depth of about 1" or 1.5". This means I'm only watering about once a week.
I like to water late in the evening, just before dusk. (I figure if God can make it rain at night and my plants survive, then I can do it, too.) If you water during the day, any water left on the leaves is subject to burning the leaves. I also try not to get water on the leaves as this can cause burning and disease.
4. If you want enough to share with neighbors, friends, and family then plant accordingly. We never harvest enough of anything at one time for a complete serving. That's very frustrating for me. I now understand why people plant 5-10 squash plants, 40 tomato plants, 10-15 okra plants, and etc! It's the only way you can harvest enough at any one time to actually use for dinner that night!
5. Pay attention to optimal planting dates and varieties for your area. Here in Texas, we are fortunate to have an excellent agricultural program through Texas A&M University. Almost every county in Texas has some kind of AgriLife program carried out by Master Gardeners and the local county extension agency. There's tons of online resources that list appropriate planting dates and best varieties for the various areas of Texas.
6. Start thinking about the next season's crop now. I've already purchased seeds for my fall garden and am waiting for the appropriate time to plant various crops starting next month. I've even started thinking about where I want to plant various veggies once all the current veggies are harvested.
7. Be prepared to battle pests. It's inevitable and they will show up.
8. Even ants have a purpose in the garden. They're great pollinators!!
9. Some shade is good for some plants. Many plants can withstand the harsh blistering heat of the afternoon, but some shade is okay for them and for the fruit they produce. If peppers don't have proper leaf protection, they get sunburned, which starts rotting the fruit. Some plants wilt in the hot afternoon sun, but will perk back up in the evening and be fine.
10. Have fun and don't be too disappointed when you lose a few plants for whatever reason. Sometimes it's a disease or bug problem, but sometimes it's because the plants weren't planted at the appropriate time. Sometimes the variety planted isn't truly suited to the area in which you live. For example, we can't grow lettuce in the summer here. It's strictly a late fall and early spring crop. Long day type onions won't grow in Texas. We need the short day varieties like the 1015 (super, super sweet and HUGE), Yellow Granax, and Vidalia.