Small scale food production has become a lost art to most of us, as we have been raised in a world dependent on industrialized agriculture and the power of the “few” to provide the food we must consume daily in order to survive. The overall quantity of food seems less of an issue than food access. Growing our own food and encouraging others to do the same is a small but significant step in fighting food insecurity in our community.
Do not rush through the planning stages of your garden. Severe disappointment — at times leading to project abandonment — has plagued those who have not taken the time to slow down, start small and avoid costly mistakes. Spend time selecting the best site available for growing vegetables. This can create a solid foundation for long-term success. Some key considerations are sun, water, proximity and soil conditions.
All vegetable crops grown in North Texas will be most productive in full sun. Six to eight hours of full sunlight is the minimum needed for most vegetables. This can be a challenge on sites with mature trees such as a backyard. If sun exposure is limited to six hours, focus on growing crops that can tolerate more shade. These usually include leafy greens such as kale, collards, lettuce, spinach, chard and bok choy. Full shade is not a realistic environment for growing vegetables.
Access to a reliable water source is an absolute must for vegetable production in our climate. Consider the location of water spigots and the use of garden hoses for hand watering, sprinkler irrigation, drip irrigation or a combination of these methods. Carefully think through how you will be able to irrigate regularly through our long, hot, typically dry summers. If scale of production increases, consider the cost of city water into your financial plans. Alternative water sources such as rainwater collection can supplement smaller gardens on a limited basis and well water is a luxury most of us growing on urban sites will never see.
Consider the proximity of the garden site to help facilitate frequent visits and routine garden work. Is the community garden easy to access for you and others whenever needed? Is the backyard garden visible from your kitchen window? Is the school garden easy for teachers and students to see and access throughout the school day? Can soil, plants and supplies be easily unloaded from a vehicle or wheelbarrow? Is there storage for tools and supplies nearby? Practical considerations such as these can increase the likelihood of gardener involvement and success.
Raised beds are the preferred method for growing vegetables outdoors. The type of raised bed should be selected based on factors such as existing soil conditions, available budget and gardener preference. If you are growing in existing soil, pick a spot that has good drainage and at least 12 to 24 inches of workable soil. For most of us, the native soil will likely be the infamous black clay, but some locations might have a lighter soil type. Adding large amounts of quality organic matter is non-negotiable. In many cases, a quality compost is the most reliable option. Unless you are creating your own compost, this will require purchasing compost from a reputable source. Not all composts are created equal! Seek out a reputable supplier and look to buy in bulk when larger amounts are required. Spread a layer of at least two to four inches evenly across the soil surface and till into the soil using hand tools or a roto-tiller if available.
When building a raised planter for vegetable production, do not use native soil. An ideal raised bed's soil mix will usually consist of compost, sand, expanded shale and loamy topsoil. As far as constructing the planter, cedar lumber may not fit into most of our gardening budgets. This is where cheap or free, locally available resources come into play. Cinder blocks, kiddie pools, silt fencing — are all cheap or free materials suitable for raised bed construction. Also look for “cheap or free” organic matter sources that are available to you. It is here that those with the most limited resources can inspire us all through innovation.
Early, recognizable success in vegetable gardening is key to building confidence, commitment and enthusiasm. Limit the diversity of different vegetables planted for both beginners and/or newly established gardens. Focus on one to three vegetable crops at a time for each of our two gardening seasons (Spring/Early Summer and Fall/Early Winter). Some easy choices for the spring could be green beans, peppers and a green such as lettuce or collards. If planning to grow into the summer months, peppers, eggplant, okra and cherry tomatoes tend to produce in the heat better than others. Just be ready to water... a lot. Mulch and drip irrigation will be your saving grace. For the fall, consider crops such as broccoli, cabbage, kale, beets and lettuce. All of the vegetables could be grown in both seasons, though they could be more challenging in one season versus another. Consult a reliable planting schedule specific to North/Central Texas and/or the county where the garden is located. Planting too early or a more common mistake — planting too late — will lead to poor yields and result in discouragement.
Small-scale food production can be destined to fail before any crops and harvest are seen. Too many community gardening efforts have not been sustained because of failure to have early, recognizable success. The goal is to increase food access by spreading enthusiasm to all for growing fresh, healthy food. The reality of food insecurity for so many families here in Tarrant County has continued to be made known to all of us. We should start with the small (but empowering) act of growing food and try to help others do the same.