1st Veggie Garden (San Antonio) - Some Questions

gainesmApril 6, 2014

Greetings everyone!

This is my first post here, and before I start off with questions I just want to say how much I appreciate all of you for sharing your knowledge in these forums. Every web search I've done recently points me here eventually, so I figured I'd just sign up and start interacting more personally. So here I go!

Some basic background:

I live in Guadalupe County (just NE of San Antonio) and have finally decided to do a garden. I decided on a vegetable/fruit/herb mixed garden in my wide-open backyard (no trees). The whole thing gets full sun for all of about the last 2 hours of daylight, and it's just chock-full of some pretty hardy weeds. I tried digging into it to amend the soil, but seems my very bad back has second thoughts. So, I've gone with raised beds.

I've done one that is 10' x 10' x 8" with 3 rows inside (these have some compost and peat moss mixed in at the bottom, and then a bit more compost mixed in with miracle-gro garden soil (which was way more expensive than I thought it would be) and a very light layer of mulch dusted across the rows (not even a half-inch worth). I have also just setup another area of 4 boxes that are 16" x 16" x 12" but haven't filled them yet. The former was what I had cleared out when I thought I was going to dig...the boxes I just bought on-sale and thought I'd do a bit of experimenting with them.

Now my questions:

1) When I was digging in the 10'x10'x8" area I noticed I had a light spreading of earthworms about 2" below the surface. I had not expected those, so I'm hoping if I do lasagna-gardening around November that I can start some positive changes in my soil there. How many years of that method do you think it will take to make a decent impact in that section?

2) I also noticed a few white grub-like things in the soil, and I've never seen those before but from what I have read they don't seem to be beneficial despite being a sign of life in the soil. Are these a danger to my garden? If so, what's the best way to protect against them?

3) I am having some issues with seedlings I've planted about a week ago:

3a) 2 species of yellow squash - one species (roundish leaves) keeps getting paler and paler (started on the bottom but now all the leaves are doing it) so the leaves seem less green and more yellow now (and both seedlings of that species have flopped over since about 3 days ago, but the leaves are not wilted or anything). I'm hoping this is either a water issue or a result of the colder evenings we've had this last week, but I just wanted to check.

3b) In the other 2 seedlings of a different yellow squash species, (elongated leaves) there is not any yellowing, and they haven't flopped over, but one of the seedlings has had 2 of the bigger leaves toward the top suddenly turned very dry on part of the edges with a pale brownish look to those parts of the leaves. I've pinched those leaves off, but suspect whatever it is will soon show up in the other leaves if I don't fix it - any advice on how to fix this?

3c) 2 strawberry seedlings - on retrospect I shouldn't have gone with these 2 as they were looking under watered when I bought them but after transplanting they perked right up so I didn't think much of it...but a week later the leaves are folding up and they have a dark kind of moldy look. I'm guessing a fungus... I bought some neem oil, which may or may not help, so before I start spraying the garden I thought I'd ask if it is even possible to save these strawberries? Is Neem oil more/less effective than something else someone could recommend? I am hoping for both effective and organic, but I am not willing to sacrifice everything I've planted just to stay organic - if that makes sense. Any advice here will definitely be appreciated.

4) So far my tomato seedlings are doing nicely - no color weirdness or fungus evidence. I have purchased a rope-style trellis that I intend to hang - in order to help support them as they grow, but wanted to see if this was going to be more trouble than it is worth...I don't like the cages because I always freak out about putting my hand into dense vegetation (creepy crawly things are in those places!), but I can deal with it if the cages are a better choice. Do you think it's 6 of one half-dozen of the other or do you think one is going to be easier than the other?

5) For my new area with the boxes I'll be doing, I've purchased some pea gravel, coarse sand, and different types of compost-mixes (I have 3 different kinds) and I still have some peat moss and some mulch. I wanted to build these up with a better set of layers for better drainage and deeper soil structure. In total - how much of each of these types would you recommend? I was figuring on mixing the sand and gravel and laying 2" at the bottom of the boxes and then mixing the composts and peat moss together (in a 1 to 4 ratio) for another 1 inch layer and then filling the remaining 9 inches with garden soil. BUT, I can't decide if the peat moss is needed, nor if I should use more or less compost - or if I should be mixing part or all of the peat moss and compost with the garden soil... how do I fill these things appropriately for good drainage and optimal soil depth? These boxes are configurable (putting 2 of the 16" x 16" x 6" boxes on top of each other is how I'm getting the 12" depth) so I can always add more on top for deeper soil, that's not a problem. I just need to know what my ratio of fill components should be. I plan to grow various things in each box I put in - from shallow to medium root veggies. I don't think I'm going to attempt anything with a requirement for more than 18" depth. Please let me know your thoughts on the fill components and the ratio I should use.

6) Herbs - I have a few indoor pots of herbs I would love to transplant as I've been reading about companion planting, but I've never done that here in Texas and I am wondering if the summer heat would kill them off - especially as there is zero shade anywhere in the backyard. I have basil, oregano, sage, thyme, rosemary, mint, dill, and chamomile. Anyone had any luck keeping such herbs alive through summer?

Also, if any of you have any links for some good growing guides for this area that would be fantastic. I don't want to be stuck only growing things like okra and squash so websites or tips with how to grow a variety of others would be most appreciated!

Thanks everyone,


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andbowen(7b/8a DFW TX)

Welcome! A lot of good questions here. My number one best piece of advice for you is take a trip up to Austin and go visit the Natural Gardener nursery. Ask to talk to John Dromgoole (the owner), and just tell him that you are starting your first veggie garden and would love to hear any tips he might have. He is an amazing wealth of info, and he's a super nice guy. The nursery is worth an entire day trip, as there is a ton to see with multiple gardens. They even have a veggie display garden that you can learn a lot from.

1. Earthworms are always a good sign. I have one lasagna bed that I started in the fall/winter of 2012. In Spring of 2013, I topped it with about 4" of finished compost and planted it with peppers, zucchini, and beans, and everything grew pretty well. I think my results this year will be better though. It does take a little while to break down, and I think some of the nitrogen was tied up by the decomp process. your length of time to good results could vary, and it will greatly depend on the depth of the bed. If you can build up at least 9-12 inches with your layers, you should get results quickly.

2. Grubs are bad. Whenever I find them, I toss them onto the concrete for the birds to find. If you have the means, buy some beneficial nematodes to get the grubs under control.

3a) It's still pretty early in the season, at least it is up here in Dallas. I have not started my squash yet, and I ALWAYS start squash from seed. If your plant was root bound in the container, it could be suffering from transplant shock. The problem could also be from the weather, over watering, nutrient deficiency... lots of possibilities. A picture would help. Next time, try seed. Most of mine sprout in less than a week (some in 24-48 hours) and grow very quickly. Also, be on the lookout for the dreaded squash vine borer. They are not fun to deal with. Because of SVB, I almost exclusively plant Tatume squash now, which holds up better than most others.

3b) again, pictures will help. Are you noticing any bugs on your plants? Even little itty bitty tiny ones on the under sides of the leaves? Aphids can do a lot of damage...

3c) Pictures! It really does sound like you have a watering issue though... how often are you watering?

4) I use cages. Depending on which varieties you are growing, tomatoes get BIG and HEAVY. Mine tower over my 6 foot privacy fence by the end of the season. If your support system isn't strong enough and a bad storm or heavy wind comes through, your plants are gonners. those standard wimpy cages at most of the garden centers are typically good for peppers and eggplant, but not tomatoes. Do a youtube search for galvanized fence tomato cage.

In the garden, you will quickly get over the creepy crawlies. It's a part of gardening life. Just wait till you encounter your first tomato hornworm. :) You will also need to quickly figure out how to differentiate between good bug and bad bug. Baby ladybugs look really scary, but you should NEVER EVER EVER kill them. They are your best defense against aphids. Baby lacewings also look really creepy, but they eat all those nasty whiteflies.

5. I'm not a peat moss fan. I know a lot of people use it, but there are some issues that you should be aware of. Peat is not a renewable resource, and once it dries out, it is difficult to re-wet, so it doesn't really maintain the moisture levels in our Texas summers. Better options (IMO) are coconut coir and expanded shale. However, I have gotten to a point where I don't use either in my beds. I now just use compost, decomposed granite, lava sand, green sand, dry molasses, and zeolite. Find a local dirt source that sells compost in bulk, and you will save a ton. I use Soil Building Systems in Dallas. There is a good raised bed mix on the dirtdoctor website. The only miracle grow product I ever use is their organic potting soil, and even that is a rare occasion.

6) Herbs do great here. Dill, fennel, parsley, and cilantro are cool season herbs that die back during the summer, but if you let them go to seed, they will come back. I think chamomile falls in this category as well. Basil is a summer herb that loves the heat, and it will die once the fall temps are regularly at or below 40. It is easy to root though, so just take a cutting in early fall to overwinter. Oregano, sage, thyme, marjoram, rosemary, and germander are all evergreen for me in Dallas, and they all do fine in full sun. Mint is one of those things that you have to be 100% sure that you want before you plant it. It will invade every bit of soil that it can, and it's very difficult to get rid of. It's best planted in pots, and not in your veggie beds. If the herbs have been in pots indoors, be sure to harden them off by slowly acclimating them to the outside temps and sun exposure.

The best resources I can think of will be John Dromgoole (Natural Gardener), Howard Garrett (DirtDoctor), and you local county extension office and/or master gardener association. You can grow a ton of stuff in Texas. Just don't try to grow lettuce in the summer or tomatoes in the winter. Oh, and don't forget to plant stuff for the bees!!!!

Take a look at the seed exchange forum too. You will frequently see posts by people looking to get rid of older seeds. You just have to send them postage.

Last thing - be sure to remove any grass from the area BEFORE you fill your beds. If there is any Bermuda grass in the area, it will grow up through your beds and eventually take over.

    Bookmark   April 6, 2014 at 3:05PM
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daninthedirt(Cent TX; HZ10, Sunset z30, USDA z8a)

Big white grub-like things are cutworms. Get rid of them. That's a sign of life you don't want to see.

Good luck on the squash. Squash vine borers are pretty bad in Central Texas. Takes some real effort to avoid/prevent them. That's not what you're seeing now, but they will appear in May and or June.

Rope-type trellis should work OK with tomatoes, but you'll have to tie them up as they grow. Make sure the trellis is anchored at the base, or the wind could pull up your plants. For vining (e.g. cherry) tomatoes, trellising is a much better choice than cages IMHO.

Your strategy for soil improvement seems good, but I would still turn the soil under the beds if you can. At least once, and ideally turn some organic matter into it. If you've got lots of leaves, dig those in. Get someone with a tiller, or a strong back. Hardpan at the base of a raised bed is no fun.

I don't do many herbs, but I have a lot of rosemary. For me, it's an evergreen perennial. It's tough stuff. Hot summers and lots of sun won't faze it. Freezes won't either. Just make sure it gets some water. Cuttings are easy to make, so one plant can turn into lots, if you want. I do basil every year, and it is wonderful. Plant it now, and you'll be making pesto in July. Loves heat and sun. Just keep picking off the buds, until that's all that's growing. Then pull the plant. For me, mint has always been a moisture loving spring plant. Keep it WET. In my experience, it dries up in the summer, and resprouts the spring.

If you're looking for other things to grow, I'd consider peppers. You didn't mention those. They thrive in the Texas heat. Again, squash is going to be hard. If you have a very sunny place, and no rodents around eating things, you might consider melons. I've been surprised at how well canteloupes do. They seem fairly resistant to vine borers, in my experience.

    Bookmark   April 6, 2014 at 3:16PM
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You can get too much organic material in a bed. Some of the stuff you're using is intended as a soil amendment, not a growing medium. It can easily lose 50% or more of its volume, over the course of a year or so, and may not retain moisture well. What you want to do is strike a happy balance between adequate drainage and moisture retention. You may need a little plain topsoil. I avoid peat moss, because it will eventually compact down and stop draining. I don't use sand, either. Fine textured bark mulch, if you can find it, works well as a soil conditioner.

    Bookmark   April 6, 2014 at 4:16PM
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I live north of austin, so you're south of me.

Sounds like you've done good on the beds, but i agree with getting someone in w/ a dumptruck for dirt. Don't try to buy bags. But you'll need help w/ that option. Compost you have to watch with. I bought a load of compost from Mr. Dromgoole, and it wasn't composted enough, and i planted too soon, and it killed all my plants. It was too hot. And i was too much of a beginner to know that. Also, after my last 2 experiences at the Natural Gardner, i'd be wary. i have now brought home root knot nematodes (in a tomato plant from last year), and, literally, 17,000 baby grasshoppers that hatched off of 5 mint plants i bought for Valentines day and had in the house. The only plants i had in the house. If i buy anything more from them, i may very well spray the plants before planting them. And look carefully at their roots. Of course, this is good advice on a plant you buy from anywhere. They do have fabulous display gardens, and a vast variety of plants tho. I have rarely been disappointed in that. Wednesdays are double stamp days.

#3a and b- are they planted too close to still-hot compost? This could be a factor, along w/ water.
#3c- i think it's a little late for strawberries, particularly south of me, but i've never tried them. However, the strawberry farms near me have been open for 3 weeks or so now. Maybe try a you pick place this year, and make better plans for next year?

#4 I have not tried a trellis type, i buy the long cattle fence panels, and then as they grow up those, i tie them onto the fence with old pantyhose strips. Works great for me, and it eventually serves as a windbreak for the other plants i plant later on. I agree tho- if you do a trellis thing, make sure it is very well supported. Tomato plants get very big, and are strong, and will catch the wind.

#5- ever since my first compost experience, i tend to go light on that. However, i agree with the peat moss- it dries out horribly, and is terrible to try to rewet. I wouldn't go with too much that. Too much compost would be better.

#6 I'm glad that no one has told my dill and parsley that they are supposed to be cool weather. Matter of fact, i have never been able to get dill to grow anytime other than the hot summer. The cilantro will not grow in summer, and i didn't know about chamomile- i have a bunch to plant now, so i guess i'll learn! Mint i absolutely cannot keep alive anywhere, so i know everyone says it'll take over, but i can't imagine having that problem. I don't think it likes full sun, but i'm not the person to ask on mint. The herbs you listed all like full sun, and should do fine in the summer, but don't wait till then to plant them.

A very good guide should be available from your county extension agent- they should have a website. I like them, because they suggest plants and dates that work for each specific area.

I also agree with peppers- i think i have 19 varieties this year. However, both the peppers and the tomatoes will stop producing in the hottest weeks. Nurse them thru, and they'll produce again when it gets a little cooler. I think it has something to do with too high of a nighttime temp- when the nights don't get any lower than 85, it's hard for the fruit to set on the plants. So they may keep blooming, but you may not get any fruit on it.

Good luck!

    Bookmark   April 11, 2014 at 1:39PM
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Thanks so much for all the replies! I took the advice to ditch the peat moss - thank you for that. The remaining peat moss I had was bone dry and you were right about it not being very easy to work with once it gets like that. Luckily I did not use much of this in the beds I already planted.

Good news, though, I'm watering just right - got a moisture probe thing and poked it around near the roots of my plantimals (yes, that's what I call my garden veggies :p) and except for a couple of spots the beds seem to be holding moisture well-enough without holding too much. I was watering every other day, but may hold up for the next few days as we've got some wet and cold weather in the forecast.

The squash keep getting paler and looking dry on the leaves - no bugs or evidence of them, yet, so I'm suspecting a nutrient deficiency at this point. I did add some fish emulsion but only at half the concentration it called for since I've never used that stuff before and didn't want to assume it would take well. I'll post some photos in my next reply - sorry, did not think of that before you all mentioned it.

Strawberries are doing quite well now - I pruned out all the leaves that were looking poorly and the remaining leaves continue to look healthy and vibrant. I am hoping I caught whatever it was early enough to keep it from spreading, but I'll be watching that section of my garden very closely.

I think you guys are right about it being too early for the squash, probably the cucumbers also. If these don't do well, I'll start some seeds inside and just try to container grow them so I can move them inside if the fall weather begins to take a toll.

I'll be picking up some tomato cages today - I suspect the beans will work well on the rope net, but based on your advice I think the cages are a better option for the tomatoes. I've planted the mint away from my garden beds in a part of the yard that has partial shade. It has had very poor cover growth over the years - so even if it does take over that area it will provide a visual improvement. :p

Herbs went into large containers where I can move it in or out of shade if I need to.

I do have some peppers - sweet peppers, yellow peppers, and some hot peppers! I have 2 Thai hybrid peppers in the garden beds, if they've grown any I can't tell, but they seem to be healthy. The sweet and yellow peppers I planted directly from seed and they are just starting to sprout. The last 2 peppers are cayenne and I'm going to container those so my dogs don't go walking by and burn themselves with their oil.

Thanks again, I'll post some photos tonight when I'm done with all my garden work.

Also - I appreciate the information on the guides and the Austin person to go talk to, I'll try to get out there next weekend to learn as much as I can!

    Bookmark   April 12, 2014 at 1:48PM
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I totally forgot to post photos. Ugh. Sorry! I've learned so much the hard-way these past weeks - but a lot of really good things.

1 - tomato cages only. Nets are not strong enough for the tomatoes large enough to need them. Seems so obvious in retrospect...

2 - nutrients are not optional. Fish emulsion watering a few times as well as side-dressing with compost and time-release fertilizer fixed up all the yellowing everywhere and the garden is thriving.

3 - Cucumber beetles are the cause of all homicidal rage in the U.S. - I am 100% sure of this.


Anyway, I'm keeping photos as I go now, so should an issue arise again I'll be able to post one with my questions. Thanks again everyone!


    Bookmark   May 10, 2014 at 12:31PM
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daninthedirt(Cent TX; HZ10, Sunset z30, USDA z8a)

Nets should work (I've used them successfully), but there are all kinds of netting. Use strong netting. Netting gives a lot of surface area to absorb sunlight. In cages, plants tend to get buried.

As to whether nutrients are optional, it entirely depends on your soil, and what you call nutrients. I've been building my soil for almost a decade with compost only, and things thrive.

I've never seen a cucumber beetle, but around here the homicidal rage is from squash vine borers.

    Bookmark   May 10, 2014 at 1:15PM
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