Spring garden growing guide
If you’re looking for tips to help you grow a spring organic garden, you’ve come to the right place. This guide includes information on soil preparation, planting, watering, feeding and harvesting. Scroll down for tips on particular vegetables and flowers for spring.
Transitioning between seasons
Cool-season crops will begin to bolt in early spring as the days lengthen and temperatures rise. You can use shade cloth to protect plants and extend the season a bit, or you can harvest cool weather vegetables and make room for warm weather annuals. Many warm-season crops planted in late spring will grow until the first fall frosts. In late summer, begin planting cool-season crops for the fall garden.
Air, water, minerals, and organic matter (living and non-living) are the basic ingredients of all soils. They occur in many combinations. The relative proportions of these ingredients affect how a soil behaves, what kinds of plants will grow in it, and how well they grow.
Whether you’re growing vegetables, herbs and flowers in a clay-based in-ground bed, a raised bed, or in a container, your plants will benefit from the addition of organic matter — COMPOST. If your soil contains too much sand, it will be too fine and drain too fast. Compost will help with that. If your soil contains too much clay, it will be heavy and drain too slowly. Compost will help with that, too. Somewhere in the middle — crumbly, well drained soil — is your goal.
Sow seeds no deeper than 2 times the diameter of the seed, or in the case of oblong seeds, no deeper than 1 to 2 times the length of the seed. (Seeds planted too deep may not germinate.) Fine seed (like carrots) should be sown on the soil surface and then very lightly covered with soil. After sowing, keep the soil consistently moist until seeds germinate and seedlings are well established.
Note: Large seeds (like green bean seeds) will germinate faster if soaked a few hours in water or a diluted solution of seaweed before planting.
Be careful not to plant transplants too deep or too shallow. Planting too deep can slow or stop root growth. A too shallow planting may cause roots to dry out. Try to plant so that the top of the root ball is level with the surrounding soil. Soak the soil around new seedlings immediately after transplanting to settle the roots and ensure that they’re making contact with moist soil.
Light, water and air
Light: Most warm weather crops (beans, corn, squash, field peas, melons, tomatoes, eggplant, and okra) need at least 6 hours a day of sunlight to thrive and be productive. A few, however, will do ok in part sun (4-5 hours a day), including amaranth, lamb’s quarters, peppers, and basil. During the hottest months in Central Texas, many warm weather crops, especially tomatoes and basil, appreciate a little bit of shade during the hottest part of the day. Watch the patterns of the sun and shade around your garden space before you choose where to plant.
Water: Consistently moist soil will produce the best results. Apply enough water to wet the soil to a depth of at least 6 inches. For best crop production, most gardens require at least 1 inch of rain or irrigation per week. During the hottest months — July, August and September — more water will be needed. Check the moisture of the soil by poking your fingers into the soil. If the top 1 to 2 inches is dry, you need to water. Two to three inches of mulch — straw, leaf mold or chopped leaves, shredded wood or pine needles — will help maintain a more even soil moisture.
Air: Although GCP is a big fan of small space, bio-intensive gardening, we try not to space plants too close together. Leaves that are just barely overlapping is good. Plants with whole branches and fruits that are overlapping is too close. Plants growing to close together restricts airflow, which can create conditions that cause fungal problems.
Top all bare soil with mulch — straw, partially decomposed leaves, shredded wood, or pine needles. Mulch helps soil hold moisture longer, nourishes soil microbes and keeps the soil a little cooler during the hot summer months. Wait until seeds are up or transplants are established before mulching. Do not apply mulch too close to plant stems — leave an inch or two of open space around the stems. Mulch applied too close to stems can create fungal problems.
Does sheet mulching with cardboard harm the earthworms and microbes in the soil? It depends on who you ask. According to The Garden Professors (“The cardboard controversy”), yes, it does cause harm because it blocks the flow of air that worms and beneficial microorganisms need to survive. However, according to research by ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture Program, cardboard’s impact on the biology of the soil and the plants grown in the soil is minimal and is therefore not a cause for concern ( “Can I use cardboard and newspaper as mulch on my organic farm?)
In addition to adequate light and moisture, your vegetable plants need nutrients to grow and thrive. Nutrients can come from fertilizers, compost or composted manure.
All parts of a plant need nitrogen for growth—the roots, leaves, stems, flowers and fruits. Nitrogen gives plants their green color. A lack of nitrogen causes the lower leaves to turn yellow and the whole plant to turn pale green. On the other hand, too much nitrogen can kill plants. When vegetable plants look like they are suffering, a little extra nitrogen is often what they need. Compost that includes manure will add nitrogen. Also, fish emulsion and cottonseed.
Phosphorus is needed to help form roots, flowers and fruit. Phosphorus deficiency causes stunted growth and poor flowering and fruiting.
Potassium is needed for overall health of the plant. A potassium shortage shows up in various ways, but stunted growth and yellowish lower leaves are common symptoms.
Note: Before adding commercial fertilizer, it’s a good idea to have your soil tested. A soil test will show the levels of nutrients present in the soil and will suggest the amounts of each nutrient to add. If plants are not growing well, fertilizing them will help only if a lack of nutrients is the cause of the problem. For example, plants grown in poorly drained soils or in excessive shade will not be helped by an application of fertilizer. If you need to purchase a fertilizer, GCP recommends that you choose an organic, slow-release fertilizer that’s higher in nitrogen than in phosphorus or potassium, like Microlife 6-2-4.
Extreme heat waves
Although the weeds, insects, diseases and critters don’t seem to have any trouble thriving in the high heat of a Texas summer, some vegetable crops struggle to remain productive. Tomatoes, peppers, melons, squash, pumpkins, cucumbers and beans often stop setting new fruit when daytime temperatures are above 95. All you can do at times like this is to add shade cloth and keep plants well watered until temperatures drop. Shade cloth (40 percent) helps to keep the soil a little cooler, which can reduce the need for water. When more favorable conditions return, most plants will resume normal fruit set.
When to harvest
After a plant has produced mature fruit, it quits putting energy into making more flowers and more fruit. If fruit is removed before it fully matures, the plant will try again, producing more fruit. Some plants produce so quickly that they need to be harvested every couple of days, including okra, green beans, cucumbers, summer squash, and tomatoes.
Spring veggies from A-maranth) to Z-ucchini)
Corn: Corn is wind-pollinated, so plant in blocks, not rows, so that the wind can spread pollen from the tassels to the silks. A 4×4 foot planting block usually works fine. Sweet corn plants are heavy feeders, so plan to add slow-release fertilizer as soon as the tassels begin to form. When silks turn brown, ears are usually ready to harvest. To protect against corn worms, after silks emerge, try closing the end of husks so the worms can’t crawl in. Use stretchy landscape tape or rubber bands.
Cucumbers: Cucumbers like warm soil, so don’t rush to plant seeds too early. Mounding the seed planting area helps to raise the temperature and improve germination. Most varieties require pollination to produce fruit. The exception are the parthenocarpic (seedless) varieties. Bush type cucumbers take up less space, but they also produce fewer cucumbers. Vining types do well in small space gardens when grown on trellises. Cucumbers produce best when soil is consistently moist, a hard thing to accomplish in the searing heat of a Texas summer. By mid to late summer your plants may benefit from shade cloth. Or after they stop producing, just keep the plants alive until October, when the milder weather will spur them to start blooming and producing again.