Americans around the country—rural, suburban and urban—are responding to our country’s economic and environmental challenges by looking for solutions in their own backyards, or front yards. More and more grassy lawns are being replaced by vegetable gardens. More communities are establishing farmers markets. Locally grown is becoming the gold standard for produce.
We took this to heart at Texas Co-op Power and persuaded several staff members, whether experienced or not, to plant fall gardens and let us know what happened. We do confess that one staff member let his neighbor do the dirty work, but she’s a co-op member so that’s OK.
Our modest labors have helped us develop a profound appreciation of the many genuine farmers who receive this magazine. So bear with us as we tell you what happened when veggies went into the flower bed, and front yards sprouted entirely too much broccoli.
From a humble home, a verdant feast
Our vegetable gardens—both are the raised-bed variety—are hardly works of art. One is rimmed by old cinder blocks left behind by our home’s previous owners. The other one my wife, Lisa, and I built using rot-proof landscape borders made from recycled automobiles with a few old cedar porch posts filling in the gaps.
We had to build the raised beds and haul in our own garden soil because where we live, a few miles southwest of Austin, we have only a few inches of topsoil. Underneath is a rocky underbelly of limestone.
We surrounded our gardens with old pieces of cardboard topped by spoiled hay. It keeps the weeds down and gives us nice footing around the beds. A plastic deer fence has kept the hungry white-tails from feasting on our plants.
What the garden lacks in aesthetics, it more than makes up for in production. In the summers, we enjoy bushels of tomatoes, baskets of squash, spicy radishes, okra and peppers.
A couple of years ago, we tried our first fall garden, pulling up the spent summer plants and adding tomatoes, a lettuce patch, a bed of spinach and root vegetables like green onions, carrots and even a few potatoes.
After nursing them through a warm September and October, the plants, the ones that survived, were stable. A few crops were wildly successful. We had spinach coming out of our ears and enough lettuce to enjoy a salad nearly every day.
Last year, a particularly hot and dry summer and our decision not to run up our water bill left us with a disappointing summer harvest. By the time the last few sad little tomato plants were toast, our fall garden planning was in full swing. The spinach and lettuce made return appearances and were joined by parsnips, broccoli, cauliflower, Swiss chard and Napa cabbage.
The vegetables were surprisingly hearty. When the forecast was for 33 or 34 degrees, Lisa and I found ourselves out in the evening gloom armed with a ragtag collection of old blankets and poly sheeting, propping the materials above the plants to form an insulating pocket of air.
Again, the greens seemed to be the biggest successes. The spinach thrived and the cabbage grew into huge, oval heads, which were sweet and tasty both stewed and in slaw. The broccoli never formed those great big heads like you’d see in the grocery store, but it was the sweetest I’d ever tasted. The chard made it through the winter and thrived even when hot weather returned.
Now that we know what works, we’ll plant more this year—plus give one or two more things an audition.
Putting in a fall garden for the first time can be intimidating, but once you see the products of your labor, you’ll be hooked.
As a child, I always loved going to my grandmother’s house in the summer. She had vegetables growing everywhere—the side yard, the backyard and yes—the coveted FRONT YARD. Ripe, red tomatoes, velvety okra, shiny, green cucumbers, black beauty eggplants and tepees of green beans were all part of her “Secret Garden” home. So, this past winter, inspired by my grandmother and the trend away from water-guzzling lawns, I thought to myself, why not?
If we could transform our carpet of grass into a beautiful, lush oasis of veggies, maybe some of our neighbors with large, manicured yards would do the same. So off we went.
First, we fenced the front yard to keep out deer. Then my husband got busy making garden boxes for my raised beds. Our soil in Northwest Austin is so rocky, raised beds were our only option. I pored through my garden books to see what would grow successfully in the Texas winter. My children and I were impatient to get our garden up and growing, so we “cheated” a little and bypassed seeds for seedlings. We planted cabbages, Packman broccoli, cilantro, parsley, spinach, carrots—of the Carrot Carnival Blend variety—leeks, radishes, asparagus and a variety of lettuces.
I never covered a thing even during our crazy two-day freezes followed by 80-degree weather. Bugs were nonexistent, and watering was minimal. We watched our garden grow more bountiful by the day. The neighbors complimented us as the plants grew bigger and produced a bumper crop. I was harvesting so much that my family and pet bunny have never eaten so well. The front-yard garden was a hit!
After it was all said and done, I let many things flower and go to seed just for the fun of it and to feed the honeybees. We can hardly wait to start planning for our next year’s harvest!
The whiskey barrel garden
I didn’t kill my garden. Well, not all of it, anyway.
Granted, there wasn’t much garden to kill, considering I planted—foolishly crammed in is more like it—three pepper plants and a tomato plant in a half whiskey barrel.
My thumb is about as green as a ripe, red tomato, but I figured I could handle such a tiny container garden. Besides, as a co-worker says, the way to grow a green thumb is to keep it on the water hose.
So, on September 8, 2008, two days after buying my barrel and all-purpose potting mix with fertilizer, I planted habanero, jalapeño, African red bullet and tomato plants, deciding I wasn’t qualified to start with seeds. With such an easy beginning, what could possibly go wrong? Add water, sunshine and a little TLC, and soon I’d be eating the fruits of my labor, including the hotter-than-habanero African red bullet peppers. My mouth watered.
Plus, I was ahead of the game; upon planting, the habanero plant was already bearing a couple of peppers.
And so began my fall gardening adventure. I watered (almost every day), talked to the plants, gently touched them and oohed and aahed when the slightest growth occurred. I patted myself on the back for putting the barrel on the east side of my covered back deck, where the plants would get lots of morning sun and not so much of the burning afternoon rays. I loved looking out my back door at my budding little garden just 5 feet away.
And miraculously, my two Labrador retrievers—one has been known to rip siding off the back of the house—left my easy-to-get-to garden alone.
I tracked growth on my calendar: On September 21, I had four jalapeños, eight habaneros and several blooms on the patio tomato plant. And my September 25 garden diary read: “Gasp! I have a tomato!”
By October 27, I had 15 green tomatoes, some the size of a small fist, slowly turning red. But I had a problem: My seemingly steroid-fueled tomato plant was overtaking the barrel and suffocating the African red bullet planted too close to its fruit-laden limbs.
Soon, some of the tomato plant’s thick, sprawling branches were hanging over the edge of the barrel and starting to break under their own weight. I had to do something—and fast. So I drove wooden stakes into the dirt and lashed the limbs to the stakes with strips of cloth.
Catastrophe avoided. On November 13, I counted a whopping 33 tomatoes and started picking the juicy red beauties, slicing them for sandwiches or sharing them with co-workers.
I also enjoyed setting my mouth on fire with the jalapeños and habaneros—the African red bullet plant never recovered from its trauma—but it’s the tomato plant that did my soul good. The tomatoes smelled like the summers of my youth, when we planted gardens in a cotton field.
And even though a whiskey barrel can’t compare in beauty with a wide-open farm field, it was good to dig my fingers in the dirt and be reminded that food doesn’t grow in grocery stores.
My tomatoes survived several freezes in December when I draped blankets over the taller wooden stakes, creating a warm cocoon underneath. But on December 22, when the temperature dipped to 28 degrees and I forgot to cover them, the tomatoes were gone.
I mourned their loss. But a seed has been planted: Even I can grow a fall garden.
Lots of people in Texas have room to roam. So do their vegetable gardens. I drive out in the country and see the perfectly weeded long rows of beans, lettuces and squash marching into the distance. The caged tomatoes stand at attention. This army of veggies would pass muster with the harshest drill sergeant.
Someday I may get to be that drill sergeant, keeping things in lock-step order.
But in the meantime, I have a guerrilla vegetable garden. Or at least it is slightly subversive, sneaking in amid suburban xeriscape flowers and shrubs and crawling up fences and trellises. Guerrilla vegetables cleverly disguise themselves as ornamentals.
If you’re like me and want to enjoy fresh vegetables but do not have the time or energy or space for a full-on vegetable garden, the solution may be adding a few guerrilla veggies and herbs to your current landscape. Here are several simple suggestions:
Grow vegetables as ornamentals. Scarlet runner beans and hyacinth beans are grown for flowers as well as beans. Chard has gorgeous, brightly colored stalks. Show off the pole beans on a beautiful trellis.
Grow attention-getters. Brussels sprouts have tall stalks with miniature cabbages stuck on the sides. Once kids see these they might actually want to eat them. Chinese long beans are tasty and fun to grow. Chunky cabbages and cauliflowers are superb accent plants.
Grow vegetables you can’t find in the store. And harvest them young. Talk to friends and neighbors to find out what grows in your area. Find out about heirloom varieties. Grow vegetables developed for taste, not transportation.
Go easy on yourself and plant a salad right outside your door. Microgreen seeds germinate quickly, almost like sprouts. A single packet of seeds can produce several teeny-tiny harvests. With a little care, lettuce, spinach, collards, mustard and cabbages can be pot-grown and harvested a few leaves at a time all winter long.
Key tactics for guerrilla gardening should include taste, as in tasteful design and tasty on the tongue. First and foremost, grow what you want to eat. Mingle the garden plants in with your ornamentals. Just remember where they are. Tiny markers can help here.
Don’t line up your vegetables as in a traditional vegetable garden. Grow them more like flowers in informal clusters. Pollination is often better in clumps than in the long rows.
Think about leaf textures, shapes and colors when planting. Treat the vegetables as you would flowers when planting. A delicate red-leafed mustard would look stunning against the pale, solid cabbage.
Go ahead. Be subversive and plant a vegetable or two or more in the front yard.
By the way, this guerrilla tactic can work in the spring garden, too. Asparagus becomes a beautiful, feathery border plant once the harvest is over.
The never-ending garden
When we started our fall garden, I never expected to still be harvesting cabbage, broccoli and cilantro in March. Despite the extreme drought we continue to experience here in Central Texas, we enjoyed a wonderful yield—thanks in part to cooler temperatures.
I finally was able to use an idea I had years ago of turning an old, metal mattress frame into a bean trellis. We moved the rusty 1930s relic from the side of the house and propped it up against the fence. Voilà, an instant trellis.
Since we had an established plot, getting started was easy. The hardest part was having to wait to buy plants and seeds when we wanted the instant gratification of growing greenery. But soil prep is critical for a healthy and bountiful yield, so that’s where we began.
Then we visited our local nursery and picked up three varieties of tomatoes and some rosemary, sage, thyme, dill and jalapeño pepper plants. We also selected seeds: green beans, cabbage, cilantro and broccoli. Dealing with the fall heat in Central Texas can be tricky, so we used our pop-up awning to shade the tender vegetation from the late summer sun for the first couple of weeks.
The beans started growing just like in “Jack and the Beanstalk.” Watching the difference a day made was fascinating: The little beans would grow an inch a day until ready to pick. Picking was also fun and challenging. Trying to spot green beans in a sea of green is hard, but the reward of a bowl of fresh-picked beans for dinner was well worth the effort.
During the weeks to follow, we continued to pick beans and watch our tomatoes set buds. Seeing the yellow flowers blossom made me think of the fresh tomato dishes soon to be enjoyed with the family. The broccoli, cabbage and cilantro continued to grow and required thinning.
Here, however, is a precautionary note: Beware of rats! Their love of the tender seedlings was intensified by the drought, and they went after the premature cabbage and broccoli. We got out the traps and eliminated eight of the furry munchers in a six-week period. And in an effort to not to give in to the vermin, we planted more seeds.
The dill, rosemary, cilantro, thyme and sage stood us in good stead for a variety of favorite fall dishes. There was sage for Thanksgiving dressing, rosemary for roasted chicken and dill for jazzing up relish plates and pickled items. Best of all, we had jalapeños, cilantro and tomatoes ripening during the same week in mid-December. You know what that meant? Fresh pico de gallo. Just add a little lime juice, and you’re in business. It was a taste of summer, even with Old Man Winter starting to nip at our heels.
Gardening in the fall made us spend more time outdoors enjoying our beautiful backyard and garden—we were drawn outside even when the weather started to become chilly.
For me, having a fall garden is a no-brainer. Got to go: We are having a stir-fry tonight featuring the last of the broccoli and cabbage—and the wok is hot. It’s mid-April, no less.