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Get the Inside Dirt, Texas!
This ultimate local guide to growing vegetables and other edibles provides you with insider advice on climate zones, average frost dates, and growing season details across Texas. Information includes details on sun, soil, fertilizer, mulch, water, and the best varieties for your region. A garden planning section helps with design and crop rotation, and monthly lists explain what to do from January through December. In-depth profiles of nearly 50 edibles round out the information and help ensure a can’t-miss harvest.
Thank you to my dear friend Lucinda Hutson, whose garden and home has been a source of inspiration for many years. Lucinda recommended me for this project and I thank her for the opportunity to fulfill a lifetime dream. We really must get together, drink tequila, and write songs again soon!
When I first considered a career in horticulture I was intimidated by the heavy use of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides—one teacher told me that I’d never make a living in the industry unless I learned to work with these chemicals. But having known only organic gardening for all my life, I saw no reason to stop for my education. It’s a decision I’ve never regretted. I’ve been fortunate to have many garden mentors throughout my lifetime of gardening: Miss Lillian Peek, John Dromgoole, Malcolm Beck, and Howard Garrett have all been valuable sources of knowledge and experience along the way. The Austin Organic Gardeners and Rodale Press have also been instrumental in my learning more about organic techniques.
Thanks to the University of Texas for giving me my first full-time job as a gardener at the chancellor’s residence in 1981. That 5-acre estate provided me with over two years of intensive training in everything that can go wrong in a garden, but that experience was invaluable in teaching me that chemicals can often do more harm than good. Eventually, and with the help of organic practices, I got it under control and turned it into 5 acres of garden perfection. I learned more in my time at UT’s Bauer House than I would have ever learned in a classroom.
My next challenge was the 24-acre property at the Lake Austin Spa Resort—then a mess of dead plants, weeds, ant mounds, and bare and weedy lawns. The grounds were transformed—organically—winning much acclaim and attention and serving as an inspiration for the thousands of guests and employees who spend time there. Much appreciation to Deborah Evans Parker for giving me the original opportunity to learn as I grew on the property, and to Michael McAdams, Billy Rucks, and Tracy York for giving me the means to transform this oasis into something world class and wonderful and trusting me enough to do it my way. And thanks to the grounds staff through the years—you made me look good and I appreciate it!
After 33 years of tending the gardens at Lake Austin Spa Resort, I retired in 2018 and have moved to Weatherford, Texas. I purchased a home with a large yard and no deer or rock squirrels in sight! I am excited to begin new gardens and put down roots here.
Some of my earliest and fondest memories are from time spent helping in our family garden when I was young. My mother would can, pickle, and freeze our harvests and we would eat from the garden throughout the year. Our pantry shelves were lined with colorful jars of pickled beets and peaches, green beans, and tomatoes. My mother cooked three meals a day for our family of eight, and every meal was made from scratch—no frozen dinners or take-out—and most of the ingredients came from the garden. My siblings and I were very involved with the preparation and cleanup with every meal. As I grew up, the idea of growing and cooking my own food was never daunting—my parents did it, their parents did it before them, and so on.
When asked why I bother with keeping a garden, I usually think of Weezer from the wonderful movie, Steel Magnolias. Weezer (beautifully played by Shirley MacLaine) grew tomatoes and forced them on her friends because she didn’t much like them herself. When they asked her why, she replied, “Because I’m an old southern woman and we’re supposed to wear funny looking hats and ugly clothes and grow vegetables in the dirt. I don’t know why! I don’t make the rules.” Funny hats? Check. Ugly clothes? Check. Like Weezer, I just feel that I am supposed to do this. Fortunately, I like tomatoes and certainly don’t have any friends that would turn down my surplus bounty.
You don’t always have to find your dinner at the grocery store; you can pick from whatever is ready for harvesting in your garden. What’s more, you won’t have to ask any questions about whether it’s organic or nutritious and flavorful—you’ll have nurtured the plant from its beginnings as a tiny seed or transplant. You control the conditions. My garden has even turned me into a more adventurous cook—when you’re eating kale three or more days of the week, you’ll want to have more than a few recipes to rely on.
Unfortunately, many Americans have missed out on the experience of growing up with a food garden. Something that seems so natural to me is still mysterious and complex to so many of my friends. They’re often intrigued and excited by the idea of growing their own food, but don’t know where to begin. Still, from former First Lady Michelle Obama’s organic garden at the White House to the exploding trend of food-filled backyards and patios across the nation, more people than ever are getting into gardening. Seed companies and garden centers are reporting that sales of herb and vegetable seeds and plants are increasing every year.
What could be fresher than produce picked right before it goes on your table? Nutrients and flavor are not lost during transportation and your food hasn’t been shipped across the country, contributing to pollution and global warming. You’ll learn to appreciate the variety of food that’s available each season. I might not have fresh tomatoes in late winter or lettuce in midsummer, but there are so many wonderful seasonal alternatives. You can also stop worrying about food contamination, as you’ll know exactly what you used on your own garden. Growing crops organically in healthy soil can result in produce with higher levels of vitamin C, iron, phosphorus, antioxidants, and other nutrients. A study by the University of Florida and Washington State found that organic foods contain, on average, about 25 percent higher levels of 11 nutrients than their traditional counterparts. And your investment will go so much further—you can cut your food bills and eat healthier. The National Gardening Association found that a family that invested $70 in a garden could harvest about $600 worth of vegetables.
You’ll find that there are physical rewards of gardening also. Vigorous garden work can help to increase bone density and reduce blood pressure and cholesterol. Exercising the mind and body with the planning and care of a garden can reduce stress and the risk of dementia. Studies have shown that gardeners have reduced levels of blood sugar and a lower risk of type 2 diabetes. Many gardeners find weeding, pruning, watering, and other gardening chores meditative and a great way to unwind from a hectic day. It is a pleasure to watch things grow; you’ll develop a connection to natural cycles and feel more self-reliant and empowered. Your children will learn that vegetables don’t always have to come from a bag in the freezer and they might be more likely to eat them when they have helped to grow and harvest them. You just might instill a love of gardening that will last a lifetime.
If you have at least six hours of sunlight, good air circulation, and access to water, you can grow a great variety of herbs and vegetables in a garden bed or containers. Even in shady locations, parsley, chives, mint, and lettuce can thrive. And a yard isn’t always necessary; determined renters and apartment dwellers can always find space to grow their favorite edibles, whether in containers or in community gardens. Sure, there will be a few failures along the way, but that’s how we learn. I still plant tomatoes that fail to produce a single fruit as a result of unseasonably warm spring temperatures or green beans that succumb to powdery mildew or cucumbers that won’t bloom. It happens to all of us—gardening is a gamble. But at least we can compost our failures to build healthy soil for the next season!
Planning for the Year
Just like a new year, the new garden season is full of possibilities. While some Texas gardeners will be strictly armchair or windowsill gardeners in January, others will be making daily harvests in the garden. Either way, the busy spring season will be upon us soon, so this is the time to prepare for it. Careful planning of your next garden venture—making sure you have the seeds, tools, and equipment at the ready—can make the difference between success and failure. Take time now while the garden chore list is a bit shorter to get organized for the year by making a master plan, getting your equipment organized, and starting a garden journal. Establish a foundation for success for the gardening year.
Some of the highest-yielding and most nutritious garden plants are grown in mild-winter areas in Texas. Kale, Swiss chard, spinach, and other garden greens will provide weekly harvests of vitamin-rich leaves, and their flavor is even better after a mild frost. Lettuce and cilantro grow lush and flavorful in January but become bitter and burst into bloom stage when temperatures start to rise in spring. Winter is my favorite time to garden—there are fewer bugs, less heat, more regular rainfall, and the variety of crops that we can grow is astounding. Still, providing protection for tender plants is essential to keeping garden vegetables alive and thriving. Row covers, hoop houses, and cold frames or greenhouses allow most of us to maintain our gardens during unpredictable winter weather.
One of the most common mistakes that I see new gardeners make is planting too many plants and crowding them too closely together. It is easy to be overwhelmed with new varieties of peppers and tomatoes when standing in the garden center come springtime. But if you’ve already established a garden plan that only has space for six of each then it is easier to stick to the plan! Crowding plants leads to more insect and disease issues and less produce. A clear garden plan will allow proper spacing and help you to maximize the yield of your garden. Take the time to make a scale drawing of your garden and use it to plan the season. I use graph paper with ¼-inch-scale lines and make a master copy for my files. Each garden season I fill in a copy of that master with everything that was planted because it is easy to forget where the squash was planted the spring before.
If your garden space is limited, careful selection of vegetables is important. Cabbage is a slow grower and is harvested only once while lettuce, spinach, and greens may be harvested continually throughout the growing season. Brussels sprouts and cauliflower are also slow growers and harvested for a short time. There are many plants like lettuce that will grow happily in 4- to 6-inch-deep containers so that you can save garden beds for the space hogs—broccoli and kale, for instance, which prefer at least 10–12 inches of soil depth.
Your garden plan is invaluable for making sure that certain plants are rotated and it will help you to plan out succession plantings. Diseases and insects that might remain in the soil can affect squash and tomato plantings but moving those plants to a new spot each season will help avoid these problems. On the other hand, peas and beans add nitrogen to the soil so you can follow those plantings with plants that will benefit from the higher nitrogen availability—large-growing, heavy feeders like corn, okra, and tomatoes. Potatoes planted in February won’t be harvested until late May or June, so I make a notation that those will be followed with okra, melons, or other crops suited for summer seed germination. Rambling squash and pumpkin need to have plenty of space to roam and a scale drawing ensures that you leave enough room for these ramblers.
Your garden journal is a valuable guide for keeping track of your successes and failures. Keep notes on which tomatoes performed well for you and which succumbed to disease. Note the date you planted those snow peas and had excellent germination and an excellent harvest. When you see that a crop was affected by insects or underperformed, it may mean that it was planted too late and you should plant earlier next year.
Record significant rainfall and other weather events, including freezes, and make notes of planting dates for each item planted. Keep track of when the first item of a crop was harvested and how long the harvest lasted. I like to keep a record of when I have enough of a crop to freeze, can, or dry some of the yield. Some do this with a calendar while others will use a three-ring binder and keep adding to it throughout the years. You can also do this easily on your computer, along with regular photographs of the garden as the season progresses. Strive to make notes at least monthly. No matter how you decide to pull it together, a well-kept garden journal will pay you back handsomely.
- “Provides expert advice for the entry-level Texas gardener in a visually appealing and ease-to-read format.” —The Literary South
- On Sale
- Mar 31, 2020
- Page Count
- 252 pages
- Timber Press