(Late) Column: March gardening in Texas

I know it’s a little late for March gardening information, but I wanted to go ahead and publish this and have it saved on the website. It is from my column for The Journey Street Newspaper, and it wasn’t able to go to print in time. So, I wrote a different piece for the April/May issue, which I will post soon.

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Snow peas grown in a container on our back porch

March 2016

Winter may have crept out the back door while we slept off our post-holiday food comas but — as any seasoned Texan knows — the temps could fluctuate from sunshine to snow from now until the beginning of April.

So, it is best to be prepared in the garden and keep a watchful eye on the weather.

Lately the warmer temperatures convinced some of my cold hardy vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, bok choy, etc.) to begin going to seed. When this happens, I like to harvest the parts attempting to flower and eat them before they become bitter. This also forces the plant to try again, producing more edible parts.

I am a lazy gardener for the most part, reducing the number of hours I tend the garden during the colder months. I accept that not covering my plants on freezing nights means I will get slower growth and a less productive garden. However, I need a break from harvesting and storing our abundance. I’m just fine with a few pounds of produce per week.

That said, there are a few tips and tricks to protecting your Texas garden from a surprise cold snap without having to cover all your plants before bedtime each time the temperature dips.

Containers

Plants in containers can be tricky. They do not have the benefit of the ambient soil temperature, which is warmer than the air that surrounds potted plants. Covering or insulating these plants might be a good idea, especially on nights below freezing or with a high chance for frost.

Also, be mindful that unglazed clay pots (or glazed pots that have unglazed insides) are porous, which means water can soak in. Water expands as it freezes and can crack your precious — and sometimes very expensive — clay pots. So, be mindful of when you water in the winter.

Garden Beds

The best protection for your garden beds this time of year is a thick layer of mulch. I prefer to use bagged leaves, which many people leave on the curb. Because people generally do not spray fertilizers or pesticides on tree leaves, I don’t worry about contaminating my organic garden when I pick up free bags of them from the surrounding neighborhoods.

But no matter if you opt for a couple inches of leaves or a couple inches of wood mulch, the same considerations should be taken.

Whatever organic matter you heap onto your garden beds will attract slugs and other bugs, some of which are beneficial. Just be mindful. I try to keep the dried leaves and mulch away from my greens since slugs pose a threat there. Also, don’t pile organic matter too high around any plant as the materials may begin to rot and counterproductively kill your plants.

However, if your garden bed is empty for the season, pile it on. The leaves will break down, especially if we have a snowfall or two, and turn into rich soil by fall. The smaller wood mulch — like the free stuff available through the City of Fort Worth’s Forestry Program — will breakdown nicely, too, but might take a full year to do so.

Compost

Compost piles will slow down in the winter as the temperatures drop, because the microorganisms required for fast decomposition need internal compost temperatures between 104 to 200 degrees Fahrenheit.

While it is possible to find the perfect ratio of carbon- and nitrogen-rich materials to maintain these temperatures with the help of some insulation, I find it more work than it is worth.

Try insulating your compost with heavy plastic to keep heat and moisture in or try the lazy method I prefer and cover it with lots of free leaves. Then, just wait a little longer. It will decompose eventually. All organic matter does.

And at the end of the chilly winter day, I prefer to be patient and enjoy time resting and planning for spring. If you have a greenhouse or cold frame, Marchis a great time to start cold-sensitive seedlings for a spring garden such as tomatoes and peppers.

If you do not, fear not. We are blessed to have a long growing season in Texas. You can start seeds in containers or in the ground in March after the average date for the last frost.

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