Food gardening in the Austin area requires special consideration, particularly for those individuals who have moved in from elsewhere. In general, maintaining a food garden in central Texas falls under six basic categories.
Off-season (i.e. summer or vacation break) planning
For additional information, check out Austin’s The Natural Gardener website for monthly to-do lists.
There are many reliable and easily-accessed resources which can provide specific information on a planting schedule for our area. Texas A&M AgriLife Extension has published a vegetable planting guide for central Texas, which can be accessed here:
September-October is prime planting time for fall and winter produce (e.g. root vegetables and greens). In December-February, In January-February, it possible to plant early spring crops such as peas and potatoes, as well another round of cool season winter crops. Starting mid-March, it is time to plant warm season crops (e.g. fruiting plants such as tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers).
In regards to growing seasons in central Texas, two main points to remember are that our “first frost date” (the date, on average, when a gardener might expect to see frost) is November 15, and our “last frost date” is March 15. Plants that do best in cool weather, like peas, lettuces, and brassicas, won’t do well during the hot and dry summers here. Heat-loving plants like tomatoes and hot peppers won’t survive our winter (from November-February generally) without protection from the cold. Be sure to consult the planting guide!
Check the back of the seed packet
Vegetable gardens need, in general, an inch of water a week during the growing season. Deep and regular waterings of the soil, in the morning when temperatures are still cool, are preferred to frequent sprinkles (except when you are trying to germinate seeds). Kids love watering the garden, so this is an excellent way to get them involved! Drip irrigation is ideal, but you can really do a lot with a hose and spray nozzle.
You will decrease your need for water, keep your soil cool, and discourage weed growth if you keep your mulch deep in your beds. Four inches of compost, grass clippings, or fallen leaves (if you can be sure the grass and leaves are chemical-free) are just about right for our area. Keep wood chips out of your garden beds - those mulches are better for pathways. Expect to add mulch at the beginning of your growing year, and about half-way through.
Weed as often as possible. This is another task that is easy to do with children, and they get good at it pretty quickly. If you can get out and pull a weed or two every day, that’s fantastic, but you should dedicate at least thirty minutes to weeding every two weeks. If you keep up with it regularly, you’ll avoid getting stuck with an unpleasant amount all at once.
As with planting schedules, there are many easily-accessed resources for pest control, such as the following:
In general, head out to the garden at least once a week to take a look at your plants and see how they’re doing. If you think you might have a pest problem, take the time to identify what’s causing it before picking a treatment strategy - this is a great way to turn students into science detectives in the garden!
Organizing a successful workday with volunteers requires preparation. Having a well-planned workday will ensure you complete the tasks at hand and that volunteers will return in the future.
Get the word out early in a variety of different ways (flyers, emails, in-person).
If possible, have snacks and water or plan to have a meal together afterwards.
Review garden rules with everyone as well as info such as where the bathrooms are located.
Have a first aid kit and review what the kit contains and any other safety procedures.
Have specific tasks to accomplish and assign knowledgeable leaders to oversee groups working on different tasks.
Have all the materials and tools you need on-site and ready.
Busy volunteers are happy volunteers!
Take time to thank people afterwards.
You and your garden team need to decide who will care for your garden during the summer and winter breaks. If you are unable to arrange reliable weekly watering, harvesting, and weeding, plan to put your garden to bed at the end of the school year by pulling out all the plants and weeds, and covering your garden beds in a deep (six inches) layer of mulch. However, finding a group of summer caretakers, such as neighbors or community members, is ideal!
Having a food garden is fun, rewarding, and a great learning experience for you and your students together. Enjoy your garden!