Starting A Vegetable Garden
Whether you’re a beginner or a veteran, starting a vegetable garden is an excellent way to improve your health and well-being. It’s also a fun activity that allows you to enjoy the outdoors.
The first step in getting started is choosing a location for your garden bed or container garden. Next, determine what vegetables you want to grow.
Janet D. Smith knew zero about gardening when she was faced with landscaping a huge berm of dirt in her front yard. She was such a neophyte, she says, “I didn’t even know you were supposed to water plants when you put them in the ground.” The pile, which was 5 feet high and spanned 600 square feet, had come from her backyard, where dirt had accumulated after rolling down the hill from neighboring properties. To correct the drainage in her backyard, that excess soil had to go. Smith figured it was easier and cheaper to dump it near the base of her sloped front yard than to have it hauled away. Little did she know that berm would change her life.
It was October 2005, three years into Smith’s retirement from running the computer system for human resources at Dallas County Community College, now called Dallas College. She had plenty of time on her hands. Noticing her naivete in gardening, friends advised she add organic matter to the pile, so she collected bags of leaves on her block and added them to the berm, securing it all with a layer of jute. Another friend recommended that she apply for the Dallas County master gardening program.
Offered through the Texas AgriLife Extension Service, which is part of the Texas A&M University System, the 50-hour course is free in exchange for a commitment to volunteer 50 hours for the Dallas County AgriLife Extension program. The training course offers instruction in lawn care; ornamental trees and shrubs; insect, disease and weed management; soil and plant nutrition; vegetable gardening; home fruit production; garden flowers; perennials and annuals; and water conservation.
Smith, who had “avoided science as much as I could” for her entire life, plunged in. Now, she’s not only a Dallas County master gardener but also a North Texas master naturalist, having completed the Texas AgriLife Extension course about the region’s flora and fauna, including trees, wildlife and insects.
The naturalist and gardener programs are both designed to cultivate volunteers to provide education, outreach and service to the community. Smith, 75, regularly gives informative talks to public and private groups around the area on behalf of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension. Teaching primarily about butterflies, pollination, and heat- and drought-tolerant native plants, she gives presentations at gardening clubs, schools, churches, civic groups and more.
“I really enjoy educating people and giving my talks,” Smith says. “I say I’m a ‘level 101’ speaker because I know what it’s like to know nothing. There’s no question too dumb to ask me.”
One of her most popular talks was inspired by the book “Sex in Your Garden,” which uses humor to describe how plants need pollinators in order to create seeds and reproduce. “It piqued my interest because it explained about pollination in a populist way,” she says.
Pollinators, including bees, butterflies, birds and other animals, help more than 80% of global flowering plants to reproduce. In addition, they are essential to many crops, including most fruits, vegetables and nuts. Smith likes to show a picture of a fuzzy Mexican long-nosed bat in her PowerPoint presentation, pointing out that it’s the primary pollinator of the agave plants, from which tequila is made.
According to Dave Forehand, vice president of gardens at the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden, Smith’s talks are full of great information because she’s so knowledgeable. “She understands the nuances of our clay soil — what will grow and what won’t — along with the best plants to fill your garden to attract butterflies,” Forehand says. “We invite people to join us to hear her talk and then tour the gardens to see the plants we have that attract butterflies, particularly the Moody Oasis rooftop garden in the Rory Meyers Children’s Adventure Garden.”
Smith also lectures frequently about using indigenous plants in landscaping. “Our turf grass is as useful as concrete,” she says. “It’s just a cultural thing. We’ve grown up with lawns, and it’s what we expect homeowners to have, but we’ve got to do something more productive for the earth to maintain it so we can survive.”
Native plants help the environment by providing food sources for local birds, insects and other wildlife. They also conserve water because they’re heat and drought tolerant, and they can help reduce pollution, since you don’t need to use a lawn mower or other equipment that’s often gas-powered. In addition, their long root systems prevent soil erosion.
At her home in Old Lake Highlands, Smith has quite a few favorite species that thrive, including purple coneflower, autumn sage, Texas sage, lantana, four-nerve daisy, mealycup sage and others. “If homeowners used native plants, we could have the whole country be like a national park,” she says.
To see Smith in action, catch her upcoming free talk “Butterflies” at 11 a.m. on May 5 at the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden; “Nature’s Best Hope,” about native plants, at 1:15 p.m. on May 6 at White Rock Bath House Cultural Center; and “Sex in the Garden,” at 7 p.m. on May 16 for Trinity Valley Beekeepers Association at Dallas Elks Lodge 71.
Janet Smith’s favorite native plants
Mealy blue sage/mealycup sage, Salvia farinacea. With a bloom time that lasts from spring to freeze, bees love mealycup sage, especially bumblebees. This perennial grows to 3 feet tall and comes in blue or white, sometimes changing from one color to the other. It may also pop up elsewhere in your flower bed. Mealycup sage is very low maintenance and doesn’t need supplemental water unless it hasn’t rained in six weeks or longer. Deadhead it (that is, remove the dead flower heads) in the summer, and cut down the dead stems after it freezes. Plant in sun.
Autumn sage, Salvia greggii. Butterflies and hummingbirds flock to autumn sage, which blooms from March to freeze. It comes in red, pink, purple, orange or white and grows like a small shrub. Cut it back to six inches in mid-February and trim off six inches in the middle of summer. Best to work some compost into the ground before you plant it. Plant in sun.
Fall aster, Symphyotrichum oblongifolium. This aster blooms prolifically in October with lavender flowers that attract a variety of butterflies and bees, which need nectar to prepare for winter. It is semi-evergreen and should be cut down in February. It has low water needs once established and can be divided in winter. Plant in sun.
Gregg’s mistflower, Conoclinium greggii. This perennial has small, feathery lavender flowers that bloom from spring to freeze. Able to thrive in part shade, Gregg’s mistflower is a butterfly magnet and is especially valuable to monarchs during the fall migration. These plants spread and can be good ground cover. If they grow outside the desired area, transplant them to another location or give them away. Give them medium water so they can keep producing nectar for the bees and butterflies. Plant in sun.
Turk’s cap, Malvaviscus arboreus. This leafy plant grows in full sun or full shade and blooms small red flowers from June until the first freeze. Hummingbirds, bees and large butterflies love the flowers. Turk’s cap, which needs little water once established, can spread. Plant in sun or shade.
Frostweed, Verbesina virginica. This plant is fantastic for pollinators because it blooms clusters of small white flowers in October and November, when they need all the food they can get. It’s also considered one of the two best plants for monarch butterfly migration. Frostweed can grow to 7 or 8 feet in a single season and should be cut back by a third in June. Adaptable to full or part shade, this deciduous plant got its name because it releases white sap when it freezes. Plant in shade.
To learn more about native plants and where to buy them, visit the Native Plant Society of Texas at npsot.org.