Houston Vegetable Gardening: It’s Time to Plant

Houston weather is such a tease. After a blistering hot summer, accompanied by months of drought, we were given a brief respite, at least in the mornings and evenings, from the triple digit heat. Many of us woke up to temperatures below 70 degrees in the past week. We even got enough widespread rain to bring our lawns and landscapes back to life.

This week, it’s back to the same-old, same-old. The mercury is rising yet again and bringing the humidity along with it. For those who did not get all of their garden clean-up and planting done when the weather was more amenable, working in the yard for the next week isn’t going to be so pleasant. However, fall is almost here logistically, if not weather-wise. That means certain vegetables need to get planted stat.

Fall in Houston is truly the best season for folks looking to plant a few edibles. It’s also a good time to plant shrubs, sow certain flower seeds and prepare the lawn for the somewhat-dormant season. For those who haven’t prepared a plot of their yard for vegetables, it may be too late for some veggies but there are a number of edibles that can be grown in containers.

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Thai basil loves the heat and self-sows everywhere.

Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

Gardeners right now should have a plan and be ready to execute it. The nurseries and home improvement centers are putting out mums, kalanchoes, fall annuals and pumpkins to tempt autumn lovers to part with their cash. Among all of the usual fall pretties are vegetable seedlings that are chosen by the nursery buyers to do well in Houston’s cooler weather. Using our average first frost date (although Houston’s weather is rarely average), we are told to count back days expected until harvest. And time is not on our side for some of the warm-weather loving veggies.

Tomatoes have to be planted now in order to harvest before our first frost. Some of us may have leftover plants from the spring, but gardeners shouldn’t expect too much out of the lingerers that are barely hanging on. Professionals would suggest ripping them out, but for those who have the room, they could leave them to see what happens. I still have a Sweet Million tomato plant clinging to life from the spring. It doesn’t look so hot but I’ll let it do its thing and maybe I’ll get a sad little tomato or two.

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The butterflies and fritillaries like the cooler weather, too.

Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

The best tomatoes to plant for the fall garden are ones that have an early harvest date and usually that means cherry types. I am planting a Midnight Snack tomato that I found at HEB. I grew it in the fall last year and was rewarded with ebony-topped cherry tomatoes in December. I also have a Cherokee Purple and a Roma to plant but I don’t really expect to get much fruit from them before the colder weather. However, gardeners are eternal optimists and we can’t resist a challenge.

Another heat-loving edible that can be planted from seedlings right now are peppers. There are so many choices of sweet and heat to be found in the pepper world and gardeners have a variety of fruit from which to choose. I love El Jefe jalapeno for its reliability and consistency. Serrano and cayenne peppers also do very well in Houston gardens. For those who like the taste of jalapenos but not the heat, the Tam Mild jalapeno, developed in the early 2000s at Texas A & M, is a great choice for flavor and pickling. However, I grew it one year and it was not mild at all. That could have been the result of mislabeling, which occasionally happens.

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We’re waiting for this little pepper to turn red.

Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

Poblano peppers are good for those who want to make chile relleno. In its dried form, the pepper is called ancho which is often used to make chile powder. Many varieties of poblanos actually have ancho in their name. For sweet peppers and bell types, there are ones for every taste. I am not a big fan of bell peppers, but I grew Snackabelle this year and it gave me enough mini sweet red peppers to add some flavor to certain dishes. My spring-planted Snackabelle has made a comeback in the past few weeks and it has several new peppers. It’s also a good variety for growing in containers.

While transplants of tomatoes, peppers (and even cucumbers and summer squash, if you hurry) can be planted now, gardeners have a little wider time frame to plant cabbages, broccoli, greens, kale and cauliflower. Most of these can be grown from transplants throughout October. I don’t grow broccoli or cauliflower because they are fairly difficult and not worth it to me. However, kale and mustard greens are extremely easy to grow and they can be sown by seed right now through October and into November. Russian red kale is a pretty and hardy variety that does well in fall and winter.

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Bush beans are easy to grow in Houston.

Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

I am always a proponent of newbie gardeners growing beans. There’s a lot of instant gratification, especially with green and wax varieties. They are easily grown from seed and will emerge within three or four days generally. One can watch the seedling emerging in the morning to find a three-inch plant at the end of the day. Bush beans are an easy variety and gardeners can be harvesting in less than two months. Now bush beans produce within 50 to 60 days. If planted now, Houston gardeners could have fresh green beans for the Thanksgiving casserole. In my garden, I have a lot of success with Calima, Cantare and Contender. Dragon Tongue beans are a pretty purple and yellow bean that is prolific here. This fall, I am trying Red Swan Bush, a variety I found from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. It’s supposed to do better in cooler weather so it may give me a bean harvest into the winter months when most beans are done.

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Parsley and mustard greens thrive in cooler weather.

Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

English peas are another cool weather crop that does better in the fall for Houston. They can be sown from October through December. The vining types will need something to climb and in order to get a decent harvest, many plants are needed. Wando is a good one for our climate, although it can be susceptible to powdery mildew towards the end of the season. For gardeners with less space, Little Marvel has good yields on two-foot high plants that can even be grown in containers.

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Carrots are a mixed bag for this gardener with some interesting results.

Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

Houston gardeners still have plenty of time to sow seeds for radishes and carrots. They prefer cool temps so the months of October and November are a good time to plant the tiny seeds. They will need to be kept moist with a light spray of water in order to germinate. Now radish varieties can be harvested within a month or two while carrots usually take closer to three months and sometimes longer. I don’t have much success with carrots myself and I don’t know many Houston gardeners that do but I still give them a try — that whole “eternal optimism” thing. This fall, I am trying the New Kuroda carrot for the first time because it supposedly withstands heat and tough soil. We shall see.

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Radishes can be spicy, especially this variety called “Wasabi”.

Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

For those who don’t have large yards, herbs and lettuces can be grown on a sunny balcony or patio. I plant a seed mix of leaf lettuces that I can harvest throughout the cooler months. A few years ago, I planted a mesclun mix which yielded a lot of arugula and kale among all the lettuce varieties. It can be a nice surprise to see what comes up.

Fall vegetable gardening has begun in Houston, whether we are ready for it or not. A trip to a local gardening center or a look through a seed catalog might be the inspiration needed to get back to the soil and enjoy the waning summer.

Then you can reward yourself with a pumpkin spice latte. Even if it’s still 93 degrees outside.

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