November Gardening: Playing with Frost

November is here and with it comes the first frost for my garden. I live in north central Texas in USDA zone 7b with an average first frost around November 10.

But I always flirt with danger, hoping to extend my garden season for a few warm season plants. With the impending doom lurking with the first freeze, I will be spending my weekend preserving what I can for the winter.

What’s thriving in my garden at the moment:

 

Fall okra. No kidding. I planted okra at least a year ago, but it’s just now coming up. [soon to be killed by frost]

Cucumbers … another one waiting to be bitten by the frost… Maybe I can make a makeshift vertical row cover… I had bad luck with my summer cucumbers because the aphids and mites sucked them dry.

Of course my favorite volunteer Porter tomatoes, god love them, they are tenacious, if anything.

 

Tomatillos. My first endeavor with this plant. I had no idea it would go all over the place. It’s growing habit is more like pumpkins with how it spreads and takes over.

And the ever-resilient Swiss chard. This stuff is hardy and fairest of all. It grows in the winter, spring, summer and fall. It tastes the best in early spring and late fall. It’s frost tolerant to about 25 degrees, which makes it a perfect choice for my winter garden! It’s also delicious, bright and beautiful.

 

My Precious Tomatoes

A rainbow of fall tomatoes.

My compulsion to garden began with my quest to grow an abundance of tomatoes. I didn’t even like tomatoes until I was about 22 years old. The first time I remember loving the flavor of a freshly-picked, salted tomato was when I lived in Chicago working my first post-college job. I visited friends in Champagne one weekend and bought tomatoes at the farmers’ market. That first bite of beautifully ripe tomato was like heaven on a plate and since then I’ve been hooked. Two years after that tasty bite, I moved to Michigan—where the climate is just right for tomato growing.

My first garden was a success in Michigan, which has a much milder climate than North Central Texas. The harsh Texas summers and drought conditions make gardening a challenge. I decided to approach the objective from a different angle by looking for the best-performing vegetable varieties for my area.

I consulted the Texas Agri-Life Extension Service’s list of recommendations but only found a few tomato varieties for sale at local vendors– Celebrity, Beefsteak and Big Boy are the most commonly available. So I started looking to seed sources and catalogs, hoping to find varieties that would grow well where I lived. Over the last few years, I’ve amassed quite an assortment of seed stock and catalogs. The more I learned about the plentiful tomato varieties, the more intrigued I became with open-pollinated and heirloom varieties of all plants, not just tomatoes.

Peppers: Jalapenos and Serranos

Even though Texas “technically” has a long growing season, the hottest part of the summer is about keeping things alive, not producing. So really we have two short growing seasons with fall being best of all. In the spring I try to grow bush-type tomatoes that ripens (55-70 days) all at once. In July I pull the spent vines and start seeds in the same beds. What sprouts and makes it will produce the best fall fruit. If a volunteer tomato comes up, I let it grow. Every time I’ve done that, it’s produced the most awesome fruit.

After three trial-and-error growing seasons of starting tomatoes from seed, I’ve found that Porter and Porter Improved are the top performing tomato cultivars in my backyard; Willhite Seed has the highest germination rate of all the sources I’ve used; and when a volunteer tomato plant starts growing, let it grow because you will be rewarded for it.

My favorite resources:

Texas Agri-Life Extension http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/ — a great resource for all Texas gardeners. If you live in a different state, look for your local extension service. It will be affiliated with the land grant university in your state (Auburn, Michigan State, University of Illinois, Purdue, Texas A&M, etc.)

Willhite Seed
www.willhiteseed.com – everything I’ve ever grown from this supplier has been top notch. They breed their own watermelon seeds! The first year I grew their Porter tomatoes, I had a 98 percent germination rate – that is quality seed!

Botanical Interests
www.botanicalinterests.com – this company is part of the coalition of non-GMO growers and suppliers of seed. They have the best information on their seed packets – tons of information about each variety and cultivar.

Totally Tomatoes
www.totallytomato.com – the 2013 growing season is the first year I’ve used seeds from this supplier. So far so good. They have the most comprehensive selection of tomatoes I’ve ever seen. They also have a wonderful selection of other seeds, especially night shade plants (tomatoes are part of the night shade family).

RH Shumway
www.rhshumway.com – this company has the coolest retro-style catalogue and is one of the best sources for beans. 2013 is the first growing season I’ve used this seed provider. The germination rate has been excellent. It will be awhile before I can report on production.

Victory Seeds www.victoryseeds.com – one of the best sources for open-pollinated and heirloom seeds that grow in most parts of the United States. They produce their own seeds and are a non-GMO seed source.

Baker Creek (rare seeds) www.rareseeds.com – another comprehensive source for heirloom, open-pollinated and non-GMO seeds. I have not grown any seed from this supplier but they have great reviews.

Spring: It’s Coming

I started cleaning up and getting my greenhouse ready to start seeds. Today is February 11, but our last average frost date is about March 20. That means it’s time to start thinking about the spring garden. Even as we have a harsh cold snap, I was making way for planting tender annuals from seed so we can transplant after the danger of killing frost.

As for most gardeners, my ultimate prize is a crop of beautiful, tasty tomatoes. Next week we’re taking Jdubs for a checkup at the ENT in Cowtown, so we will have to stop in Poolville on the way home to visit Wilhite Seed. Many sellers of seeds only produce a few of their own (if at all), the rest they resell from other specialized plant breeders/dealers. Wilhite’s domain is melon seeds, especially watermelon seeds. All the seeds I bought from them were exceptional quality, with near 100% germination rates.

Even my county extension agent was surprised. I have no idea what was so extra special about last year’s seed starting exercise – but everything I started from seed did really well, until the heat set in. I knew we were in for it last year when we had a 100-degree day on April 8, 2011. That just set the tone for the rest of the summer.

Last year’s weather was horrible. We had a record-setting hot, dry summer. Nothing would grow. There was no rain. It was abysmal, even the okra was eaten by the grasshoppers. Needless to say, I’m looking very forward to a better year, for growing vegetables and herbs.

 

Nothing says spring like the return of the birds.

That’s the beauty of spring … it’s the time for beginnings … starting seeds, nurturing and caring for them, watching them grow, then harvest. Nothing is better than eating something wonderful that you grew.

The greenhouse.
Left side.
Right side.
My seed box: organizing, sorting, planning.

More gardening posts to come …

There was another squirrel in the backyard. Jdubs helped his daddy aim.

The Garden is Calling

The Garden is calling me … I received two new seed catalogs. Yea!

All kinds of organic, heirloom and hybrid varieties.

Other cool garden accessories and products…

For tonight … that’s all I got. Been burning the candle from both ends this week, but  I’ll be dreaming about the garden tonight. [Also I am having terrible writer’s block. Sometimes this is as good as it gets.]