In the Texas Panhandle, March can be a diabolical tease. A string of sunny, 70-degree afternoons can easily be followed by a blizzard or hard freeze. Many a local gardener has jumped the gun, planted in the unreliable sunshine, and awakened to a crop of sad, frozen plants.
That’s why Justin Young, the director of nutrition education at High Plains Food Bank—and the nonprofit’s gardening educator—says March is for garden planning, not planting.
“Even though it may be cold, it’s still a great idea to get everything going now,” Young says. “So when May 1 hits, all you’ll have to do is put plants down. You don’t want to still be planning a garden and thinking it through when it’s time to plant.”
Young advises local gardeners to check the 10-day forecast on April 15. If no snow is on the horizon, go ahead and plant. “To be completely safe, wait until May 1. If there’s no snow in the forecast, anything can go in the ground then.”
He shares a few steps local gardeners can take now while they’re waiting.
Select a spot.
First-time gardeners need to be thinking now about a garden location, because May will be too late. “Make sure it’s accessible and easy to get to, but not high-traffic. You don’t want it to get trampled on by dogs,” he says. Look for a space that receives 6 to 8 hours of sun every day.
For homeowners with existing gardens, March is the time to evaluate that location. If it needs more accessibility or sunlight, rethink your space now and get to work.
Amend the soil.
In the fall, Young always recommends that gardeners pile several inches of dry leaves atop their garden beds and leave them there all winter. As the leaves break down, they add nutrients to the soil. For those who didn’t take that early step, adding compost or other soil amendments in the spring is an essential step for Texas Panhandle clay.
By enriching the soil before planting, you ensure future plants have all the nutrients they need. Be careful with application rates, though, especially for manure-based compost, which can be high in nitrogen. “It needs to be well-aged if you’re not going to till it in,” Young says.
Gardeners have more leeway when top-dressing a bed with an inch or two of vegetable-based compost. “With homemade compost, you can get by with a 50/50 mix of the soil in the ground and your homemade compost,” he says. Mixing up the top inch or two of the soil is fine—you won’t be able to plant well in straight compost—but Young doesn’t recommend deep tilling. “That can wear out the life in your soil,” he says.
Design your garden.
“What are the crops you want to eat this spring and summer?” Young asks. Make that decision, and don’t just focus on what you want to eat, but what you should be eating. “If you grow it, you’re more likely to eat it.”
Veteran gardeners will want to avoid planting the same crops in the same locations every year. “This depletes the soil,” Young says. “Certain plants take out certain nutrients.” It also increases the chance for pests or disease. From blight-causing bacteria to squash bugs, garden nemeses often hibernate or go dormant in the winter, ready to come to life when the temperatures warm. Crop rotation reduces these chances.
Young recommends saving a map or photo of your garden every year so you can determine how to rotate plants.
Make a schedule.
Once you’ve made a plan, look up the number of days it takes for a plant to reach maturity and backtrack from there. This is always listed on seed packs. Some cool-weather crops like chard or spinach can be planted in March. Others should wait until the warmer soil of early June. Base your planting schedule on those timelines.
Also pay attention to which seeds can be sown directly into the ground and which need to start indoors. “You can actually start tomatoes inside around Valentine’s Day,” Young says. “They need a head start.” May is too late to plant tomato seeds, so at that point he recommends picking up tomato plants at a local greenhouse.
March isn’t too late, though. Get those seeds started!
Plan for water.
Young says irrigation is often an afterthought for new gardeners, but in a parched environment like ours, watering should be top of mind. “We live in a hot climate during the summer, and your garden needs to be watered every day. People don’t think about when they’re on vacation, or even if they’re out of town for the day,” he says. Young recommends solutions as inexpensive as a soaker hose and an automated timer. Water in the early morning when less water is likely to be lost to evaporation.
The gardening season is about to begin. Sharpen your tools, select your seeds, and get ready.
Spring Into Planting
Local gardeners know the best summer harvests start inside the home, when the soil and weather are still too cool for planting. Most vegetables—apart from cool-season leafy greens—need to be sown before the last frost. If you’re growing from seed, that means sowing them in front of sunny windows or in a bright sunroom. Here are a few locally sourced products to get started.