When I was a kid growing up in the Dallas area, I was taught that you planted the vegetable garden in the spring, sometime around Easter, and harvest was in the summer and fall. We planted the whole thing at once, over a weekend or two, and some things did fine with that, but some things didn’t. The cherry tomatoes, peppers, beans, and squash did fine, but the lettuce didn’t last long until it bolted and turned bitter, and the onion sets we planted never grew into big bulbs.
Since then I’ve learned a lot more about growing vegetables in Texas, or at least in Central Texas where I live now. The idea of planting in the spring and harvesting in the fall may work for most of the country, and that’s why you find it in most generic gardening books, but this far South things are a bit different. Remember, all gardening is local. Fortunately, there’s more and more regional gardening information coming out all the time.
Texas actually has two distinct growing seasons with two distinct groups of crops. You have the summer crops, which are planted in spring and harvested in summer or fall, and then you have the winter crops, which are planted in fall and harvested in spring. The good news is that means you can have something growing in your garden all year. The bad news is you have a do a bit more research to find out when you can plant what. Of course, you could just do what some people do, and not bother with the winter crops, but my goal is to get as much food out of my garden as possible, so leaving the garden empty during the winter when I could be growing all kinds of things just seems like a waste. So here is a list of what crops are the warm-weather crops, and which the cool-weather crops are. The main difference between the two is whether or not they can survive a frost. Most summer crops can’t survive a frost, while most winter crops can, but bolt or turn bitter or otherwise do poorly in hot weather.
Nightshades – tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, tomatillos
Cucurbits – squash, melons, cucumbers, gourds
Warm weather legumes – common beans, lima beans, and cowpeas (which includes black-eyed peas and yardlong beans)
Warm weather greens – Malabar spinach, amaranth
Root crops – carrots, beets, turnips, parsnips, radishes, rutabagas
Brassicas – cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, collards
Salad greens – lettuce, arugula, spinach, chicory, endive, Swiss chard
Cold weather legumes – peas and fava beans
Cold weather annual herbs – parsley, dill, cilantro, fennel
Alliums – onions, garlic, leeks
There are some general rules of thumb. Most plants where you eat the fruit, like tomatoes, peppers, squash, melons, etc. are warm weather crops. Most plants where you eat the leaves or roots are cool weather crops, but there are some exceptions.
Since frost hurts or even kills warm weather crops, you have to plant them after your average frost date (which here is in early March), though you can plant nightshade transplants earlier if you give them protection. I sometimes plant them in February, since by then whatever frosts we might have are minor and I can run out there and throw a cover over them if it happens. Depending on the severity of the summer, some of these crops can last the whole summer, while others might die by August, though sometimes you can plant a second crop in time for fall.
Cool weather crops need to be grown during the winter, because in hot weather they bolt and turn bitter, or just shrivel up and die. Most of them can survive the whole winter until it starts getting warm again around May or so, but in unusually cold winters some might die and can be replanted in late winter or early spring for a quick crop before it gets too hot for them.
The tricky part, which I haven’t quite mastered yet, is coordinating the planting and harvesting times for cool and warm weather crops. I’d like to get the maximum amount of food out of my garden plot as possible, so that means that ideally as soon as one crop is done, I can immediately plant another crop of something else in the same spot. The problem is there is significant overlap between one bunch of crops being done and a new bunch being planted.
Right now is one of those in-between times. We’ve gotten a couple of cold fronts, so it’s finally cool enough to start planting the fall/winter crops. The problem is, many of the summer crops managed to survive the summer (not all, but some), and are still taking up room in the garden. It does depend on the severity of the summer, but this year all my peppers survived the summer, along with a few of the tomatoes, the basil, and the luffa gourds. I went ahead and ripped out the pole beans, melons, and squash, which were all either dead or mostly dead. That has left some room to start sticking in fall crops here and there.
My strategy so far is to just squeeze stuff in where I can. Here you can see my newly transplanted mustard greens next to some peppers and one of the few surviving tomatoes. It seems to mostly work, but makes the garden very patchy and haphazard looking. But maybe that’s ok.
Some forethought is necessary, though, especially for some crops. For example, potatoes are planted in January or February, which is a while after the first fall crops are planted, so I have to make sure to set aside a patch for them while I'm planting things in September and October. Then they’re harvested in May or June, which is a bit too late to plant a lot of summer crops like peppers and tomatoes. But then what do I do with the empty spot where the potatoes were harvested? I have to find a crop that can stand being planted that late in the year, when it’s already getting hot outside. Garlic presents a similar problem. It’s planted at the same time as most fall crops, but isn’t harvested until May or June, again leaving an empty spot in the garden when it’s too late to plant a lot of things. The last time I planted potatoes, I followed them up with sweet potatoes, and that seemed to work well. I wonder if okra, watermelon, or cowpeas would work too. You need something that can really stand the heat. Tomatoes or cucumbers don't work. May is just too late for them.
If you grow your own transplants, that complicates things even more, because you have to have the forethought of starting them a month or two in advance of when they go out in the garden. That means fall brassicas are started in early August when it’s blazing hot outside, and I start my tomatoes and peppers right in the middle of winter. It seems wrong, I know, but I kept having to push the date back and back and back, until I found myself planting tomatoes on New Year's.
It takes some research and trial-and-error, but I try to make it so there’s always something growing in the garden.