Gardening hacks for Spring success

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HOUSTON, TX-- So spring is about a month away. It's time to start planning your garden.

But is your black thumb keeping you from even trying? Not to worry because Jess Haskins used to be just like you. She killed almost everything she attempted to grow. Now, she runs her own edible landscaping business, Patiovore, here in Houston.

How'd she do it? Well, when she was in college at the University of Houston, she realized growing her own food would make life a lot easier (and cheaper!). So, like any good student, she researched local gardening.  She built a raised bed in the backyard with her brother and, lo and behold, success!

"I was kind of in shock!" she admits. The change started with Dr. Bob Randall's book, "Year Round Vegetables Fruits and Flowers for Metro Houston."

"This is like the bible of gardening in Houston," Haskins says, "This is what made my company possible."  The book outlines what grows in our climate and exactly when to plant them for success, as well as problems you might encounter.

She also learned her how to work with Houston's mucky soil. "Being under the Texas sun," she says, "will kind of cook off a lot of the nutrients... The standard practice now is to bring in fresh soil. The Ground Up and Nature's Way are two great local companies for soil that's high in organic matter." Adding compost will revitalize soil, while  chemical fertilizers feed the plant but can eventually burn the soil out.

When it comes to watering, Jess says water from a rain barrel is the only way to go. "It's almost like night and day, the gardens that use rainwater (compared with) ones that are watered with city water. Because of the treatments to make city water safe for drinking, it has a detrimental effect on the health of your soil."

Another thing that can affect your soil is the type of mulch you use. She recommends using only the native hardwood stuff. While dyed mulches may look pretty, they are often made of trash wood that can suck nitrogen from your soil, and the dyes can leach off, killing good bacteria and helpful bugs and worms.

And speaking of bugs, Haskins says she never uses insecticides, "I've heard that 90% of insects are beneficial and 10% are pests, so if you put chemicals out to chase away that 10%, you also chase away some of the 90% that could give you healthier plants." Instead, she plants a wide variety of vegetation that seem to take care of the problems of one another.

For new gardeners looking for quick success, she recommends growing cherry tomatoes ("they just stand up to anything"), fruit trees and herbs.

For more gardening ideas and advice, check out the Spring Gardening Guide in this month's Houstonia.