Welcome to our first Get Growing entry. This series will span 12 months, and is designed to help aspiring vegetable gardeners get out of the kitchen and into the garden. On the first of each month, we will discuss one garden project for the novice vegetable gardener. Because we are located in Houston, Texas, our growing conditions differ from many parts of the English-speaking world. To help guide gardeners in cooler climates, our Get Growing partner is Daphne of Daphne's Dandelions. Daphne gardens in Boston, and she will be providing monthly advice for Northern gardeners (although her excellent site is a wonderful resource for gardeners everywhere). For Get Growing in December, Daphne will help you decide what to grow, where to put your garden, the different styles of gardening, and where to buy seeds. Regardless of where you garden, her advice is invaluable.
Determine Your Gardening Zone
Before getting started on your vegetable garden, establish your gardening zone. Zones are determined by the average minimum temperature for your area and help you decide when to start your seeds. We are located in Zone 9, which means our average minimum temperature is 25 degrees. It rarely gets that cold for more than a few nights each winter. Daphne is located in Zone 6.
You should also know when to expect the last frost of the year. For Houston, the average last frost occurs by February 15th, but it varies from year to year. Some years we have no frost at all (which is a bad thing because those frosts help reduce the mosquito population) and others we have several hard frosts. Last year, the guidelines were way off and Texas had extremely late frosts which destroyed the state's peach crop and many vegetable crops. Luckily for us, we were hopelessly disorganized last spring and didn't plant anything until April. So frost wasn't a problem for us, but we also missed the window to grow several spring vegetables and we shortened the life expectancies dramatically of others that were planted too late.
Gardening is a balancing act between starting your vegetables as early as possible and being punished by unseasonal weather. Northern gardeners have elaborate tricks to avoid these problems such as starting seeds indoors with grow lights, using poly tunnels or greenhouses, and growing in cold frames. If you need help with these projects, Daphne is the expert. Here in Houston our biggest problem is the heat, not the cold, so we don't take all those steps to lengthen the growing season. Instead, we need to start seeds as early as possible to beat the punishing heat which arrives by June each year, killing many herbs and vegetables.
Click here to find your zone. Click here to find your average last frost date.
Planting in December (in Houston)
Once you've determined your zone and last frost date, you'll be able to adapt our advice to your own growing conditions. If you live in L.A. or Orlando, you can probably use our calendar. Those in Dallas should wait about a month longer for spring planting, and Chicago around three months.
That was painful, but now that the technical stuff is out of the way we can get to the fun stuff, playing in the dirt. December is the second coldest month of the year, with January just a few degrees cooler. "Cold" in Houston is summer weather for many. As I write this I'm wearing a sundress and it is 72 degrees outside, hardly frigid. But, this is the time for us to grow the vegetables that need cold temperatures to thrive. If you're only going to plant one type of seed in your Zone 9 garden this month, it should be peas.
Fresh-picked organic vegetables are always better than what you buy at the grocery, but peas are practically a different species when you eat them straight from the garden. Peas are also highly productive plants so you will have a large harvest, and like other legumes, peas are "nitrogen fixers". This means that pea roots actually improve the soil and make your garden more fertile. A perfect, organic way to have a healthy garden and amazing harvest.
Peas have a very low tolerance for heat, making them a challenging vegetable to grow in our sub-tropical climate. There is a very narrow window to start peas here, with most gardeners starting their seeds at the end of December. There are three types of peas you can grow. Growing instructions will not vary, so make a selection based on eating preferences and how much space you have in your garden.
- Sugar Snap -- most productive type of pea (therefore requiring the least amount of space). Both the pod and seeds are eaten.
- Snow Pea -- grown for the edible pods, not the seeds. Less productive than sugar snaps, but many prefer their flavor.
- English Pea -- only the seeds are eaten, so this type of pea is bred to produce more seeds of better quality per pod. Petit pois, developed in France, are small but especially tasty. It takes a lot of English pea pods to produce enough for cooking, so this type of pea requires the largest commitment of garden space. It also requires the most time to harvest because the peas must be removed from the pods much like lima beans or edamame.
Buy Your Seeds
Every seed company carries peas. See the column on the right for recommended seed companies, all of which have excellent websites. We are growing Alderman (English) and Waverex (petit pois) from Territorial and Super Sugar Snap (sugar snap) from Park. Since you'll be planting at the end of the month, you have plenty of time to purchase your seeds. If you have never grown peas before, you may want to purchase an inoculant to provide your soil with the necessary bacteria. This will be sprinkled in when the seeds are planted to help the pea plants fix the nitrogen necessary to thrive.
Plant, Water and Wait
Pea plants become quite tall, and should be planted at the back of your border. Choose a location that gets plenty of sun, and drive in bamboo poles or a trellis to support the plants.
The seeds should be planted at a depth of about 1" and around 3" apart. The "seeds" will look like shriveled peas, and their relatively large size makes them easy to handle and less fussy than tiny seeds when it comes to planting depth. The soil should be loose and well-draining. Well-drained soil is the key to healthy pea plants, so if you have heavy clay soil and/or tropical rains like we do in Houston, consider growing in raised beds. Keep soil moist until seedlings emerge. About three weeks later, plant additional seeds in between your existing seedlings. These younger plants will extend your harvest period by several weeks.
Harvest sugar snaps when the pods start to fatten but before the seeds grow very large. Harvest snow peas when they are still quite flat. Harvest English peas when the pods are swollen and round. For all peas, flavor deteriorates rapidly once harvested (which is why your peas will taste so much better than anything you can purchase). Don't pick your peas until you are ready to cook or eat them.
Other seeds to start in December (in Zone 9) include:
- Garlic (beginning of the month only)
- Salad Greens (see our list of Greens for ideas)
- Yu Choy
Garden planning, planting methods, and seed selection (Get Growing in December, Daphne's Dandelions)