Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Get Growing in December

Get Growing

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:
  • Cabbage
  • Beet
  • Arugula
  • Carrot
  • Garlic (beginning of the month only)
  • Kale
  • Mache
  • Mizuna
  • Parsley
  • Salad Greens (see our list of Greens for ideas)
  • Spinach
  • Radish
  • Tatsoi
  • Turnip
  • Yu Choy
Other posts in the Get Growing series

Garden planning, planting methods, and seed selection (Get Growing in December, Daphne's Dandelions)



    1. You are doing a great job! What a detailed post!

    2. Great advice. I really enjoy my garden, but usually wait until spring. I'll give this a try!

    3. Thanks for the info.! I am so glad you blogged about this today! I want to order a seed catalog now--how funny. I grew peas last year but they never made it into the house--I ate them from the vine!

    4. This is post is probably for me. :D I've been wanting to grow my own vegetables but they always die. I started with herbs but I'm not successful with it. So, maybe if I start with vegetables, they would grow. It's so great to just pick ingredients right from your garden.

    5. This is a really great how-to for gardening wannabes like me! Too bad the 180 unit highrise complex I live in doesn't have rooftop garden plots. I'd LOVE to experiment with growing my own veggies!

    6. Found my way here from Daphne's Dandelions. This series will be very useful to gardeners of all levels.

    7. Love your recipes and posts. I will be addng you to my blog roll so I can keep up with you. hope you do the same :)

    8. Awesome post with great info! Thank you!

    9. I've always wanted to grow my own vegetables. Unfortunately, living in Manhattan isn't very conducive to growing any plant life. I can hardly keep my yucca plant alive! This is a great concept though and maybe I'll start with a tiny little herb garden :)

    10. this is fabulous! i have to start a garden this year, so i'm going to follow along and make it happen. i love all your details and links to other helpful sites. thanks! :)

    11. We're going to start growing this year too - Mr. Other P's parents are moving, so no more free veggies until they get sorted.

      Peas, cabbages and pumpkins are deffinites so far. Might try courgettes too.

    12. I want to garden and have tried a bit with some success - this will be great for me...someone telling me when to do what yeah!
      I will follow the Boston guide as I am in PA! Great idea thanks!

    13. Very informative and helpful for the gardening!
      Vegetable Growing Advice

    14. Have my beets and kale roughly 2 weeks away from harvest time. Even have a couple of winter tomatoes this year.

      How about starting a cooking contest for those who get inspired from your posts to plant their own veggies? I'd enter.

    15. Thank you for sharing this with us -- my fiance and I love to garden. Granted we live in an apartment and do not have our own plot to grow on, we do our best with flower pots :) I am excited to see more, nothing beats the taste of fresh vegetables!

    16. Ooh, so much information! 2010 is our second year of having a garden and I'm looking forward to tweaking things. My husband has requested peas, so this helps a ton. Thank you!

    17. This is so awesome! I can't even fathom that you're out planting peas right now, wow! I am like Daphne, I start my seedlings indoors in March. I've now received about 3 catalogs and am on my way to ordering seeds! If you need anyone from the Midwest to help out, let me know!

    18. I am in Dallas and about to start my first garden ever! I can't tell you how helpful your blog is. I've been so overwhelmed with information that i've thought of quitting a couple of times. My tummy thanks you!!!!!!


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