Monday, March 1, 2010

Get Growing in March

The Get Growing Series

Welcome to our fourth 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 March, Daphne discusses spinach, as well as row covers and peas.  Regardless of where you live, her advice is invaluable.

Get Growing in March, Zone 9

Here in Houston we have had an unusually cold winter with several hard frosts and lots of chilly days.  We even had a real snow for the first time since we moved to Houston in 1996.  It was exciting for our kids, but our summer vegetables weren't so happy.  While we were still harvesting eggplant, basil and tomatoes as late as November to the envy of many northern gardeners, none of those plants survived the unusually cold December and January weather.

So March is a re-building month, a time to start seeds for many of those summer vegetables that succumbed to the cold winter weather.  This month, assuming the temperatures stay above freezing, some of the vegetable seeds you can start in Zone 9 are:

  • Arugula
  • Beans (Snap, and later in the month Yard-Long and Lima)
  • Chile Peppers
  • Cucumber
  • Parsley
  • Mint
  • Sage
  • Sweet Pepper
  • Tomato
  • Tomatillo
  • Watermelon

Some of those vegetables, including arugula, mint, parsley and sage, survived our winter weather. Now is the time to plant succession crops.  Others, such as cucumber and chile peppers, require warm weather to thrive, so keep an eye on your local weather to determine when it's safe to plant.  Starting your seeds in pots makes your seedlings portable in the event of a late frost.

Why Snap Beans

Inspiration for this series came from the many envious emails we received from fellow cooks who hadn't yet ventured into the garden. For those of you who have a fear of the garden, beans are a great place to start.
Last month, our older son did a science fair experiment growing snap bean seeds using different liquids -- coke, orange juice, milk and water.  Surprisingly (at least to us), the milk seedlings did extremely well although they made our house smell like we had a dead body stashed in the kitchen.  Even the seeds given only coke germinated and grew.  So, if even a 9-year old can grow beans, and they'll grow with crazy liquids like milk and coke, anyone with a yard can grow snap beans
Bush vs. Pole Beans

You can select either bush beans or pole beans.  The advantage of bush beans (see picture above) is two-fold:  the plants do not require staking and they produce more quickly than pole beans.  A major advantage of pole beans is that they produce for a longer period of time, so the total harvest is greater.   Also, since pole beans grow vertically, they're an excellent choice for a small garden where you want to squeeze in a lot of plants.

In terms of flavor, we have had wonderful results with both types of beans.  Our favorite bush bean is Royal Burgundy, and our favorite pole bean is Cosse Violette (below).  The purple color of both beans makes for an easy harvest because it's easy to see the beans, plus both have outstanding flavor and the beans are especially beautiful (although they lose their purple color when cooked).

Last year, we had Royal Burgundy beans six weeks after starting the seeds and harvested beans for the next month.  The Cosse Violette took almost three months to start producing, but we then harvested until the cold weather killed the plants two months later.  Another snap bean we love is Burpee's Stringless Green Pod, a green bush bean that is extremely productive.  If you don't feel like ordering from a seed catalog, you can pick these up at Home Depot.

How to Grow Snap Beans

Like peas and other legumes, snap beans are nitrogen fixers.  This means that the plants will actually improve the soil, making them an excellent vegetable to grow before using the same section of the garden for a crop that is a heavy feeder.  The planting instructions are really simple (so simple, our nine year old did this on his own).
  1. Choose a nice, sunny spot for your beans.  If you are growing pole beans, plant at the back of your border because the plants will become quite tall, and drive in bamboo poles or other supports for your plants.
  2. Make sure the soil is friable enough for the seedlings to penetrate after germination.  In other words, make sure the soil is not so compacted that nothing can grow.  And if you have heavy clay soil, amend with compost to loosen before starting the seeds.
  3. Plant according to the package directions, which is usually about 1 inch deep.  Bean seeds are so big, we don't bother to make holes for the seeds first.  Instead, we just press them into the soil at regular intervals, about 6 inches apart.  You can plant pole beans closer together than bush beans because they will grow up instead of becoming low and full.  We plant our pole bean seeds about 3" apart.
  4. Keep the soil watered until germination.  You shouldn't need to amend the soil, but may need to water occasionally if it gets extremely hot and dry.
  5. We have not had serious pest problems with our bean plants.  There is a butterfly, the long-tailed skipper, that likes to lay eggs on these plants, but the caterpillars are fairly well behaved and eat only the leaves of the plants, not the bean pods.  You can easily pluck off the eggs and caterpillars when you see them.
  6. The plants will flower, and each flower that is pollinated will become a bean.  Beans have "perfect" flowers, making for a high pollination rate.  We are firm believers in hand-pollination for vegetables such as eggplant and cucumber, but we've never bothered with the beans.  They'll produce like crazy without any help.
  7. The beans start out as a tiny, fully formed bean.  They then lengthen and thicken until maturity.  You want to harvest when the beans are about the width of a pencil and before the pod gets lumpy.  If you wait too long, they won't taste as good (but they are certainly still edible).
  8. Plant succession crops (new seeds) every three or four weeks to keep your harvest going all summer.
  9. In Zone 9, you should be able to grow and harvest beans from April through late autumn.
There are millions of ways to prepare snap beans.  For the simplest, most perfect way to cook beans fresh from the garden, here's our recipe for Beans a la Francaise.  You can find lots of other bean recipes here on our site.  If you have questions, we're always happy to help.  Just drop us an email.

Other posts in the Get Growing Series

Determining Your Garden Zone and Growing Peas
Garden Planning, Planting Methods, and Seed Selection
Growing Lettuce
Starting Seeds Indoors
Growing Tomatoes
Compost:  What Is It, How to Make It, How to Use It
Spinach, Row Covers and Peas


  1. Love your veggies. Hey Robin, I have a giveaway at my blog. Do check it out.

  2. Still lovin' this series. Excellent advice.

  3. Love this series. I still have not yet built my garden. I mean, I had a 4'X 4' garden last year, but I want to triple that this year. But every weekend has been cold and rainy! Grr at this unusual weather.

  4. Great series Robin!

    I don't usually start my summer garden with seeds, but last year's San Marzano's were soooo good I had to do it. (Saved seeds from those tomatoes)

    My little guys are starting to send out their 2nd set of leaves. YAY!

  5. Thought I'd show off my little guys:

  6. This makes me want a house with a backyard SO SO bad!


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