The headline is inspired by someone who was a great mentor to me during my time at Texas A&M University, where I did radio and television work for the College of Agriculture. I credit Dr. Sam Cotner, who unfortunately passed away a few years ago. His advice, books and writings are still considered some of the best for home gardeners, especially when it comes to vegetable gardening.
Whenever I interviewed Dr. Cotner, he always emphasized how important it is “to keep your shadow in the garden” if you want to succeed. We were forced to be pretty good at that during 2020 and the pandemic. But now that things are getting back to semi-normal, I’m sensing that many people have blown off their consistent attention to their veggie gardens.
I’m worried that, although people tell me in phone calls, emails and Facebook posts they want to have veggie gardens, they don’t seem to want to invest the required time anymore. It’s as if they want to build one but think it will take care of itself.
Aucontraire, mon frère, as Bart Simpson, Tennessee Tuxedo or Van Wilder might say. To the contrary, my brother - when you build it, you should visit it on a daily basis. Or at the very least, every other day. Cast your shadow in your garden, and you’ll be able to head off many problems … from diseases to insects to moisture issues. You can also pull weeds easier when they’re small, not allowing them to run rampant and win the nutrition competition with your plants.
For an analogy, let’s take scale on evergreen shrubs … or aphids on crape myrtles. By the time I get a call or email, things are highly infested or gravely affected. “Randy, my holly is covered with black fungus!” It seems people just aren’t willing to regularly walk through their gardens or their property and catch things early.
“Black fungus” on hollies is usually a scale problem that never really needs to get to the point where it’s black sooty mold. It could have been detected early when it was just tiny white spots. Same for crapes. Aphids start sucking juices from the underside of the leaves, dripping a honeydew on the leaves below. By regularly walking your property, you should spot a shiny coating on the leaves that will absorb all the black soot. If you see shiny leaves first, you can assume you have an insect problem.
Anyway, back to veggie gardens. If you walk the garden once a day, you can catch stink bugs long before they ravage a tomato. If you see a curled-up leaf on any plant, you can figure out quickly whether it’s an insect inside or the start of a fungal disease. You’re checking for moisture consistency, you’re pulling weeds, you’re removing insects … you’re keeping your shadow in the garden.
And there’s one more really good reason I’m hammering on this point right now. We are coming up on our fall vegetable garden season. Newbies to gardening along the Gulf Coast need to know that we BUILD OUR FALL BEDS NOW, then let them rest a few weeks before we start planting things - as early as August 15. And remember that, besides keeping your shadow in the garden, nothing is more important than building the beds correctly with the best soil. All gardening success in Texas starts with the soil.