The heat of July and August in Texas can be debilitating and can leave your garden looking barren and lifeless. For some plants the only option you are left with at this point is to give in to the heat and start over again when the temperatures fall back into a reasonable range. If you want to keep a productive garden over an extremely hot summer you will want to choose plants that thrive in heat and humidity. This guide will provide you with some options for maintaining a productive garden in an extremely hot climate such as Texas.
Before we discuss which plants to grow in the heat, we should discuss some overall strategies to promote healthy growth regardless of which plants you choose to grow:
Shade is your best friend when it comes to growing a summer garden in Texas. Just as we like to sit in the shade and sip on a cold beverage, your plants will also appreciate a good amount of shade as well. Even plants that are marketed as "full sun" will do fine with lots of afternoon shade. Try to shoot for at least 6 hours of sun for these plants, especially in the early morning and afternoon. Having an area that gets dappled sunlight all day is another option as well.
If you don't have any natural shade from the trees or structures on your property, you can create shade as well. If your garden area doesn't span several acres you can purchase a shade cloth to protect the most vulnerable plants in your garden during the hottest part of the day. Shade cloth can be purchased in custom sizes and is rated by the percentage of shade it provides. I recommend using a shade cloth rated at 50% shade for most vegetables, herbs, and flowers.
The reality of the situation is that you are no doubt going to have to water your plants often in July and August - sometimes every day. The timing of watering, as well as the method of watering, are both very important to minimize water loss to evaporation. Drip irrigation is highly recommended in garden plots in order to direct the water to the exact spot that you need it without losing a majority of it to evaporation. Watering with a sprinkler or by hand is not recommended if it can be avoided. The one situation when watering by hand is okay is if you are watering pots.
The timing of watering is also very important in order to maximize the uptake of water into your plants. Watering first thing in the morning before it gets too hot is the most efficient time to water. Your plants will be able to uptake as much water as they can before the heat of the day sets in and you won't lose as much water to evaporation. If you can't water first thing in the morning the next best time to water would be in the evening when the sun has made its way down and is no longer blaring hot. Watering during the hottest part of the day should be avoided if at all possible. If this is the only time you have to water then obviously it is a better choice than killing your plants.
Mulch is an extremely important addition to the garden no matter what season it is. Mulch protects the soil, prevents erosion, slows the growth of weeds, and acts as a temperature regulator. In the heat of the summer, mulch cools the soil and locks-in moisture. In winter, mulch warms the soil and protects the roots of your plants. We use a natural wood chip mulch at Ronin Farm, which provides great coverage and will eventually break down and add beneficial structure and fungal growth to the soil. Other options for mulch include: wheat straw, well aged compost, cotton hulls, pecan shells, and clean/weed free hay. Use a thick layer, at least 4 to 5 inches, for the best results.
Vegetables, herbs, and flowers to grow in extremely hot climates
There's something very rewarding about foraging for wild fruit and bringing it home to make something delicious with it in the kitchen. When I was a kid growing up in Washington state we foraged for wild huckleberries. We made huckleberry pie, jam, ice cream - anything and everything we could make out of them. My brothers and I would head up into the mountains with our dad in search of the tasty and tart berries. Our dad would carry a rifle strapped to his back because where there are wild huckleberries there are sure to be wild bears as well. We would fill a bucket full of the fruit and then head back home to process them into tasty treats.
Here in Texas the wild mustang grape and dewberry are very similar. The great thing about these wild fruits is that they are abundant and you don't have to hike up a mountainside to compete with bears to find them. If you have property here in the Brazos Valley you have probably encountered wild mustang grapes or dewberries at some point.
The wild mustang grape (Vitis mustangensis) is native to the Southern United States and its range includes Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi. The fruit is very tart and the skin is very thick, but when you extract the juice and add sugar the flavor of the grape really shines through and makes for a delicious jelly.
To begin, harvest 3 lbs of wild mustang grapes from the vine. *Note - when foraging for wild plants you should be absolutely sure you have correctly identified the plant. There are berries that look very similar that can be toxic. Once you have your grapes harvested it's time to wash them and remove the stems.
Once the grapes are rinsed, place them in a large pot with 2 cups of water over high heat. Bring the grapes to a boil and cook for about 10 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and use a potato masher to mash the grapes into a pulp to remove all of the juice. Carefully strain the pulp and juice through a fine mesh strainer into a heat proof bowl. To expedite the process use the back of a spoon to extract all of the juice through the strainer.
When you have all of the juice strained the next step is to get your canning equipment all setup and ready. This recipe will make approximately 8 half-pint jars. Wash and sterilize your jars and lids and get a pot of water boiling to process the jars in. You can buy canning kits that come with all of the equipment necessary to complete the next few steps.
You will need the following equipment for this project:
8 half pint jars
8 lids and rings
Head space measuring tool
Jar tongs for placing and removing jars from boiling water
Large processing pot
You can buy kits on Amazon that include a lot of these essential tools together.
When your jars are sterilized and your processing pot is boiling, pour your grape juice back into a pot and bring to a boil. Add one package of pectin to the liquid and stir. Add all of the sugar at once and stir to incorporate. Bring the liquid back to a rolling boil and let it boil for another minute.
Remove the jelly mixture from the heat and quickly ladle the liquid through a funnel into the canning jars leaving 1/4" of head space on top of each jar. Wipe the rim of the jars to make sure there is not any jelly liquid on the rim as this can prevent the jars from sealing properly. Place a lid and a ring on each jar and tighten them. Lower the jars into your processing pot using tongs. To safely process the jelly be sure you have an inch of boiling water over the top of the jars and prevent the jars from touching each other during the process. Process the jars for 10 minutes in the boiling water.
Carefully remove the jars from the boiling water and place them on the counter on a towel to cool. You will hear a "popping" sound as the jars begin to seal properly. If any of your jars don't seal properly you can place those jars straight into the fridge or freezer to be used first.
I recently made fresh paprika powder using a food dehydrator and a spice grinder, so I quickly put the fresh powder to use to capture all of the amazing flavors at their peak. If you didn't read my blog post about making fresh pepper powder you can read it here.
Chicken paprikash is a delicious recipe that highlights the sweet and slightly spicy flavors of the hot Hungarian paprika pepper. This recipe is Hungarian in origin and is typically served with egg noodles or grains. The dish is comforting and will have you licking your plate when you are done!
To start, it is best to prep all of your ingredients first. For this recipe I purchased about 2 lbs of "bone-in" pasture raised chicken thighs from the Brazos Valley Farmers Market. You can use boneless chicken here if you prefer - breasts or thighs. I prefer dark meat chicken and I like the bone in because of the flavor the bones impart on the chicken. Season your chicken with salt and pepper on both sides. The vegetables should be prepared by cutting them into a fine dice - I used a small white onion, a large red bell pepper from the farm, four small farm tomatoes, and two cloves of garlic.
Once you have all of your ingredients prepped, preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Now it's time to start cooking your aromatics in a thick oven-proof pan. I love cooking with cast iron so I used a cast iron pan for this recipe. Cast iron pans are very affordable these days and they provide even heat that is perfect for searing and braising.
Heat one tablespoon of butter with one tablespoon of oil in the pan over medium-high heat. Make sure you use oil with a high smoke point such as vegetable or canola oil. Once the oil is nice and hot, sear off the chicken (in batches if necessary) in the pan. Be sure not to crowd the pan, because you want to get a nice sear on each piece of chicken. Start with the chicken skin side down and then flip to the other side after 5 minutes, or when you have developed a nice golden brown crust. Continue cooking the chicken on the other side for another 5 minutes and then remove the chicken to a plate to rest.
Without draining the fat, next sauté the onions for 5 minutes over medium heat. Add the garlic and peppers and continue cooking for another 3 minutes. Add 1.5 tablespoons of paprika powder (homemade or store bought) and stir the vegetable mixture so the paprika begins to fry in the oil to release its flavor. Add two tablespoons of flour to the mixture and stir again to combine. Cook for 4 minutes.
Add the diced tomatoes to the pan along with 3/4 cup of broth - gently stir. Situate the chicken back into the pan with the skin side facing up. Place the pan into the oven and cook until the chicken reaches the correct temperature and the sauce has thickened.
While you wait for the chicken to cook in the oven, bring a medium pot of water to a boil on the stove. Cook 8 ounces of egg noodles in the water until they are al dente - about 8 to 10 minutes. Drain the noodles and add one tablespoon of butter to them and mix to combine. I used Mrs. Millers old fashioned egg noodles. They have a great texture and are a better quality than the cheaper egg noodles.
Once the chicken reaches the correct temperature, carefully remove the pan from the oven using an oven mitt or towel. Remove the chicken to a plate and then add 1/2 cup of sour cream to the sauce and gently stir to combine.
To assemble the dish, divide the noodles evenly to four plates or coupe bowls. Place one chicken portion onto each plate on top of the noodles. Ladle the sauce evenly over the top of all four plates. Enjoy!
This season I have had really good luck growing the Leutschauer Paprika Pepper from Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company. This pepper is a slightly spicy Hungarian paprika that makes for an excellent dried spice that will bring a burst of flavor to your sauces or spice rubs.
To make dried peppers I recommend using a food dehydrator rather than an oven. Ovens don't typically get lower than 170 degrees, which is a little too hot for dehydrating. I was tempted to try the oven method, but the thought of running the oven with the door slightly cracked for several hours didn't seem appealing to me. I decided it was time to own a food dehydrator because there are endless things coming off the farm that I can dehydrate.
After searching online and reading many reviews, I decided to purchase the Nesco FD-75A Snackmaster Pro. I have used this dehydrator in the past and love the amount of space it has, as well as the adjustable thermostat for a more accurate dehydration process depending on what product you are dehydrating. The other great thing about this dehydrator is the price, which is less than $60 with free shipping if you have Amazon Prime.
This method can be used for any pepper you have on hand - I just happened to have some nice paprika peppers so I started with those. To begin, you will want to work with fresh peppers that are firm and don't have any brown spots or soft tissue. Wash your peppers thoroughly and pat dry. If you are working with larger peppers like paprika, jalapeno, or poblano, it is best to cut your peppers into thin strips so they dehydrate better. If you have small peppers like cayenne or Tabasco you can leave them whole.
Once your peppers are cut into thin strips you can arrange them on the dehydrator trays making sure they aren't touching or overlapping so they dehydrate better. The Nesco dehydrator recommends dehydrating vegetables at 135 degrees. My peppers took about 12 hours to dry at this temperature. You will want them to be be nice and crisp, rather than leathery, when you go to grind them so they grind into a nice powder.
The final step is to use a spice grinder to grind the dried peppers into a powder. I purchased a Shardor spice/coffee grinder and I am very pleased with the results. It comes with two grinding bowls, one for spices and one for coffee. If you want your peppers to be the consistency of red pepper flakes pulse the peppers a few times and check for the desired size of flakes - repeat if necessary. If you would prefer a pepper powder I recommend grinding for about 30 seconds.
That's all there is to it! It's best to keep your pepper powder in a air tight jar in a dark and cool place in the cupboard. Pepper powder should last about 6 months before it starts to lose it's freshness and flavor. Once you taste how amazing fresh pepper powder is, you won't have a hard time finding some delicious recipes to use it well before 6 months has passed.
Written by Corey Wahl
Growing Fall tomatoes in Texas can be one of the most disheartening endeavors a gardener can attempt. It's a common scenario: The blistering summer heat finally ends in September and the temperatures recede back into the 80's - sometimes all the way through November. To us optimistic gardeners this seems like the perfect time to plant out a 2nd crop of tomatoes. The tomato plants grow wonderfully and the cooler nights provide the perfect temperature for flowering and fruit set. We watch the healthy green tomatoes grow to their full potential and then we wait for the first sign of color...and we wait.....and wait. Just when the first tomatoes begin to ripen the nights begin getting cooler and cooler and suddenly the forecast shows a cold front on the horizon that will threaten the whole crop, so we start making fried green tomatoes in an attempt to gain something from all of our hard work. Sound familiar?
Growing a successful Fall tomato crop in Texas takes careful planning and an awareness of a few key factors:
Timing of planting
Fall tomatoes should be planted as transplants around the beginning of August in order for the plants to have enough time to grow to the ripening stage before it gets too late in the fall. The tricky part about this is finding transplants for sale in July. Even if you do find transplants, chances are they won't necessarily be varieties that will meet the rest of the criteria outlined below. I highly recommend starting your own transplants, which comes with its own set of challenges because this will need to be done in mid-July when it is 100+ degrees outside.
Transplants need sufficient light in order to grow healthy, strong, and bushy. The problem with trying to start seedling trays in the sun in Texas in July is that the soil will heat up to a temperature not suitable for healthy root growth. You can work around this by starting transplants in a garage or work space with LED lights (click here to read my blog about starting plants indoors). Setting up a LED grow light in a garage will allow you to get maximum light needed for healthy growth, while keeping the seedlings out of the damaging Texas sun until they have reached a healthy size. You can use fans or air conditioning to grow the seedlings in a comfortable environment (somewhere between 75 and 85 degrees would be ideal).
Determinate vs. Indeterminate
Before you purchase your seedlings, or grow them yourself with LED lights, it is essential to understand a few terms when it comes to tomatoes. The first set of terms to become familiar with is determinate vs. indeterminate. When you purchase seeds this designation should always be clearly marked on the packet or website.
Determinate tomatoes are sometimes referred to as "bush tomatoes" because they will generally grow to about 4 or 5 feet and set fruit that will ripen within a short window. They require less trellising because of their size so they can be grown with cages or stakes.
Indeterminate tomatoes, or vine tomatoes, will continue growing indefinitely throughout the season and will continuously set fruit over a long period of time until conditions become unfavorable for them to do so. These tomatoes require taller trellises and a lot more time.
Early vs. late season
The next characteristic to look for when selecting tomatoes is early vs. late season. Early season tomatoes are those that produce faster, or earlier in the season. Late season tomatoes, as you might have already guessed, take much longer to produce.
Size is another major factor when selecting a fall tomato in Texas. The larger beefsteak tomatoes take a long time to ripen on the vine and may not be the best choice when time is of the essence. Selecting medium to small slicing tomatoes, or cherry and grape tomatoes, will ensure a more successful harvest of ripe tomatoes over the course of the season.
Now that you are familiar with some of the characteristics of tomato plants, it is time to select seeds that fit some of the more favorable conditions for the fall in Texas. These characteristics will include one or all of the following: determinate, early season, and smaller size.
Equipped with this knowledge it is time to purchase seeds to start your successful fall tomato planting. I highly recommend you source your seeds from a quality supplier who clearly categorizes their seed stock with well defined characteristics. Purchasing seed from a big box store may not be the most ideal choice here.
I purchased my fall tomato seeds online from a company called Tomato Fest. Tomato Fest is run by a married couple who have been in the tomato business for almost 30 years. You can search their seed inventory using the characteristics listed above. Some varieties I have found that fit some or all of the criteria include:
I highly you suggest you browse this awesome website full of tomatoes and choose some varieties that seem fun and interesting to you. Just keep in mind some of the attributes and characteristics outlined in this post when making your selections. Good luck with your fall tomatoes.
Written by Corey Wahl
I would like to share with you one of my favorite summertime drinks that you can make utilizing the large and seedy cucumbers that would otherwise be unpleasant to eat. If you are a gardener who has grown cucumbers you know that it is very easy to miss the harvest for a few days only to come back to your plants to find massive cucumbers that are full of seeds. Instead of hanging your head low at the sight of all of the overgrown cukes, you can now celebrate - it's time to make some agua fresca!
Aguas frescas, which literally translates to "fresh water", is a popular street drink in Mexico and the U.S. My personal favorite flavors are jamaica (hibiscus) and pepino (cucumber). Cucumbers are perfect for making agua fresca because they consist mainly of water anyway, so a good portion of the liquid in this recipe comes from the cucumber to impart an amazing fresh flavor in the drink.
The secret to a well extracted agua fresca is to use a quality high-powered blender. I own a 1200-watt Ninja Intelli-sense blender that I absolutely love and use at least once a week for smoothies, soups, drinks, salsas, sauces, and much more. The Ninja is a nice affordable option if a Vitamix is a little too costly for you, but the Vitamix 5200 is also a great choice if you want maximum blending power.
Amazon has a great deal on the 1500 watt Ninja system right now, which comes with smoothie cups, a food processor, and the tall blender:
Equipped with a nice blender you are ready to make one of the most refreshing summer drinks in just a matter of minutes. The first step to this is to harvest (or purchase) cucumbers. Any cucumber will work for this, but I choose to use the large seedy cucumbers that were left on the vine a little too long. You will want to peel and chop the cucumber into small pieces and fill the blender up with about 8 or 9 cups. Add about 4 cups of water to the cucumber to fill the pitcher up the the "max liquid" line. Top it off with a 1/4 cup of lime juice and blend until nice and smooth.
Once you have blended the cucumber, water, and lime together you now have a decision to make. You can leave the pulp in the water and proceed to the next step as is, or you can strain the water for a pulp-free drink. I always strain mine and compost the pulp, but this is completely up to you. If you want a smooth and strained agua fresca then the next step is to pour the mixture from the blender into a pitcher or bowl through a fine mesh strainer. Use the back of a spoon to press the juice through the pulp and strainer, being sure to extract as much liquid as possible!
Whether strained or un-strained, the next step is to sweeten the delicious cucumber water to your liking. Cucumber and lime water is delicious by itself, but there is something magical that happens when a little bit of sweetness is added to balance out the acidity. To sweeten the water you can use honey, agave syrup, or sugar. If you are using sugar it is best to make a simple syrup first in order for it to blend into the liquid smoothly. Don't worry, simple syrup is very simple to make!
Once you have your simple syrup it is now up to you to add as much sweetness as you want to your cucumber and lime agua fresca. Personally I like to add 1/2 to 3/4 cup of simple syrup, but you can add 1/4 cup at a time and test for sweetness until you find your perfect amount. When you are happy with the sweetness it is time to chill the agua fresca, or put it over ice if you want to enjoy the deliciousness right away! Garnish with a lime wedge and a mint sprig and you are ready to kick back and enjoy the summer.
Hint: This can also be served with some bubbly to make a cucumber mimosa. Alternatively you could add gin or vodka to make a refreshing summer cocktail.
Written by Corey Wahl
Recommended products for this recipe:
Corey Wahl - director of farm operations at Ronin Farm - Bryan, TX.