Spring Gardening Guide

The Peculiarities of Gardening in Houston (and Why It’s Worth It)

Making the most of mucky soil and microclimates

By Katharine Shilcutt February 8, 2015 Published in the February 2015 issue of Houstonia Magazine

“It’s a whole lot easier than gardening in New York City,” says Will Isbell, president of the Harris County Master Gardener Association. Still, a not insignificant amount of treachery lurks beneath those lush lawns and fabulous flowerbeds of ours, obstacles aplenty that challenge both novice and experienced gardeners alike, he says.

First, there’s the dirt itself. “Our lovely, lovely soil,” Isbell deadpans of the gummy, gunky stuff. “When you have that clay soil, you have such terrible drainage.” Still, don’t get the idea that you’ll find this sticky, glue-like muck citywide. “We have a variety of soil types. A wide variety,” Isbell emphasizes. And accompanying that variety of soil types is a variety of dramatically different microclimates. Katy’s prairies are as distinct from Kingwood’s pine forests as both are from Clear Lake’s coastal plains. 

Needless to say, “it’s hard to have a one-size-fits-all approach,” says Isbell. “When those northers come in, we get hit hard up here in Bear Creek”—home of the HCMGA’s main garden—“but there may not be a frost in southeast Houston.” And the temperature extremes alone are often enough to drive gardeners to distraction. “There are very few things that like to grow when it’s 105.” And in an urban jungle like Houston, where vast swaths of cement and asphalt trap heat at ground level, “the extreme highs can often be compounded with heat island effects to substantially increase the overall temperature.”

Then there are the bugs. Lord, the bugs. “Because we have a tendency to have mild winters, we have a pest population that doesn’t get nipped back,” says Isbell. Among the consequences is the current quarantine—yes, quarantine—on citrus trees in Houston, which are lousy with Asian citrus psyllids that spread a bacterial disease called huanglongbing. Sure, you can buy and plant citrus trees within Houston itself, but “I can’t buy a citrus tree in Houston and take it to my parents in Huntsville,” says Isbell. And in a damp climate like ours, danger lurks behind every leaf and tree limb: “Our humidity loves to foster diseases,” says Isbell, “especially fungal diseases on plants.”

Education may be your best defense against gardening’s many menaces, and  Isbell’s own organization should be your first stop in that regard. The HCMGA comprises 250 or so master gardeners who volunteer—on behalf of Texas A&M’s AgriLife extension—to teach even the blackest thumbs what to plant, as well as how, where, and when to do so. In addition to free classes and lectures held across the city, the organization also sponsors quarterly sales of plant species that thrive here.

“We’re constantly doing trials on different varieties of plants that do well in Houston,” says Isbell, adding that despite the impediments, gardening is more popular now than ever—both in the suburbs and the city itself. Which reminds him: “We are focusing right now on container gardening because we realize that we have a lot of urban gardeners now that may not want to put in a raised bed.”

And while Isbell and his fellow master gardeners are hard at work finding the perfect cherry tomato to plant in those raised beds and container gardens, why not put in some work of your own? After all, it’s prime planting season for the upcoming spring and summer vegetable harvests. Check out upcoming classes (see our sidebar for more information), buy some good soil and hearty seeds, and find a sunny patch of your own. You won’t regret it, says Isbell. “It’s decent exercise,” he laughs, “and usually it’s cheaper than therapy.” 

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