A Beginner's Guide to Gardening in the Coastal Bend - The Bend Magazine

A Beginner’s Guide to Gardening in the Coastal Bend

Q&A w/ expert Justin Butts on gardening for beginners

Conversation by: Kirby Conda Tello Photo by: Rachel Benavides

Beginner’s Garden


Let’s face it: gardening can seem daunting even for seasoned growers at times. It encompasses a combination of desire, determination, skill-level, and just downright know-how. And while there is a certain finesse to gardening, there is no reason to feel overwhelmed by starting your own harvesting haven so long as your quest to turn a brown thumb green is one to which you are willing to commit.

We sat down with our resident Farm to Table and Gardening expert, Justin Butts, to see just how accessible backyard gardening is for a newbie. 

For a beginner gardener, what is your initial piece of advice? 

The most important element in gardening is soil health. In fact, soil health is roughly 90 percent of gardening, while everything else makes up the other 10 percent. Many beginner gardeners get caught up in the myriad details of botany. Instead, focus on the essentials: 1) Build robust soil health. 2) Locate the garden in full sun. 3) Plant according to the season. 4) Water only as needed. Find out what to plant in each season (we are in Hardiness Zone 9b) and then plant at the beginning of the season. Finally, water deeply and as infrequently as possible, when the top 6” of soil mostly, but not completely, dries out. 

Talk to us about companion planting. If you’re creating a garden for harvesting is it okay to have florals next to produce?

Yes! Grow plenty of flowers with your vegetables. Always plant two, three, or more different plants together that help strengthen each other. For example, if you want tomatoes, don’t just plant tomatoes; surround each tomato plant with four collard green plants and a dozen marigolds. Collards and marigolds repel tomato pests while shading the soil at the feet of the tomatoes. 

Flowers make wonderful companions to vegetables – flowers repel and confuse pests while adding beauty and fragrance to the garden. Plant nasturtiums with squash, Queen Anne’s lace with carrots, and cosmos with cabbage and broccoli.

What materials do you need to start a garden? Is there a soil you recommend?

The only tools needed to garden are a short, D-handle shovel, a soil knife, and a water hose. You might need a wheelbarrow to move compost to your garden, but if you build your compost piles close by, that isn’t as crucial.

The only materials required for the garden are compost; fertilizer (pastured poultry manure); homemade wood ash; and raked-up leaves to use as mulch. Then all you need are seeds or transplants. That’s it. Sunshine and the soil will do the work for you! 

How should a garden be taken care of properly in each of the varying seasons?

At the end of a season, remove the remaining plants to the compost pile, then plant a cover crop over the entire garden. Hairy vetch (plant in December) and black-eyed peas (plant during summer) are ideal cover crops for the Coastal Bend. They are nitrogen-fixers, which means they fertilize the soil as they grow. Once the vetch or peas flower, mow them or till them into the soil, then plant your next garden. 

If you want to take a break from gardening between seasons or longer, cover the garden with a thick layer (ideally, 12 inches) of native leaf mulch. The mulch will protect and feed the soil and prevent weeds until you are ready to garden again. Then, simply make a space in the mulch, plant your transplants, and push the mulch right back into place.

What is the best way to get your family and kids involved?

The best way to get your family involved is to let them taste success. Many beginners think of gardening as a ton of work, or they get caught up in the process. But gardening is really about healthy, delicious ingredients that come to life in your kitchen! Once the vegetables, fruit, herbs, and flowers from the garden begin coming into the house each day, the process becomes less about work and more about eating well and enjoyment. Kids will love gardening if you let them do the work. Pro tip: Let kids plant radishes from seeds. In just three weeks, they will harvest their own plantings, and you will be amazed at how happy they are to eat their own creations. 

Pro Tip • Feed Your Soil • Composting 101

1) Purchase the highest quality organic compost to start your garden. 

2) After that, make your own compost from kitchen scraps and raked leaves. 

3) Add plenty of organic pastured poultry manure and homemade wood ash (for potassium) from native trees. 

4) Soil grows the plants, not the gardener. Never skimp on soil health.