“When you have 98 degrees F and 95 percent humidity, it’s hot,” says Michael Spencer, who lives on 3 acres northwest of Houston, Texas. “We were triple digit for over 20 days with no rain. It was brutal.”
An organic gardener, Spencer nabbed plants at the local feed store, without knowing their varieties. He purchased three hybrid tomato plants and one cherry tomato plant, each 4 to 6 inches tall, and he planted them inside 3-foot-tall tomato cages during mid-March. To encourage growth, he clipped all of the bottom leaves off the tomato plants, leaving only the top three sprouts.
“I started clipping them when they began growing, at about three weeks,” Spencer says. “When they reached 3 feet tall, they were growing and spreading. I circled one piece of 4-by-4 and 4-feet-tall wire around all four bushes. The plants took off and spread everywhere. They were 6 feet tall. Once they went over the wire and began flowering, I stopped pruning. There were flowers everywhere.”
The Spencers began picking tomatoes by June. Compared to previous years, and their neighbors, they harvested a bumper crop.
“Because our water has chlorine in it, I try to avoid using it,” Spencer says. “I only use tap water when necessary. I used my rain barrel until it was dry. It’s amazing what happens to plants when it rains versus using tap water.”
Tomatoes aside, Spencer randomly grabbed okra seed packets at the seed store. He planted two rows, 6 inches apart, in the tomato bed.
“I don’t think the tap water bothered the okra as much as the tomatoes,” Spencer says. “I just kept watering. I’ve never seen okra like this. The plants are 10 feet tall. I used a ladder to get into the bed, and then I would hand walk myself to the top, bend the plant over, and pick the okra.”
Spencer’s okra began producing in late June. And he continued to harvest his bumper crop during Thanksgiving week.
Taters & Onions
With an eye on potatoes, he prepped his potato and onion bed. Then he covered the bed with cardboard pieces to block weeds until he planted.
Spencer says, “You’re supposed to plant potatoes after the last frost. But I outguessed the weather and planted in mid-February. I bought a bag of golden potatoes at the grocery. I cut red and golden potatoes into quarters. I dug a 6-inch-deep trough and buried them. And as they sprouted, I added my garden soil mix on them. “
Circling back a few years, Spencer began gardening in 2014, when he cobbled a 6-feet-by-12-feet (and-1-foot-high) raised garden bed. Then in 2015, he crafted a raised bed from blue Hackett Oklahoma stone. Now in his 60s, all the bending over and weeding took its toll on Spencer.
So, in 2022, he built a third, 2-foot-high raised bed. Spencer used 2-inch-by-12-inch-by-12-foot long treated lumber, lining it with black weed barrier on the sides and bottom. As well, he used 4-by-4 (and 8-foot-tall) treated lumber posts in the corners to connect everything. Also, Spencer raised his other beds to 2 feet high.
Spencer filled his beds with compost that included grass clippings and leaves, saved since 2019, packing it down to 15 inches high. Atop the compost, he added a garden soil mix made of soil, sand, mulch and mushroom compost. A slow-release organic fertilizer, mushroom compost’s ingredients usually include various organic materials and animal manure.
Meeting the Challenge
Since deer, rabbits and other critters freely nosh on his acreage, Spencer installed a gated, 8-foot-tall wire fence, with 2-inch-by-2-inch openings, around the beds.
Other challenges include nutsedge grass. So, after a good, soaking rain in January or February, Spencer digs a foot down and removes the nuts, which are the source of the weeds.
After harvesting the bumper crop, Spencer washes his tomatoes. He washes and then blanches his unpeeled potatoes, steaming them for two minutes. Everything goes into freezer bags for freezer preservation.
Born in Alaska Territory, Spencer grew up in Oklahoma, and he says gardening success is in his blood. His French grandparents were wheat farmers in Saskatchewan, Canada. Their huge vegetable garden plus livestock provided all of their food.
Spencer began picking raspberries and cucumbers on their farm by age five. After his grand-pére died, his grand-mére continued gardening into her late 90s. And she passed the shovel to Spencer’s mother.
Harkening to his roots, Spencer says, “I grow up to half of our vegetables now, and I know what we’re getting in our food.”