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Green Thumb Power

Plants love coffee: And other crazy good gardening advice from horticulture experts

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Cucumber grown by Joel Luks
A girthy straight eight cucumber from my own container garden. Photo by Joel Luks
Firewheel Coffee, Garland
The soils loves coffee just as much as you do — but for a different reason. Photo courtesy of Firewheel Coffee
Austin photo: News_Ryan_Organic waste collection_Jan 2013_compost
Add organic compost to supplement the nutrients in the soil. Courtesy of The Greenest Dollar
Collard greens and drip irrigation
Drip irrigation gets to the roots faster than sprinkler systems. Photo by Marshall Hinsley
Cucumber grown by Joel Luks
Firewheel Coffee, Garland
Austin photo: News_Ryan_Organic waste collection_Jan 2013_compost
Collard greens and drip irrigation
Joel Luks, head shot, column mug, April 2013

Think it's possible to coax a Japanese mountain spring, something like what you may find near Mount Fuji, to flow a stones' throw from your local garden beds so you can grow wasabi?

Think again. Growing wasabi isn't something to attempt in Houston's terrain. It doesn't do well so why bother?

That's just some of the wise advice from the witty Bob Randall, one of the founders of Urban Harvest and the author of Year Round Vegetables, Fruits and Flowers for Metro-Houston. This gent alongside master gardener Jean Fefer — consider the duo the cognoscenti of horticulture — offered a cornucopia of sage wisdom during a three-hour Urban Harvest fall gardening 101 class at the University of Houston.

Gardening, Randall says, is more complicated than understanding Houston highways, but not as complicated as raising a teenager.

Somewhere in between commuting and screwing up children, you may be able to harvest a delicious bounty of fruits and vegetables such as the girthy straight eight cucumber that swelled from my own container garden. The cuke coupled palatably with a crisp heirloom tomato, some olives and a simple vinaigrette in a fresher-than-fresh Greek salad — a perfect dish for cooling off during a hot-as-hell weekend.

Now that was satisfying.

 Gardening is more complicated than understanding Houston highways, but not as complicated as raising a teenager.

About gardening: You can go at it alone and many do. That means conducting trial and error experiments. After all, what do you have to lose? Yet with so many resources at your disposal, why would you want to trust your gardening prowess — and your ego — to a game of chance?

In reality, there's a lot to lose by not seeking help from experts. Failed attempts may lead you to feel that you have a kiss-of-death complex brought on by your dearth of green thumb goodness. You may feel inclined to give up gardening all together, cursing the compost gods while you disassemble your raised garden beds and replace them with water-sucking Saint Augustine sod.

Urban Harvest has an ambitious lineup of classes that focus on supporting beginning growers, experienced gardeners and everyone in between. Below are five tips I gleaned from the masters of produce that will surely assist in your journey down the garden path.

1. Soil is the most important element

Without good soil, just throw in the towel. Soil is one of the critical components of a thriving garden. It should drain well, it should be rich in nutrients and it should allow the plants to easily set roots. Sandy loam, a perfect mixture of clay and sand that contains humus, is preferred.

2. Complement soil with nutrient-rich additions

As plants grow, they deplete the soil from essential nutrients and minerals, particularly crops that require lots of sustenance such as tomatoes. Unless your setup suffers from erosion or you are adding height to your garden beds, there's never a need to incorporate more soil. Rather, mix in compost or humus and fertilizer, and top off with mulch. Such organic matter decomposes over time and may account for waning ground levels.

3. Coffee grounds

Coffee does more than provide you with your morning jolt of caffeine. Mixing in previously brewed coffee grounds will improve soil conditions by supplementing phosphorus, potassium, magnesium and copper quantities. As coffee degrades, the grounds release nitrogen, which helps plants develop stockier stalks. Worms also have a penchant for coffee. Who knew?

4. Don't till and kill the soil

Tilling the soil with hand tools will keep the loam light and fluffy, but tilling also destroys valuable organisms that dwell underneath the surface, including the beneficial effects of worms.

5. Water the soil, not the plants

Plants absorb water and nutrients through their roots. In warmer weather, moisture in the leaves will most likely evaporate before it reaches the soil. Wetness on the foliage may also contribute to fungal diseases.

Moral of the story? Use a dripping system that waters the soil and not a sprinkler system that broadcasts liquid and drenches the whole crop.

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