A Possible 8-bed Vegetable Garden Rotation Scheme

The pdf chart below is one method for figuring out how to change the location of vegetables by season. It helps diversify the plant locations over the years while making use of the year round climate in Southeast Texas and all the space. The chart is just a demo that you will want to adjust for your own tastes and land.

A Vegetable Bed Rotation

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Chill and Low Temperature Zones for Southeast Texas

The pdf table below summarizes 20 years of weather data from National Weather Service Stations in Southeast Texas and some surrounding counties. It is based on winters rather than calendar years (unlike most reported data), reflects the last two decades rather than earlier ones, and attempts to reflect variation as well as what is typical. The chart provides for a specific station the percentage of the years the lowest winter temperature was above the number in the table; it also provides the percentage of the time the winter chill was at or below the range of numbers listed in the table.

Zone Summaries Revised Zone Summary

Temperatures and Semi-Tropical Fruit: More “Fruitful” Ways to Predict the Weather

Reprinted from Southern Fruit Fellowship Newsletter, Fall 2012

Temperatures and Semi-Tropical Fruit:
More “Fruitful” Ways to Predict the Weather
By Bob Randall

Gardeners, orchardists, farmers and landscapers are some of the planet’s great weather forecasters. We fearlessly plant vegetables, fruits, and other plants in the belief that we can predict that the weather they will be dealing with in the months and years ahead will be agreeable to them.
How do we do this? Not with a bunch of weather satellites and complex computer models, but mostly by having learned a lot about the needs of the plant and the place where we will be planting it. This strategy works well as long as we didn’t just move to the place, as long as we are growing plants that have been in the area for a long time, and as long as the climate doesn’t change.
I moved to Houston and the Gulf Coast 33 years ago after having lived and gardened in seven other places that either were hotter, colder, equally humid, or much dryer, so I have been noticing climate issues and their effects for a long time. Today, in addition to our large vegetable garden, Nancy and I grow about 130 distinct fruit varieties on our quarter acre suburban lot. About 30 of these are citrus.
So we have many decades of experience growing some things, while other plants, like lychees, mangoes, star fruit, avocados, longans, grumichamas, sugar apples, jaboticabas, papayas, and tropical guavas are relatively recent trials. Will they work here or is it too cold, or too something else?
Many home growers might be satisfied with reading a bit about these plants and trying those that might work, but I am in a very different position. For the last 25 years, I have been professionally in-volved in advising gardeners and farmers what and where to plant. And I have been doing this all over the Southeast Texas Gulf Coast from areas just feet from the Gulf to dense urban areas of Houston, to farms in the middle of forests five counties and 150 miles removed from the sea.
My best selling book Year Round Vegetables, Fruits and Flowers for Metro Houston (from http://www.brazosbookstore.com) is now in its 12th edi-tion; I teach seven fruit classes for Urban Harvest (www.urbanharvest.org ) yearly, and am part of the fruit tree ordering committee for an annual fruit tree sale that sells about $130,000 worth of fruit trees in three hours each January.
So my problem is not just what will grow in my yard, but also what will grow in everyone’s yards and farms. As well, unless you have a good understanding of weather conditions where someone else is growing a fruit, you can’t easily learn from their good results or failures.
For example, many of us are growing Opal, Wilma, and Fantastic avocados. These are said to be the cold hardiest avocados on the planet because they have survived 14˚ in Devine, southwest of San Antonio. But how does Devine compare with the Houston area? In 1989, we had 7˚ here. To answer the question, we need to know not what USDA planting zone they are in (its officially Zone 9 as are we), but far more about their weather and ours.
Confronted with this situation over the last 25 years, and plenty of evidence that some areas are much warmer than others, I have made every at-tempt to understand how Metro-Houston weather varies from one location to another and one year to the next, and what this means for growing fruits and vegetables. In preparation for the next version of my book, I have studied the last 20 years of temperature data for every National Weather Service station in Southeast Texas.
For perennial fruits, by far the most important issue is winter temperatures. For tropical, semi-tropical, or semi-temperate plants that might get killed or damaged by cold, how low temperatures might go in the winter is a key question. “How often these lows occur” is equally important, because a few trees can be protected for a few days every 20 years.
For temperate plants that go truly dormant in winter, the issue is how much chill does the winter provide, how do you measure this, and what are the likelihood of late freezes after a plant has leafed out. I will discuss winter chill another time. Here I want to look at winter low temperatures, and how it is easiest to describe them and use information about them.
What I have found generally is that:
(1) Temperatures are very different from one Southeast Texas location to another. Generally, areas within a few miles of the Gulf Coast or Galveston Bay or in dense urban areas shielded from north winds are much warmer than other places.
(2) There are substantial differences between the cooler winters of El Niño years and the warmer La Niña and La Nada years; and there are espe-cially cold winter temperatures when the arctic vortex collapses.
(3) Rural places with few forest trees not protected from north winds are colder than average, and in low spots are especially cold.
(4) All other things being equal, temperatures will be colder the farther you get from the Gulf Coast.
(5) The coldest weather in the period from 1962-1992 was much colder than either the previous 60 years, or the last 20.
(6) On the coldest, windiest winter night of the year, there can be as much as a 7-degree difference between the warmest, most-protected place in a yard and in the most open, unprotected place. This difference drops to 5 degrees on still nights.
Give the importance of temperatures to the sur-vival and good growth of plants, and the importance of agriculture and eating to the general public, it is surprising that the USDA produces agricultural zones that are of so little help in actually deciding what to plant. The latest zone definitions are based on 1976-2005 “average annual extreme minimum temperature” for an area, (http://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/PHZMWeb/AboutMapMaking.aspx).
According to them, all but a tiny area of coastal Southeast Texas is in zone 9a (average yearly low 20-24) with the more inland areas in zone 8b (lows averaging 15-19). This is completely at odds with what has been happening in Southeast Texas in the last two decades. Where I live is in what they say is Zone 9a. Actually, over the last 20 years, it has been in zone 9b (25-29˚F) or higher 70% of the time, has been in zone 9b+ or higher (28-29˚F) 50% of the time, and zone 10a- (30-32˚) or higher 30% of the time. My part of Southeast Texas has been in zone 10 as often as zone 9a and has not been in zone 8 (below 20˚) even once.
These numbers are typical of large portions of Metropolitan Houston. There is even one zone 10 site in Matagorda County that has been in Zone 11 (above 40˚) as often as Zone 9. For all of Southeast Texas and some other Texas sites, I have posted an-nual winter low temperature data for the last 20 years at my website: https://yearroundgardening.wordpress.com/2012/09/01/annual-winter-low-temperatures-in-southeast-texas-1992-2012-2/ . This summarizes low tempera-ture data for every National Weather Station with at least 10 years of data in the last two decades. And it lists each zone from 7 (0-9˚F lows) to 11 (40-49˚F lows), not by averages, but by the percentage of years the lows occurred in these zones and in 2-3 degree divisions within them.
What this means is that if say papayas need lows above 30˚, guavas above 28˚, mangoes and Meyer lemons above 25˚, oranges on trifoliate above 22˚, and so forth, it should now be possible using the table to tell a fruit grower at a specific site how protected their planting site needs to be for a fruit to live, and how often they will need to take serious protective measures to keep it alive.
Using everything I have learned, it is now possi-ble to grow the delicious Barbie Pink guava where I live. 90% of the time, it needs no help because it is in a sheltered part of my yard, and 10% of the years, it needs heavy protection for a few days. We ate a few off the new plant several years ago. But took hits in 2010 and 2011 when the coldest temperatures since the mid 1990’s dropped the area into the low 20’s and our guava’s location to 26˚. But we kept the guava alive with coverings, and this summer had a nice crop.
In reading recommendations in the Southern Fruit Fellowship newsletter, it would be interesting to know what temperatures people are growing tropical and semi-tropical temperatures under. If you are interesting in making a table like the one on my web site, or just get information for your garden or farm, one good place to look is the monthly tempera-ture records for all NWS sites. Just pay a small fee and plug in a zip code or place at http://www.weathersource.com .

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Randall Chill and Cold Zones for Southeast Texas

This 3 page file has my 2012 Winter Hardiness Zones for annual low temperature 1992-2012 in all National Weather Service Weather Stations with 10 years of data. The winter low temperature zones differ from USDA because the lows I am using are for the winter, not the calendar year. The way NWS reports things, a very cold last week in December and a very cold next week in January are treated as two different annual lows. Since we tend to swing from El Nino to La Nina events, this leads to very misleading data. As well, my tables use the last 20 years, rather than the 1975-2005 that the 2012 USDA model uses.  Since 1975-1990 had some of the coldest days and months ever in the Houston area, this is not very helpful.  As well, I take median average low temperatures at smaller intervals than 5-10 degrees. There is a big difference in fruit tree tolerances for mangoes between 28F and 25F.  Lastly, I list chill zones for the area. These are not quite the same as the low temperatures since they are based on cool temperature duration more than a specific cold night.  The last page is the USDA current zone map which is quite at odds with my data.

Randall Southeast Texas Low Temperature Zones

Native Plants in the Year Round Food Garden

In October, I gave a talk at The Houston Arboretum and Nature Center to The Native Plant Society of Houston regarding what I saw as the role of native plants in the Year Round Food Garden.  The pdf is below

Native Plants & the Food Garden 1018

Winter Chill for Fruit Trees in Southeast Texas 1992-2012

The attached pdf table below summarizes the accumulated chill units at every National Weather Service Weather Station in Southeast Texas between fall 1992 and fall 2012 that reported 10 or more years’ data. What the table makes clear is that all areas experience a very wide range of chilling unit accumulations from one year to the next with the last five years being a textbook case of this. The winter of 2012 was in most places the lowest chill in the last 20 years, while 2009 was one of the coldest.

In the low chill areas, fruit growers should  plant trees requiring very low chill because late frosts are very rare and the plants will fail to thrive if they get too little chill. In areas of medium high and higher chill, the dangers of late freezes are strong, so in some areas it may be best to pick trees with chill toward the center of what is possible.

The attached table lists chill unit accumulation (what once was called chill hours) by percentages of time the winter in the last 20 years had the chill listed in column headers.

Southeast Texas Chill Unit Ranges 1992-2012

Annual Winter Low Temperatures in Southeast Texas 1992-2012

The attached table in PDF  represents a concise summary of annual low winter temperatures (October to April) for all official national weather stations in Southeast Texas for which there is 10 or more years of data since 1992. Most of them are for the full 20 years of data. The table lists weather stations first by Houston area locations (Harris County), followed by other sites in coastal and near-coastal counties bordering these (that is 0 and 1 county from the Gulf).

After this are other “interior” counties in Southeast Texas.  For these, there are 2 or 3 counties that must be passed through to get to the coast. “County numbers to the coast” is a rough proxy for distance from the Gulf, and in rural areas is a very rough approximation of winter temperatures. The warmest areas generally are within a few miles of the Coast, and with some significant warmer exceptions for dense urban areas and Galveston Bay, temps get colder as you go inland. Lastly there is a a table of selected sites north or west of Southeast Texas.  These are included to help interpret information about fruit tree performance in those areas, in order to use such information in Southeast Texas. For example, avocados that do well in Devine, Texas will likely do well in College Station south, because temperatures south of College Station are warmer than Devine, while north of College Station are typically colder, so would need increased protections.

The numbers in the cells represent temperatures F. If for example a cell has a temperature of say 28 in a column labeled 30% (as it does for Intercontinental Bush Airport), this means that 30% of the annual winter lowest temperatures during the last 20 years were at or above 28˚F.  If you are considering planting a fruit tree that needs temperatures above 25˚(like a mango) , you can use this information, plus a comparison between your site and the nearest National Weather Station’s temperatures, to determine how much freeze protection a mango (or any other tropical or semi-tropical) would require.

Southeast Texas Winter Low Temps 1992-2012

A New Edition in 2017 (Last revised 11/19/2016)

Thank you all for supporting my effort to rewrite my book. The latest edition of Year Round Vegetables, Fruits and Flowers for Metro-Houston is the 12th edition. It has a yellow cover. It was last revised in 2004 and is clearly in need of a major overhaul.

1. Since the last time the book was updated, the internet has mushroomed enormously as has people’s access to it. Gardening books these days need to not only provide a reliable guide to plants and techniques for our area, but also good and bad internet sources of information.

2. The ongoing climate chaos in our area means that increasingly we need to tell people not just what to plant and what week, but under what conditions of temperature, precipitation and wind plants will thrive or even survive. Most of the area south of both I-10 and TX 59 is now in USDA zone 10 most years and above 30 F all winter. Galveston stayed above 40F last winter and all airports are reporting record or near record annual temperatures. What was a fairly easy to predict set of temperatures is now much harder. Should you plant Russian kale or Papayas or even Pineapples?

These sets of questions are much harder to answer than you would expect. We need to know what the weather has been like lately all over Southeast TX and what temperatures each plant and seed needs to thrive/survive/avoid dying. For the most part, this information is surprisingly difficult to find for many food plants. How hot is “too hot” for oats, for example? As well, it results in a dizzying number of tables that many readers might find daunting to understand and use, so there are writing challenges too.

I have nevertheless made a lot of progress on a new edition.

* Two new fruit chapters are finished and much better than anything previous;

* The chapter on ecological pest management has been completely changed; and

• I am about halfway through the most difficult effort, the first of two vegetable chapters. I have had to break with the traditional way of presenting vegetable planting schedules. Rather I am going back to relying on the temperatures different plants need to do well, giving people that information, and then a suggestive planting schedule that needs to be reconciled with temperature needs of proposed plantings, and the likely temperatures in the months ahead in different parts of Southeast TX.

This has required an enormous amount of data collecting that is both tedious and difficult to do since it doesn’t seem to be centralized anywhere. Broadly, it seems like the world’s agricultural establishment is very slow to understand the implications of climate chaos on traditionalist planting schemes. So people are wasting a lot of effort and seed.

• Mark Bowen continues to work on three non-food habitat and native plant chapters. He has similar challenges to those outlined above, but also many more obligations than I do in working on it. I will update that progress whenever there is more to report.


Bob Randall
Nov 2016