How does your Tex-Mex garden grow?
Guacamole, salsa and pico de gallo — these are staples any Tex-Mex lover should keep on hand. And they can be created at home from fresh garden produce.
Consider guacamole: avocados, onions, peppers, garlic, cilantro, limes and perhaps tomatoes. All of these items do well in the upper Texas coast, although some require more care than others.
Perhaps the most challenging is the avocado. Rich, creamy avocados are grown on trees, which take two to three years to produce the edible fruits after the plant has been established, said Peggy Cornelius, owner of Tom’s Thumb Nursery in Galveston. Planting the big, round seeds from store-bought avocados probably will never bear fruit — although they will make a nice looking plant. Instead, Cornelius recommends buying potted trees from either the Galveston County Master Gardeners or one of the local nurseries that specialize in Zone 9 growing regions. The best varieties for the region include Joey, Lila and Brazos Belle, which are all cold hardy. But the most popular one is the Mexicola Grande, which prefers a warmer climate than the others.
Place avocado saplings where they can get muted midday sun, but avoid areas with northern exposure because of the cooler inland winds. Buds will set in November and, by February, tiny fruits will begin appearing for late summer or fall picking. Fertilize with a time-release plant food, specific for citrus or fruit trees.
About four years ago, Bonnie Webster’s late husband, Capt. Robert Webster, planted a variety of avocado trees in their Galveston home garden. Only one took off and produced the fist-size dark green, pear-shaped fruits. When the avocados look ready for picking, she immediately harvests all of the fruit before the squirrels get them, she said.
“I eat them or give them away,” Webster said. “Lots of good guacamole.”
A pro at growing peppers
What would a Tex-Mex recipe be without peppers? Boring, that’s what. There are hundreds of varieties of peppers, ranging from the bell — green, red, yellow or orange — that produces no “heat,” to the almost inedible Carolina Reaper, rated the hottest of all peppers on the Scoville Heat Unit index.
There are two ways to grow peppers: from seed or from transplanted seedlings. Peppers are a warm season vegetable, and the best time of year to start the seeds indoors is in mid-January or in the ground in mid-March, said Master Gardener Gene Speller, a longtime League City resident. The ideal germination temperature for those seeds is about 70 degrees during the day. Once the seedlings produce two or more sets of leaves, fertilize the young plants with a balanced soluble solution. The plants like sun and well-drained soil.
To ward off the dreaded cutworm, which kills the young plant by chewing the delicate stems near the soil, place a ring around the base made of aluminum foil, an inch of the cardboard roller inside paper towels or the top edge of a paper/Styrofoam cup. This collar will stop the insect from attacking the plant and can be removed once it’s out of danger.
Speller suggests rotating garden crops where peppers and tomatoes are planted to avoid soil-borne intruders, such as nematodes. Plant broccoli, onions, garlic, corn or mustard greens, as well as rye grass or marigolds to help prevent those problems, he said.
Which type of pepper to use in recipes depends on how spicy hot the desired taste. Remember, the heat generated by the peppers comes not from the skin or the seeds, although they also have some fire. It’s the capsaicin gland inside the pepper — the fleshy inside just below the seeds — that holds the active chemicals that create the kick or pungency, Speller said. He suggests keeping a glass of milk close by in case the peppers selected are hotter than anticipated. Milk or honey will mitigate the burning sensation in the mouth.
Of all the peppers that Speller grows, it’s the Sahuaro he favors for its flavor, productivity and minimal disease issues, he said.
Find fertile ground for flavor
Other necessary ingredients for many Mexican cuisine dishes are the herbs and spices: cilantro, cumin, onions and garlic.
Cilantro, grown from coriander seeds, is best planted in February for April harvests, and again in September for November pickings. But if seeds are sown indoors, the calendar planting schedules usually don’t matter. It’s best to stagger the plantings to ensure a continuous crop. Fertilize the young plants with ammonium nitrate and minimize the amount of moisture. Established plants don’t need much water. Cut the leaves off before the plant bolts or produces flowers.
Cumin spice is a bit difficult to grow in this region and perhaps is easier to buy ground. Patient gardeners, however, should sow seeds in soil in the spring just below the surface and harvest the plants and their seeds when they turn brown. Dry the seeds and ground them to spice the foods.
Onions and garlic easily grow all year in this region and can be harvested on a rotating basis.
Seaside sorcery of citrus
The last important element in Tex-Mex cuisine is limes. Lemons and limes grow abundantly in the upper Texas coast and require full sun and good drainage. Trees produce, even if they’re grown in containers and watered adequately.
It takes about two years before the tangy fruits are available, Tom’s Thumb owner Cornelius said. Keep the citrus trees away from northern exposures because they like heat and sun. Rarely do lemons or limes do well near the seawall or Gulf of Mexico, because of the salty air. But, bayside and inland gardeners have lots of successes.
Fertilize and treat citrus trees with insect and disease control chemicals that are organic and won’t harm the fruit. Do so at the end of the day — not in the morning when there’s potential exposure to the hot sun.