Ask an Expert: Jerrod Tynes, UNT Dallas

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Dr. Jerrod Tynes, UNT DallasUNT System HR is bringing UNT World experts directly to you with this periodic and always timely installation called "Ask An Expert." So, let's ask...

EXPERT: Jerrod Tynes, Lecturer of Urban Agriculture & Renewable Resources, Department of Life and Health Sciences, UNT Dallas
EXPERTISE: Animal & Plant Sciences, Sustainable Agriculture, Organismal Biology, STEM Education, 10 years of mixed experience in both the industry and classroom 

Spring is here and what better way to welcome the season of new beginnings than planting a vegetable garden in your backyard? Growing a garden is a fun outdoor activity you can share with your children. Gardening doesn't have to be expensive, complicated or time-consuming. But, it can be educational and extremely rewarding -- both the process and the harvest. We've enlisted Jerrod Tynes, who heads UNT Dallas' Urban Agriculture curriculum, to provide some tips on how to get started on your first vegetable garden -- and see it through to fruition. Enjoy.

Q: I've never grown a garden because I'm unsure of the time commitment and resources I'll need, but this spring seems like the perfect time to start one as a family activity. Should I?
There is a large amount of research that shows that gardening can do a number of positive things for your health by getting you active and outside, including lower blood pressure, decrease stress, increase your Vitamin D levels and increase your immune system. Gardening will also get you away from a screen which will be good for your back, wrists and eyes. Gardening is great for social interactions as well. It can strengthen relationships between your immediate family members by working on this project in your backyard or it may renew relationships with neighbors while working in a community garden. Most gardens are also spaced well and you can garden effectively while maintaining social distancing. Lastly, there is something about the taste of homegrown fruits and veggies that just can’t be beat.

Q: How do I get started?
The key is to decide if you are going to do in-ground, raised beds or potted plants. Making this initial choice will help you determine what you can grow and how you can space the plants out. There are various things to consider here like if you live an apartment or if you live in a neighborhood with a strict HOA. Review this before you purchase your raised beds or pots. From there take a trip to the DIY stores or local nurseries to get an idea of what is out there, and you will also find many more options online. Raised beds are a great option if you have the space for them. They can vary in size and height and come in a variety of materials from wood (treated or untreated), metal, plastic or recycled products (like the recycled milk jug material our raised beds are made from at the UNT Dallas/Saint Vincent DePaul Community Garden) or various other options. I like the recycled products for their durability and environmental friendliness. Raised beds are also great because they allow you to add the specific soil you need for the best results for your plants. This will make it easier to plant, harvest and redo plants compared to our Texas clay soil you would need to work with if you did in-ground plants. Additionally, this eliminates any potential soil contaminant problems that may be in the soil which may be a slight concern in heavily populated metropolitan areas like DFW. I prefer 8-foot by 4-foot beds because I find this dimension aesthetically pleasing and, more importantly, easy to work in and around. However, these beds can be made in whatever dimensions you prefer. 

Q: What should I grow?
Texas is unique in its climate as we have 3 true growing seasons, which means you can nearly always have something planted or growing outside year-round. The beginning of April is a great time to start planting various crops in our region such as summer squash, watermelon, sweet potatoes, peppers, okra, tomatoes and various types of peas. All of these have various planting and watering requirements, so make sure to check out the specifics of the seeds prior to planting. From there, follow the directions for that specific cultivar or variety of plant to ensure it is getting enough water and nutrients through our sometimes brutal summers.

Q: What if I fail and my plants don’t grow? 
You are going to fail, and what I mean is that even the best gardeners don’t have 100% yield, so out of the gate with your first garden or first garden in a while, it will take time for you to hone your skills and figure out what works best at your location. Successful gardening is a marathon, not a sprint. I like to write everything down in a spiral notebook (temperature, weather, germination, height, major storms, pollinators, weeds, pests, etc.) so I can keep track and make adjustments as needed. This is probably just the agricultural scientist in me, but you will probably be more effective making changes with notes. Most importantly, celebrate the little successes, your first pepper or the first round of okra you can pick and fry up (if you have excess fried okra give me a call and I’ll take it off your hands). And don’t forget gardening is also about the experiences and memories you can make with others, and after the year we had in 2020, finding ways to connect and have these experiences (safely) is extremely important. 

Q: How do I get better at gardening? 
There are so many great resources out there for novice to expert gardeners. Our UNT System has some of the brightest scientists in the world, and you would be amazed at how you can boil down successful gardening to basic principles of biology, chemistry and ecology. So reach out to a colleague that may know some of these principles. Texas AgriLife Extension has great resources on its website and often hosts seminars on growing specific crops, identifying pests or weeds and other topics. You can also reach out and learn from or work to become a Master Gardener or Master Naturalist. Attending a local farmers market and asking questions of the individuals growing these foods can also be a great resource. And don’t forget at UNT Dallas we have a small team of agriculture experts who enjoy working with individuals throughout our DFW community interested in agriculture. There is always something to learn in gardening and growing, and there are some great resources out there.