Soil preparation for a spring garden should occur as soon as feasibly possible but carefully plan planting.

Lack of frost signals the beginning of a safe period for planting frost susceptible vegetables. These vegetables are very sensitive to frosty conditions and must not be planted until all danger of frost is past, unless frost protection is provided.

The average length of frost-free periods is relatively stable in most areas. The problem arises in determining when these periods begin and end. Meteorological information collected for many years indicates the spring's "average first frost-free date" and the fall's "average first frost date." This term "average" is misleading.

Average means that which as occurred most often or normal. As most Texans know, normal weather is the unexpected rather than the expected occurrence. Unfortunately, extremes are also included in these "averages." For instance, mid-March is the beginning of the average frost-free period in the spring for South Central Texas, and normally the first frost of the fall occurs in mid-November. Yet many farmers remember when vegetables have frosted as late as April and as early as October. These same farmers also remember years when the first frost-free day occurred in early February and the first frost of the fall was in December. You can now begin to appreciate the farmers' situation.

Any time one tries to outwit Mother Nature, it is a tremendous risk. Yet successful gardening and farming depend on just that. For instance, if one waits until well past the average first frost-free date to insure success with such tender crops as tomatoes and beans, a complete failure may result. The failure will be caused by a later bloom date because of later planting. Tomatoes blooming during hot temperatures have improper fruit set and reduced yields.

The answer to this dilemma is to plant frost-susceptible crops according to the average first frost date, but remember to protect them if a late cool period occurs. Home gardeners can cover plants with cans, blankets, a cage-garbage bag system or boxes on frosty nights.

As you can see, growing vegetables is not as easy as one might imagine. Timing is a major key to success. With proper timing, adapted varieties and a slight assist from Mother Nature, anyone can be a successful gardener.