Tips For Success: The Fall
Vegetable Garden

By: Chris S. Corby

The biggest obstacle to having a successful fall garden is overcoming the oppressive heat of July and August.

Of course this is just the time most Texas Gardeners need to start soil preparation and planting.

If you can get past the heat, the benefits of an autumn garden are many. First of all, you are able to extend the production and enjoyment to a second growing season.

Secondly, once established a fall garden is a joy to manage as it matures and produces during those wonderful Indian summer days of autumn.

Also, since the days are getting shorter many vegetable crops store more sugar and have better flavor than spring grown crops.

Here are some tips to help make your autumn efforts successful.

Soil Preparation

Summer is a great time to add compost to the garden. When purchasing commercial compost be sure to purchase only thoroughly composted material. Material that is only partially composted will contain bark, twigs, straw, etc. and will deplete nitrogen from your soil as it decomposes. Thoroughly composted material has a dark, earthy texture and has no odor. Ask your supplier if the product is thoroughly composted before purchasing it.

Take advantage of the heat of summer to solarize your soil. This is particularly beneficial if you have been plagued by root knot nematodes (those microscopic worms that produce galls on plants roots - especially okra). To solarize your soil simply rototill the soil four or five times at three to five day intervals. Each time you till you will expose the nematodes and other pathogens to the deadly rays of the sun.

Starting Seed

It is usually more difficult to start seed during hot dry weather. It can be helpful to soak larger seed such as okra, peas and beans overnight between two damp paper towels.

Smaller seeds, particularly carrots should be covered with a light application of mulch or compost to help them retain enough moisture to sprout. Some seed will not germinate (see "Seed Planting Basics" January/February 1999, page 28) at all during hot weather and planting should be delayed until temperatures moderate such as after a cool-front.

Frequent watering (several times each day) can also improve germination. Once your seedlings are established water deeper and less frequently.

Protecting Transplants

Although most authorities recommend full sun for vegetables like tomatoes and peppers there is one exception: the middle of our Texas summers. That is when a little shade from the afternoon sun can be essential. You can use shingles, scraps of tin or, more elaborately, shade cloth wrapped around caged plants.

Now is the time to add a generous layer of light colored mulch around the base of each plant. Black plastic or plastic garbage bags work well, too. Just be sure to paint them with a white latex paint to reflect the sun.

Allow Extra Time

Add a week to two weeks to the number of days to maturity listed on seed packets. It takes longer in the fall for crops to mature because the day length is getting shorter.

Also, use varieties that are relatively short maturing. To gain a further advantage, set out transplants if they are available.

Favorite Fall Crops

Some crops just seem to excel when planted for fall production. Of course, an early hard frost can change things real quick. Here are our favorite vegetables for fall planting.

Broccoli - Probably the most productive fall crop grown, when you consider the dollar value of the crop. Be sure to use transplants instead of seed. Maintain moisture and fertility for top production. Watch for cabbage loopers and spray with BT if detected. Varieties: Green Comet, Packman, Premium Crop.

Green Beans - Green beans grown in the fall are definitely sweeter, better tasting than their spring grown brethren. Water well, protect from insects and freezing temperatures with fiber row cover and avoid using high nitrogen fertilizer. Rust can be a problem so harvest only when plants are dry to avoid spreading this disease. Varieties: Roma II, Contender, Tendercrop.

Carrots - Easy to grow and not very demanding. The hardest thing about growing carrots is getting the seed up. Cover your seed with a light coating of mulch or compost and water frequently until seed is up. Carrots can stand some freezing weather but temperatures in the teens can kill production. Carrots do best in loose, well-prepared soil. Use short varieties like Nantes if your soil is hard clay. Varieties: Imperator, Nantes, Texas Gold Spike.

Squash - Fall grown squash can really be productive. Fortify your soil with several shovels full of compost prior to planting. Control cucumber beetles, squash bugs, etc. upon detection by hand or with an approved insecticide. Hand pollinate for maximum production. Varieties: Dixie, Multipik.

So the garden is tilled prepared and planted. Now it is time to crush some mint and fresh lemon into a glass of tea, find some shade and look forward to our second growing season as well as the first cool-front to slide down from up north.