Fall forward for better gardening

By Skip Richter

Contributing Editor

We are now in that time of the gardening season that separates the experienced gardeners from those tender souls who merely dabbled in the idea of gardening this past spring when the weather was pleasant and gardening fever was very contagious. During the cool, rainy days of spring, almost every Texan with a pulse contracts gardening fever for a time. Many head out with seeds and plants in hand to turn their patch of earth into the Garden of Eden. Hopes and dreams are at an all-time high!

Then this thing called summer arrives. The blazing inferno of June, July, August, and even early September can turn a garden into Gehenna in no time. Drive around town now and look at the toasted remains of what began in spring as inspiring visions of bountiful vegetables and abundant flowers. The gardener is gone, abandoning the fight for an easier hobby, like fishing.

This scene happens too often, but it’s not inevitable. In fact if you promise not to tell anyone, I have been the proprietor of such a plot in the past (all human foibles are confessable as long as they are relegated to the past). When the weather is pleasant, the temperatures moderate, and moisture in ample supply, we can get away with many misguided gardening techniques and practices. However, when times get tough, only those who did things correctly from the start will still be gardening. Soil preparation, nutrient additions, proper variety selection, mulching, and proper watering make the difference.

imageFall to the Rescue

All is certainly not lost however as fall is on the way with the promise of a new start in gardening. If I could change one thing about the psyche of most gardeners it would be to take the intoxicating gardening fever of spring and redispense it in late summer and fall. Despite the fact that we may not all feel the same fervor in mid summer as we did in late winter, now is the time to begin preparations for the best gardening season of the year here in Texas.

There are far more vegetables, flowers and herbs that are at their prime in the fall season. Fall brings cooling temperatures and a return of much needed rainfall. Free from the stifling heat of summer, our gardens keep improving as we move into the fall season.

Don’t Procrastinate

Now all this may sound fine but when you look outside at the parched earth simmering in triple digit heat it is understandably difficult to get motivated to venture out to work in the garden. Just keep in mind that now is the time to get a proper start on fall. Folks new to southern gardening are often lured into procrastinating during this hot summer season. It seems like it just can’t be time to start a fall garden since it is so very hot. I certainly understand as I have often waited for a break from the heat to start my fall garden. However, by the time that first cool front and some fall rains arrive, we will have missed a significant part of the fall season. In order to grow all those great fall veggies and flowers we have to start in July and August.

Summer heat is not to be taken lightly, and I must stress the need for prudence and care in how and when you work outdoors. I confine all work to the early morning and perhaps early evening hours when the broiling sun is absent and temperatures are more moderate. Don’t try to do it all in a few days. Just an hour or so a few times a week will go a long way toward the goal of preparing for the fall season. If you must work when the sun is out try to minimize your time in the sun, drink plenty of water (even if you don’t feel thirsty), wear a broad brimmed hat and long sleeved cotton shirt, apply sunscreen, and take frequent breaks.

imageSpring Garden Requiem

The first task is to put the remnants of the old spring garden to rest. Summer hardy vegetables like okra, sweet potatoes, and winter squashes, or flowers like zinnia, Madagascar periwinkle, and impatiens (in shade) can be left to continue production. Others which are either dead or doing a pretty good impression of it need to be removed. I’ll either pull them up and discard them along with their mites and diseases into the trash, or shred them and turn the debris under to return to the soil. Water the area after rototilling and the organic materials will quickly decompose in the warm, moist soil.

Any areas needing some additional compost can get an inch or two over the surface prior to rototilling. If nutrients are lacking (a soil test is the best way to determine this) then add the needed fertilizers prior to tilling. I like to follow this with a thick blanket of mulch. It helps protect the soil surface from crusting, conserves soil moisture and deters weeds which would be more than willing to take up residence in your fertile garden soil. When it comes time to plant you can simply pull the mulch back and set the transplants or seeds right into the already prepared soil.

Fall planting season actually begins in July and continues on through October. In far south Texas it goes on through winter. Each month there are things to do including starting seeds in transplant trays, direct seeding into the garden, and setting out transplants into the garden or flower bed.

Fall is for Vegetables

Veggies that ripen in the cooler days of fall seem to have the highest quality and flavor. I have noticed a nice improvement in the quality of green beans grown in the fall. There are a couple of exceptions. Sweet corn and okra don’t like the fall season very much. In order to get a good crop of these, they must be planted early enough to be harvested in September when the weather is still very warm.

imagePlanting charts such as those available in Texas Gardener can guide you in the best time to plant various crops in your area. However it is worth noting that warm season fruiting crops like tomatoes, peppers and eggplant need to go in around early to mid July in most of the state if they are to have time to mature before frost arrives. Old tomato vines that are still in good health can be tip layered to start new plants. After a few weeks cut the umbilical cord to the mother plant and discard all but the newly rooted tomato. Any peppers or eggplants left over from spring can be taken on into fall. Eggplants will probably be in dire need of some mite control by this time.

Potatoes should be planted in mid to late August depending on your location. While it is customary to cut the seed pieces for spring planting, I find that in fall planting smaller potatoes whole works fine and avoids the rot problems that are common in our hot summer soils.

By September we are planting cole crops like broccoli, cabbage and kohlrabi. When the weather starts to cool off in October, cool season greens including lettuce and spinach can go in. I like to get a head start on all these by starting seeds in transplant trays a few weeks early in a shady outdoor spot. After a few weeks the seedlings are ready to go out into the garden to give you a head start on the season.

Direct seeded plants like beans, squash and cucumbers will have a tough go of it in the hot soil. Suspend a shade cloth or doubled section of rowcover over the seed row to give them a break from the blazing sun. This temporary shade structure will also help cold crops set out in the warm days of September.

Fall is for Herbs

Herbs think fall in Texas is heaven. With a few exceptions such as the frost tender annual herb basil, most herbs should be planted in the fall. October is ideal for most of the state. These fall planted plants will establish quickly and easily. They’ll go through winter just fine and have a big head start on their spring planted counterparts.

I use the downtime in mid to late summer to propagate a few herbs either by cuttings or layering. That way they are well rooted and ready to go into the garden in fall. If your herbs are looking ragged from the effects of the long summer season, shear them back in late summer. Then fertilize them lightly and water them in well. They’ll respond with fresh new growth and look great for the remainder of the season.

Before the first frost arrives gather the mature growth for drying and storage to use in seasoning holiday dishes. Fall is also a good time to collect a few fresh sprigs to include in herbal vinegars.

Fall is for Flowers

Any brave bedding plants that have managed to hold on this far into summer will likely benefit from a light shearing followed by a dose of fertilizer and water. The new tough petunias tend to bloom themselves out and will respond to this rejuvenating workover with new growth and more blooms.

Late summer is a good time to get in another planting of warm season annual color plants. They will really perk up as the days begin to cool off. The colors are much more vibrant in fall. Marigolds were made for fall. While we tend to plant them more in spring where they quickly fill the role of spider mite food, they should be planted in late summer for a fall show. Mite populations decline rapidly in early fall and the marigold blooms will absolutely glow, right up to the first frost.

Shear your rose bushes, Buddleia, and Salvias back by 1/3. Then give them the fertilizer and water boost and watch them take off again in September and October. Don’t forget the fall bloomers when planning and planting your landscape. Mexican mint marigold, copper canyon daisy, ‘Country Girl’ mum, Mexican bush sage (salvia leucantha), mountain sage (salvia regal), sweet autumn clematis, Maximillian sunflower, obedient plant, fall aster, and many grasses such as Miscanthus save their best for the fall show. Then there are the early fall blooming bulbs such as Guernsey lilies (lycoris radiata) and oxblood lilies (rhodophiala bifida).

Fall is truly the best gardening season of the year. So take a little time out in the early morning hours during July and August to get your garden and landscape ready for fall. It will pay off in a bounty of produce and plenty of beautiful blooming dividends.

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