|By Skip Richter
Ask most any Texan and they’ll tell you that fall means it’s football season. Many will also point out that fall brings hunting season. But fall is also gardening season!
Spring arrives with an epidemic of gardening fever as we are drawn outdoors with an irresistible urge to plant things. Yet when it comes to horticultural heaven, there is nothing like fall. Despite the fact that few people other than dedicated gardeners get “the fever” in fall, it is hands down the best gardening season of the year.
As the brutal grip of summer is broken by the arrival of fall, our landscapes enter a transition time. The heat gives way to cooler temperatures, making outdoor activities in the garden much more pleasant. Rainfall usually arrives with cool fronts breaking the annual drought conditions of summer and giving us a break in the water bills!
There is something to do in virtually every part of the garden and landscape. Here are five reasons I love fall gardening and also some key gardening opportunities the fall season brings.
Top Quality Vegetables
We can garden year-round in most of the state, yet each season brings unique challenges and opportunities. Because our summers are so long and so hot, we end up with a short, pleasant spring season and a short fall season for the majority of garden vegetables.
In spring we plant in cool soil and ripen the crop as temperatures are getting uncomfortably hot. The fall garden goes in when temperatures are still quite hot and the crops ripen in mild to cool conditions.
This results in fast, early growth and a harvest quality that is superior to other gardening seasons. Green beans, for example, that ripen in the mild days of fall are the tastiest and most tender you can grow. Peppers planted in the spring can be carried over until fall when the now-large bushes will produce a bumper crop. Cauliflower can be grown in the spring, but it was made for fall when the cool weather provides for optimum quality.
You can grow almost anything in the fall that you can grow in the spring with the exception of sweet corn, which doesn’t perform well in the fall garden. I have also found that tomatoes don’t do as well in my fall gardens, but they still will produce if I get them in by midsummer so they can start to set their blooms when the heat breaks.
The key to fall vegetable success is to plant early enough so that crops can ripen prior to the first freeze. The ideal planting window for various crops will sometimes be fairly small. So consult a local planting chart to time your plantings. It will probably be “too hot” outside when the planting chart says to plant various warm season crops, but don’t delay.
Keep the soil moist with regular irrigation to help the seedlings get off to a good start. In some cases, providing a little shade over the row will help moderate the soil temperature enough to help seeds sprout and grow better.
Transplants may benefit from a little temporary shade also. Use your imagination on how to shade seedlings or transplants. I’ve seen many different techniques utilized by creative gardeners, including old license plates or evergreen branches stuck in the ground at an angle to provide shade to a small transplant, pine needles scattered lightly down a seeded row to provide a light shade and a strip of rowcover or shade cloth suspended down the row on wire hoops or PVC arches — whatever works.
Fall is definitely flower season. Many annuals perform their best bloom shows in the cooler days of fall. Marigolds, for example, look fabulous in the fall and their nemesis, spider mites, are on the decline, making spraying unnecessary.
Some spring-blooming garden flowers need to be seeded outdoors now to allow time for them to germinate and grow into small plants in preparation for the big spring growth and bloom period. Poppies and larkspur are two examples. Sweet peas perform better if planted in the fall. Gardeners who plant these spring bloomers now will enjoy much greater success this coming spring.
Wildflowers, especially those that bloom in the spring, should be seeded in the fall season. Mow a potential wildflower area down short and rake the area to scratch the soil surface. Then scatter wildflower seeds and water them in to set the stage for a beautiful spring-to-summer show. If you just want some bluebonnets in your flower beds you can start them as transplants in 4” pots in early fall and set the small transplants out where you want them in mid- to late fall.
Many types of bulbs are planted in the fall. This is especially true for winter and spring blooming bulbs. Whenever possible, choose species and varieties that are likely to naturalize in your area. This provides an annual blooming return on your investment. A few examples of naturalizing bulbs are several types of daffodil/narcissus, oxblood lily, rain lily, spider lily (Hymenocallis), crinum, Amaryllis johnsonii and several types of lycoris.
Many other types of flowering perennials can be fall planted for excellent results. Fall planting allows the plant time to establish prior to winter, and when next spring arrives these plants are ready to take off growing.
This head start on getting roots established can be a monetary advantage, too. I have compared performance of a slightly smaller perennial set out in the fall to the next larger “pot size” planted the following spring. By late spring to summer, there will be little if any difference, except in your pocket book where the smaller plant saved you a considerable cost.
Fall Blooming Plants
A number of plants wait until fall to bloom. These include Mexican mint marigold, Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha), fall aster, mountain sage (S. regal) and chrysanthemums. As you drive about the neighborhood or visit a local botanic garden, note what is blooming to help build your list of great fall bloomers. When building your landscape plan, make sure to include some of these plants to provide late-season interest in the landscape.
Roses may bloom throughout the year, but they put on their second grand performance in the fall season. While February is the traditional rose planting month, there is no reason to wait until then to plant a rose, except for the fact that bare root plants are only available in late winter. Fall is a superior time for planting container-grown rose bushes and will result in more successful establishment and survival for the plant.
Herb Planting and Care
The fall season is a great time to establish perennial herbs. A new herb plant will send out roots and establish quickly in the mild fall temperatures, which are often accompanied by rainy weather.
If you already have an herb garden, fall is a good time to harvest herbs for cooking, freezing and drying. I like to make herbal vinegars in the fall season. If you don’t have an herb garden, consider planting one or at least getting some herbs going in containers.
Herbs are versatile plants and, while a formal herb garden can add a unique aesthetic element to the landscape, herbs need not have their own garden area.
Include them throughout your landscape. I plant basil and cilantro in my vegetable gardens. My perennial flower beds have pineapple sage and Mexican mint marigold. Upright rosemary and bay shrubs provide evergreen interest in my landscape, while oregano and garlic chives fill in as groundcover or border plants.
An early fall shearing, followed by a light application of fertilizer or a compost topdressing and then a good watering in, will rejuvenate your herbs and provide lots of fresh new growth for fall harvests.
Woody ornamentals, including shrubs, trees and woody vines, represent a significant investment in your landscape. These plants don’t come cheap, and it often takes years for them to reach an acceptable size, especially in the case of a nice shade tree.
There is no better season than fall to establish these plants. The goals in successfully establishing a woody ornamental are basically to get it to survive the planting process and first critical summer season, and then to grow to an acceptable size as fast as possible.
I’ve already mentioned the weather changes that fall brings. When you plant a container-grown plant, it takes weeks or even months to establish as the roots venture from the confines of the growing container out into the surrounding soil.
In the early part of this process, the plant is still quite susceptible to stresses from heat and drought. The more extensively the roots spread into the surrounding soil, the more resilient the plant becomes.
Roots will grow throughout the fall and winter season, as long as soil temperatures are in the 50s or above. While root growth is minimal in the winter, it is still slowly progressing along, gradually moving the plant toward successful establishment.
Despite the fact that most people consider late winter and spring to be the best planting season, fall beats both of them, hands down! A fall-planted shrub, tree or woody vine will be better prepared to survive the first critical summer season and will in most cases be larger, faster-growing than its spring-planted counterpart.
When it comes to moving or transplanting woody ornamentals, this principle applies to an even greater degree. If you have a rose bush or other shrub that you want to move, October or November is the time to do it. If you plan on moving next year and want to take a plant with you, don’t wait until spring or summer to dig and move it. Dig and pot it up in a very large nursery container this fall, and by next spring it will be a strong container plant ready to be taken to its new home.
This same principle holds true for plant “rescues.” Perhaps there are some plants at an old family homestead that you want to save or plants growing in the path of new development where bulldozers are soon to destroy them. Fall is the time to move them and either transplant into their new location or pot up in containers to hold them for later planting.
Don’t let the best gardening season of the year pass you by. Take advantage of this coming fall to have the most beautiful, bountiful garden and landscape ever!