|By Chris S. Corby
In Texas, nothing beats the quality and flavor of a second season vegetable garden. Since many of the crops we like must be planted in the sweltering summer heat and harvested in the cool, crisp Indian summer days of autumn, fall gardening presents a special challenge. But for many of us that is a challenge we can’t resist. So, join me as we break out the seed packets, the broad-brim straw hat and, yes, lots of cool drinking water.
Some Like it Hot
So, the first decision to make is whether you have the will and heat tolerance to tackle the relatively long, warm season crops like tomatoes and peppers that must be planted in hot weather or should you stick to the cool season crops such as broccoli and shorter season, tender crops such as beans and squash that can be planted later once temperatures have moderated. If the hot weather really gets to you then it would be best if you made your autumn garden a cool season/short season one. On the other hand, if the summer heat does not slow you down, or if you think you can tolerate a few hours with sweat dripping from your brow then go ahead and include those tomatoes and peppers that you enjoy in your fall plantings.
Because the days are getting progressively shorter throughout the fall growing season, it is essential to allow extra time for each vegetable crop to mature during optimum growing conditions or before the first freeze in the case of tender crops like tomatoes, peppers and beans. There are several ways to calculate the right time to plant in your area. First, you can just use the accompanying fall planting guide that lists planting dates by zone, or if you prefer to be more precise, you can determine the date for the first mean freeze date at your location. If the seed packet says 70 days to maturity, add two weeks to that and count back from the freeze date and that is the last date to safely plant that crop. Ideally, you would plant several weeks before that date. For example, if you garden in San Antonio your first mean freeze date is November 19 (see chart 1). So, if you are planting beans and the packet says 60 days to maturity, add two weeks: that makes 74 days then count backwards 74 days to September 17. That is the latest date to safely plant beans in San Antonio based on your mean freeze date. The best time to plant would be around September 3. Planting then would allow several weeks for harvest before frost. Keep in mind that the date of the first freeze can vary from season to season. Also, by providing frost protection to tender plants you can often avoid damage from that first freeze and enjoy several more weeks before another freeze hits your area.
For many of the cool season crops such as broccoli and cabbage, a mild freeze can actually improve the eating quality of your produce. However, a sudden drop into the mid to low 20 degree area can wreak havoc on a fast growing, succulent crop of broccoli or other crucifer. With few exceptions, you want to plant your cool season crops so that they develop during cool, autumn weather and mature before severe cold weather (low 20 degrees is expected).
Seed or Transplants
It is best to plant seed of most short maturity crops such as beans, radish, summer squash, lettuce and spinach. Other crops that should be direct seeded include beets, carrots, collards, sweet corn, mustard and turnip.
Tomatoes, peppers and eggplant should always be grown or purchased as transplants and set out in the garden at the appropriate time. You can also gain a big advantage by using transplants for broccoli, cabbage, cucumbers and melons in your fall planting.
Most likely your garden will benefit from the addition of compost and complete fertilizer prior to planting. Keep in mind that your spring crops have probably used most of the fertilizer that you applied earlier in the year. Also, if you added leaves or wood chips to your garden they can quickly deplete the nitrogen from the soil as they decompose. This is an excellent time to get a soil test done so you will know exactly what your soil needs. This is easy to do and kits are available from your county extension agent. Tilling the soil repeatedly during hot summer weather is an excellent way to destroy nematodes if they have been a problem in your garden.
Light colored, organic mulches are very helpful in the fall garden. They not only conserve moisture and cool the soil they also help control weeds if applied thickly enough. The best mulch is one that is organic, free and would otherwise end up in a land fill. Materials that make good mulches include grass clippings, leaves, old newspapers, wood chips and hay. If you use hay, make sure that it was not treated with an herbicide. Tiny amounts of herbicide residue can kill sensitive crops like tomatoes. Avoid black plastic mulch in your fall garden, as it will heat the soil excessively.
Unlike in the spring, the fall garden must often be started when the soil is bone dry and cracking. If this is the case in your garden, it will be easier to get seeds to germinate if you presoak the soil prior to planting. This technique works really well for green beans since they often pull their heads off as they struggle to emerge through hard, caked soil. By presoaking the seedbed there should be enough moisture for the seeds to germinate without supplemental irrigation until after the plant has emerged.
Insect pests can be a serious problem in the fall garden. Cabbage loopers and fall armyworms can be particularly troublesome. However, they are relatively easy to control with one of several products that contain Bacillus Thrungensis (Bt), a biological worm killer that will not harm beneficial insects or humans.
Aphids often bother fall crops but can be kept in check by releasing ladybugs or spraying with an insecticidal soap. Grasshoppers can also become a problem in the fall garden and they are difficult to control with pesticides. You may kill the ones in your garden with a contact insecticide but replacements will arrive shortly and you will end up with no control at all. We have had good luck using a floating row cover to protect vulnerable plants. Control other insects by handpicking or the judicious use of an approved insecticide.
Remember, if an insecticide, organic or synthetic, is strong enough to kill the bad bugs it will kill the beneficial guys, too. Use them as a last resort.
In addition to providing protection from insects, floating row cover will provide some frost protection to tender fall crops. Many row cover products are made from waste generated by diaper manufacturers.
Using these products has an additional benefit of keeping this waste material out of our landfills.