Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Planning the Fall Garden: General Tips

Fall vegetable gardens can provide lots of fresh leafy greens!
Don't forget to get your soil tested before planting. Soil tests are offered
 free through November by the NC Department
of Agriculture and Consumer Science:
By Charles Murphy
Durham Co. Extension Master Gardener.

Well, it’s the dog days of summer and the summer garden is beginning to look a little tattered. Some vegetables have stopped producing altogether, others are definitely slowing down and things just seem a little tired. So, now it’s time to get started on that fall garden, and early August is high time for planting.  
Our growing season extends from mid-March into early November, and even later for some vegetables.  That’s seven months that can be productive for outdoor gardening, and there’s plenty that can be produced by judicious use of the time we have. So let’s think about the planning and preparation that go into a successful late-season vegetable garden. 

Begin with the planting bed or beds that you’re using for early-season vegetables. Are the plants in them pretty well spent? Do the beds need some grooming? What can we put in the garden that will thrive in the late summer and on into the fall? First, pull out any plants that have stopped producing, or that are winding down for the season. If they weren’t diseased, compost them, but if they are diseased, destroy them. Composting diseased plants provides a safe harbor for the disease over the winter. Rake away the mulch that you’ve used on the beds, and stock up on fresh mulch. Old mulch can be composted, again provided that the bed didn’t have any disease problems.  

If you’ve had the soil in your beds tested within the last 12-18 months, there is probably no need to repeat that now, but if it’s been 24 months or longer, a soil test would be a good idea. Don’t delay late season planting to wait on test results. The information may help to take steps to improve crop health and yield as you go along.   

Add some fresh organic matter in the form of well-composted material, either homegrown or commercial. Some gardeners may work in a little low nitrogen fertilizer at the same time, especially if the beds haven’t been fertilized since early summer, but don’t go overboard, and take care to use a slow-release nitrogen product. Using a digging fork or spade, turn the soil in the beds, incorporating whatever amendments you use. While doing that, check for earthworms; a large, active worm population is common in healthy soils. Check the soil’s texture and color. Healthy soil should be dark brown to almost black, and should have a crumbly texture. Heavy, sticky soil definitely needs some amending with organic matter.  

Chrysanthemums can be planted in arresting
formations for added fall color.
Before completing the bed work, have a list of vegetables you want to plant, and locate sources of either seed or seedlings. A short list of crops that do well in the fall garden includes most leafy greens, root crops such as beets and radishes (carrots will do well, too, but need to be started in mid-July for best results); onions, either seeds or sets; broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cabbage; and don’t forget garlic, which can be planted in November and will grow through the winter for June harvest. For a complete list of late-season vegetables, go to Planting seedlings reduces time to harvest by bypassing the seed germination period. Many late-season crops will withstand a light frost, which, in our zone occurs on the average in late October. Some, e.g., collards, sail right on through even heavier frosts with little or no harm.  

Planting a late-season garden does have some potential pitfalls. Insects and other garden pests, for example, may be a problem just because there are more of them than in spring and early summer. The usual rules of integrated pest management apply here: observe your plants carefully for early signs of damage or infestation, and don’t forget to check leaf undersides. Look for moths flying around plants.They may be laying eggs so be especially vigilant in your inspections. Mechanical control (picking off insects) is helpful and simple. A lightweight row cover that allows sunlight to penetrate will help prevent egg-laying insects from getting to plants. Insecticidal soaps or even a forceful spray with the shower setting on an adjustable hose nozzle will remove small insects and egg masses and, of course, strong healthy plants are the least likely to be severely damaged. 

Late summer in our region is usually hot and frequently dry, so careful attention should be paid to watering plants. A quick check for soil moisture is to poke a finger in to a depth of about 4 inches; if the soil feels moist, it’s OK, but if it’s dry, add water. A regular watering routine is better than letting plants get to the brink of desiccation, then overwatering; boom and bust watering cycles aren’t good for plants. And, remember that proper mulching reduces water loss from the soil as well as weed growth.  By the way, don’t spray plants with water, put the water on the roots, not the leaves. Watering leaves is inefficient and may lead to fungal growth. 

A fall garden can extend the gardening season, and can be rewarding for the gardener’s table. It’s really nice to be able to have fresh salad material in October, and homegrown Brussels sprouts or broccoli go well with the Thanksgiving turkey.

1 comment:

Mary Preston said...

Thank you so much for sharing this post! It's really useful for a newbie like me!