There is something majestic about the fall garden. The mornings become crisp, and you are no longer weighed down by the thick, heavy air when you go out for a quick harvest. Fall air has the perfect smell of browning leaves, the days become shorter, and most of the pests start to hunker down until spring and summer roll back around. Fall is my favorite season, and I begin dreaming about sweater weather as soon as the hot summer heat in June rolls around.
Here in North Texas, we can grow almost everything we grew in the summer garden, plus root vegetables and brassicas. That is an extensive list of food – tomatoes, peppers, squashes, okra, beans, cucumbers, peas, herbs, plus the addition of turnips, carrots, rutabagas, beets, lettuces, other leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts. That was a mouth full, and a garden full! Where am I going to put it all? What would my husband think if I put raised garden beds on the patio? I am joking… I think. But seriously, when my garden is still full of summer plants, where will I put my fall seedlings?
Before I get ahead of myself, I need to plan. The first thing I usually do, before any gardening season, is to look up my average first frost date. In the spring, I look up my average last frost date. My first frost is around November 12 in my area, so once I have that date, I can start making a list of the vegetables I intend to grow. I typically start everything in my garden from seed, so I go through my seed inventory and see what I already have. Starting from seed gives you more varieties than buying seedlings from big-box stores, but if you can find someone selling seed starts, they may also have unique varieties. Once I have that list written out, I go to the Farmer’s Almanac website to get the seed starting dates and the transplant dates and add these to my list next to the varieties.
After completing all the math, it is time to brave the heat. Armed with sunblock, a giant hat, and approximately 87 gallons of water, I head out into the garden and start looking everything over. If there are any plants from the summer garden that are either too sick or too infested with spider mites, I go ahead and cut them down. I will typically keep all companion plants until the first frost comes because they will still help deter pests while the heat is scorching out, and they add color and beauty to the garden space. Once the sick plants are removed, I start mentally planning out where things will go. I don’t put it on paper just yet because as the summer heat continues to blast the garden, things might change.
Eventually, things will cool down, and it will be time to direct sow those root vegetables and transplant the other seedlings. The soil must be prepared properly to give those baby plants the best chance. When I am amending my soil, I typically like to add a thick layer of compost on top of my existing soil, some blood meal for the heavy nitrogen feeders, and some bone meal for those root vegetables. I also add in some organic fertilizer and top it all off with straw mulch. I like the straw because it helps insulate the roots, retain moisture, and prevent soil erosion. As it breaks down, it contributes to the health of the soil. Any plants still left in the garden to do their garden thing also benefit from the soil amendment, which will help fall vegetable production.
Soil amending can be quite a physical task, and it is okay if it takes more than one day, especially if you are in a ridiculously hot area like I am. I will often split up all the physical tasks across several mornings or evenings so I can avoid the hottest parts of the day. However, your garden is ready for new plants once that is done. Keep an eye on the calendar you wrote out, so you know when to start certain seeds or direct sow others. A good rule I like to follow is to direct sow the roots like rutabagas and carrots, that way their formation isn’t disturbed through transplant. For those plants that require seed starting, follow your schedule closely so you don’t miss the transplant window. At this point, you can also go ahead and write down where you are going to put things. Be mindful of how many containers you have, how much space is in your raised beds, and whatever in-ground space you may have. It is easy to start far more seeds than you have room for, so be mindful of the space you have compared to the number of seeds in your inventory.
I know that in the heat of the summer, the thought of a fall garden is daunting and overwhelming. Just the idea of planting more seeds when the current garden is probably wild, unruly, and a bit out of control is a lot. However, planting the fall garden is worth it. It is a worthy endeavor to pursue because the rewards are wonderful. You get to eat them! Take the time now to plan for that garden because I promise the fall garden is so much better than the summer garden. Fall gardening is easier because it is not as hot, the pests are fewer (I’m looking at you, hornworms), and there aren’t as many weeds to contend with. I, for one, am looking forward to the root vegetables, salads, and leafy greens I will be harvesting soon.