I refer to “fall” in Texas as our second spring. Toward the middle of September, trees, bushes, and plants start blooming again, the butterflies are in motion, and the bees begin to swarm. The temperatures drop just enough to mimic those early spring days, and the Earth seems to approve by making everything flower once again. It is a wonderful time of year to live in Texas and it will be here sooner than you think. After all, school is back in session which means that there are only about 16 weeks until Christmas – or is it too early to start thinking about that holiday yet?
September is just around the corner and the fall is a fantastic time to grow vegetables in Texas. The plants can start in nice hot soil and as the weather cools it doesn’t tax the plants and their bounty as they mature. As an added bonus Fall grown crops tend to be sweeter and tastier than their spring/summer grown cousins.
Granted, the height of summer is not the best time to start tender seedlings of anything. Hot days, sparse rain, and heavy pest pressure must be factored into a sound planting plan, and then there’s the challenge of keeping fall plantings on schedule. But you can meet all of the basic requirements for a successful, surprisingly low-maintenance fall garden by following the steps outlined below.
The time you invest now will pay off big time as you continue to harvest fresh veggies from your garden long after frost has killed your tomatoes and blackened your beans.
- First off, start the seeds! Some folks like to start seeds of broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, and kale indoors in August, where germination conditions are better than they are in the garden. Some garden centers carry a few cabbage family seedlings for fall planting, but don’t expect a good selection. The only sure way to have vigorous young seedlings is to grow your own, using the same procedures you would use in spring. I like direct-seeding cool season crops in the first week of September and skipping the transplant thing completely.
- Next, you need to think about soil. In addition to putting plenty of nutritiously dense food on your table, your fall garden provides an opportunity to manage soil fertility, and even control weeds. Rustic greens including arugula, mustard, and turnips make great triple-use fall garden crops. They taste great, their broad leaves shade out weeds, and nutrients they take up in fall are cycled back into the soil as the winter-killed residue rots. If you have time, enrich the soil with compost or aged manure to replenish micronutrients and give the plants a strong start.
- Thirdly, consider what to plant. I suggest open-pollinated Heirloom varieties for leafy greens, which are usually as good as — or better than — hybrids when grown in home gardens. But with broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and their close cousins, hybrid varieties generally excel in terms of fast, uniform growth, so this is one veggie group for which the hybrid edge is a huge asset. Breeding work is underway to develop better open-pollinated varieties for organic growers, but for now, trusted hybrids such as ‘Belstar’ broccoli, ‘Gonzales’ cabbage or ‘Snow Crown’ cauliflower are usually the best choices. Don’t forget to plant garlic and onions in October. The famous Texas 1015 onion is called the 1015 because we plant it in or around October 15th. It grows all winter and in May and June rewards us with huge, tasty onions.
- Now we need to concentrate on watering. Even short periods of drought stress can put a nasty kink in the growth curve of most fall crops. Dry soil can be murder on slow-growing beets and carrots, and any type of setback can devastate temperamental cauliflower. Your best defense is to install a soaker hose before you set out plants or sow seeds. Try laying out the hose in various patterns and turning it on to get a good look at its coverage first. If the hose won’t stay where you put it, use short stakes or wire staples to hold it in place. Simple shade covers made from boards held above the bed by bricks do a great job of shielding the germination zone from drying sunshine, or you can shade seeded soil with cloth held aloft with stakes or hoops. You will need to water by hand to make sure conditions stay moist, but shade covers can make the difference between watering once a day or four times as often.
- Next, mulch like crazy! Whether you use fresh green grass clippings, last year’s almost-rotted leaves, spoiled hay, or another great mulch you have on hand, place it over sheets of newspaper between plants. The newspaper will block light, which will prevent weed growth, help keep the soil cool and moist, and attract night crawlers and other earthworms. Mulching can have one drawback in that organic mulches are ideal nighttime hide-outs for slugs and snails, which come out at night and chew holes in the leaves of dozens of plants, watch for mollusk outbreaks, and use iron phosphate baits or beer-baited traps, if needed, to bring problem populations under control.
- Lastly, remember the hot sun and pests. Luscious little seedlings attract a long list of aggressive pests, including cabbageworms, army worms, and ever-voracious grasshoppers. Damage from all of these pests (and more) can be prevented by covering seedlings with row covers the day they go into the garden. Use a “summer-weight” insect barrier row cover that retains little heat or make your own by sewing or pinning two pieces of wedding net (tulle) into a long, wide shroud. Hold the row cover above the plants with stakes or hoops and be prepared to raise its height as the plants grow.
Summer sun can be your seedlings’ best friend or worst enemy. Always allow at least a week of adjustment time for seedlings started indoors, gradually exposing them to more direct sunlight. Even given a week to get used to strong sun, baby plants appreciate a few days of shade after they are set out, which can be easily provided by placing an old sheet over the row cover. Or, you can simply pop flower pots over the seedlings for a couple of days after transplanting. Insect pressures ease as nights become chilly in mid-fall, but you might want to keep your row covers on a little longer if your garden is visited by deer, which tend to become more troublesome as summer turns to fall.