Neil Sperry: Start planting for fall gardens now

Posted Friday, Jul. 04, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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It’s not easy being a vegetable gardener in North Central Texas. So far, this year has proved that more than most. I don’t believe I’ve ever received more calls about tomato troubles, and almost all of them stemmed to the late planting dates brought on by cold weather in April.

So we jump ahead to our second chance at growing our groceries — the fall garden. Surprising as it always is to many, fall plantings start now. Tomato and pumpkin plantings come in very early July, so we’ll begin with them, then I’ll give you the sequence for the rest of your crops.

If things go as planned, you’ll find more success in this second season than you did in the first.

One important date needs to be noted before we begin. It’s the average date of the first killing frost of the fall, and for this part of Texas, it’s November 20-25. We’ve had freezes as early as late October, however, and that goes to prove that you must plant each of your crops early enough that it will have time to produce well before frost.

Tomatoes

The same tomato varieties that were recommended for spring plantings are best for the fall. Hopefully your local nursery or feed store will have the transplants already. Call ahead to be sure. If necessary, ask if they will order the plants in for you.

The transplants need to go into the ground within the next week, so if their shipment won’t arrive for several weeks, keep searching.

Avoid large-fruiting types such as Beefsteak and Big Boy, choosing instead small to mid-sized varieties like Tycoon, Celebrity, Super Fantastic, Roma, Porter, Sweet 100, Red Cherry and Yellow Pear. Heirloom types tend to be poor producers.

Buy transplants that have been hardened to the tough outdoor conditions. Even then, you’ll want to protect them with lightweight A-frames made from wooden roofing shingles or small pieces of cardboard. Shade them from afternoon sun for a couple of days, then gradually expose them to one hour more sunlight per day.

Tomatoes that are planted now will bypass many of the spring pest problems. Spider mites won’t be an issue, nor will early blight. Your biggest challenges will be in keeping them moist and in remembering to apply a high-nitrogen fertilizer every couple of weeks to keep the plants vigorous.

Just to have said it, many gardeners will argue that their spring plantings are doing just fine, and that they’ll simply baby them through the rest of the summer. That almost never works. By the time those folks realize that their spring plants are playing out from the heat, it’s too late to set out new transplants for fall.

Pumpkins

Not many people try to grow their own Halloween pumpkins, but in case you want to do so, this is time to sow the seeds. Give them ample room to spread. The seed packet should recommend the proper spacing.

As with tomatoes, choose small and mid-sized types. They’ll require fewer days to mature, so they’ll be ready by mid-October. Keep them moist at all times, and apply a high-nitrogen fertilizer monthly to keep them growing actively.

Successive plantings

Peppers come next in the sequence. Plant them from vigorous transplants around the middle of July. Mix in a few of the ornamental peppers as well. While many are too hot to eat, they’re beautiful in the fall flower garden.

Several crops get planted around Aug. 1. That’s the time to plant corn and bush beans from seed. It’s also the time to plant squash, cucumbers and small types of melons for a fall crop. If you have potatoes left over from the spring garden, you’ll want to plant them around the first of August as well.

By mid-August, your interests should turn toward the cole crops. Plant broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts from nursery transplants. Watch them closely for first signs of cabbage loopers, and treat with Bacillus thuringiensis at first signs of an outbreak. Given that help, along with water and nitrogen, they should give you a wonderful yield come mid- to late fall.

Finally, in the final days of August (into early September in the urban “heat pocket” of Fort Worth), plant leafy and root vegetables such as lettuce, spinach, chard, collard and mustard greens, radishes, carrots, beets and turnips.

A few vegetables aren’t well suited to fall plantings, including heat-lovers okra and Southern peas. Onions can be seeded for green onions, but bulbing types need to wait for late January plantings. Garlic cloves are planted in early September for harvest in late spring.

Container gardens

If you’re in cramped gardening quarters, or if you’d like your plants to be portable, so you can bring them into protection in winter, grow them in large patio pots. Tomatoes and cucumbers do best in 7- or 10-gallon pots. Cabbage and broccoli, peppers, herbs and leafy crops can be grown in 5-gallon containers. Use a highly organic, high-quality commercial potting soil.

Neil Sperry publishes Gardens magazine and hosts “Texas Gardening” from 8 to 10 a.m. Sunday on WBAP AM/FM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227. Online: www.neilsperry.com.

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