Even though I haven't been a student for a lot of years now, I still cringe when I see "Back to School" ads and aisles showing up after the 4th of July. Summer is all too short. I'm not ready to say goodbye to it just yet. One way to extend the enjoyment of the outdoors is to plan a fall vegetable or flower garden. I know people will ask about this topic in September and October, but you can do a lot more in a fall garden if you start the planning and planting process in the next month or so.
Generally speaking, we aren't planting many new things in the garden this time of year. We're just in a pattern of watching and waiting. But it is possible, if you consider that fall really is a whole other season in which to garden. We are not limited to spring and summer.
Fall gardening actually begins now. If you are a vegetable gardener, mid-July through about mid-August is the time to sow cool weather crops like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower. Personally, I prefer these vegetables when they are grown in the fall. As the nights get cool, their flavor gets sweeter. A light frost actually helps release sugars from the cells in the plant, which makes them taste sweeter.
Other cool season crops you can plant as we move towards fall are lettuce, turnips, collards, carrots, peas, radish, and spinach. All will tolerate cool fall temperatures well. Green beans, though considered a warm season crop, may be planted for fall harvest since they mature quickly. Most varieties of green beans mature in 50 to 60 days, so as long as you get your seeds planted by mid-August, you should be able to harvest beans before frost.
It is also possible to extend your vegetable gardening season by using floating row cover and cold frames with cool season crops. Both will help hold in the day's heat during chilly fall nights.
Fall gardening also includes flower gardens. Just a few pansies, mums, asters, snapdragons or ornamental kale will help brighten up the garden after a long hot summer. And many will keep flowering even after light frost. I have even had a pansies surprise me with a flower during a brief winter "warm up"!
Personally, I use Labor Day weekend as the time to put out my fall planters. I used to wait until later, even into October, but I was always a little disappointed in the results. On a whim, simply because I saw some beautiful fall plants at the garden center, I did my planters on Labor Day weekend a few years ago. They were better than any fall planters I had ever grown in the past. I think that by planting in early September I gave the plants a few extra weeks of warmer weather and time to grow and establish themselves before temperatures really started to drop. The results were fantastic and definitely worth repeating!
Every spring I get questions about the thousands of bulbs blooming at my house. When I explain they need to be planted in the fall, many people tell me that by the fall they will forget. So consider this your friendly reminder: this is also the time to plan your spring bulbs. It seems early to be thinking about planting spring bulbs, but now is the time to take advantage of early bird specials. Several catalogs have arrived at my house already advertising everything from free bulbs to significant discounts if orders are placed before a particular date.
Fall is also a great time to plant perennials. The soil is already warm, unlike the cold clammy soil in spring. The garden is in a "mature" state, so you can see if you really have the room you think you do for a particular plant. I am just as guilty as anyone in cramming too many plants into too small a space. It's easy to think you have more room than you do when the garden is just waking in the spring.
The key in getting fall planted perennials to survive the winter is timing and mulch. The plant's roots need to grow and establish sufficiently before winter sets in. Though the ground doesn't typically freeze in this area until December or January, the cold temperatures slow plant growth, including roots.
The safest advice to follow is to plant your perennials no later than September. That way, temperatures are still warm enough to promote good root growth before cold weather hits.
Adequate mulch is important for fall planted perennials. They need a little extra mulch for the winter, applied in late October or November. Just be sure to remove it in the spring.
Over the years I have gardened a little, a lot, or not at all in the fall. I've planted vegetables, annuals, and perennials. Experiment in your own backyard this year and find out if fall gardening is for you.