by Georgiana Marshen
I am getting a little ahead of myself, but as August approaches and the hot days of summer are guaranteed to wane, I look at my garden with sadness. Soon a chill will appear in the air and the final days for my tomatoes, peppers and other warm-season crops will be over. How depressing. But wait a minute. Where is it written that I have to stop growing just because I flip the calendar page? September doesn't automatically mean gardening is over. There are cool-weather crops that, if started in August, will produce right up to the first frost and beyond.
Frost Tolerant vs. Frost Tender
Tomatoes, peppers, beans, eggplant, cucumbers and melons are all frost tender vegetables. A light frost, noticeable by the white crystal coating on your lawn in the morning, will cause their leaves to blacken and fruit to die. When a light frost is predicted you can either end your season and remove all harvestable vegetables or try to extend the season just a little more by putting a protective barrier between your plants and Mother Nature. Garden cloth called Reemay, or a light blanket placed over your plants will protect them from the seasons first light frost.
Broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, radishes, carrots, collards, garlic, kale, lettuce, mustard, swiss chard, spinach and turnips are all 'frost tolerant' crops. Some like brussel sprouts and carrots benefit from short exposure to frost with improved flavor and sweetness. There are a couple of things you need to find out before you can plant a fall garden:
1. What is the average first frost date for your area?
2. What is the number of days needed for the seed to get to transplantable size?
3. What is the number of days to maturity for plant you're going to grow?
Let's look at beets as an example of how to determine the best time to start them. My average frost date is October 20. Beets take 8 weeks from seed to harvest. I would directly plant the seed into the garden mid to late August. This gives the crop plenty of time to mature by the frost date and because it is frost tolerant, I should be able to harvest them a couple of weeks past my frost date. Some crops take longer to mature from seed. Starting them yourself or buying transplants from the garden center are better options. Broccoli is a good example taking 16 weeks to mature from seed. Broccoli needs cool weather to grow properly and I would have to direct seed in June, hoping the seeds will grow properly during the heat of the summer. Instead I could count back 16 weeks from the first frost date and start the seeds indoors under grow lights in peat pots and then transplant them out 8 weeks before the frost date or I could buy starter plants from the garden center and plant them 8 weeks before my first frost. You will need to figure these dates and numbers for each vegetable you want to grow. When planting them, try to group them together, this way if an unusual hard frost hits you will be better able to protect them if they are in one area.
Prepare your soil as you do in the spring. Clean out all of the warm weather crops and add organic matter and fertilizer and work them well into the soil. One important factor that needs careful attention is the soils moisture, or lack of it. Most plantings for a fall garden are done in August, traditionally the hottest month of the season, and moisture can be scarce. This may mean watering several times a week if rainfall is minimal. Dry soil will not help seeds that are trying to germinate nor will it be beneficial to starter plants. Stress is a big factor in August. To aid in moisture retention, mulch after seeding and transplanting.
Feed your plants by side dressing with a vegetable fertilizer same as you would in the spring. Work the fertilizer into the top few inches of soil and water well.
Insects and Diseases can still be a problem in the fall. Keep your plants healthy to avoid attacks. Control insects the same way you would in the spring by checking the plants often for signs of their presence. Use a spray such as Soap-Shield to get rid of them.
Garden fresh produce is healthier and better tasting. Just because beach going is slowly coming to an end doesn't mean gardening has to. Hang onto the most popular pastime a few more weeks. Plant a fall garden and enjoy homegrown a little longer.