As oppressive summer temperatures fall, it’s a great time to fall for gardening again. Though we think of spring as prime gardening season, autumn is actually the best time for many, if not most, gardening activities. Roots of newly-planted shrubs, trees, perennials, and even annuals have the winter to develop, so when the weather warms in spring and summer they are deeply established and better able to withstand heat and drier weather.
Before you tackle new gardening activities, put soil improvement at the top of your list, regardless of what you plant. Adding organic matter to sandy or clay soil provides nutrients and moisture regulation plants need. Organic matter can come from good-quality compost, rotted manure, fallen leaves, and other weed-free, herbicide-free materials. Mix with existing soil several inches deep before planting. If your organic matter isn’t fully broken down you may need to add nitrogen fertilizer to help speed the process.
Let’s take a look at several different areas of gardening interests and highlight activities to undertake this fall.
It’s getting late for planting summer crops like tomatoes, squash, and corn, but it’s the perfect time for planting all sorts of leafy and root veggies. Think cabbages, lettuces, swiss chard, spinach, kale, turnip, carrot, beet, and radish. With a typical mild winter most of these veggies can be planted and harvested until spring. Broccoli, cauliflower, and brussels sprouts will develop for harvesting late winter or early spring. Onions and garlic will be larger and sweeter if planted in fall. Though frost-tolerant, some should be protected (like with floating row cover—not plastic) if temperatures drop below 26 degrees.
Basil starts turning brown below 40 degrees, but now is a perfect time to plant many other herbs. Parsley and chives particularly love cooler weather. Many perennial herbs, like thyme, mint, sage, and lemongrass will benefit from fall planting. Rosemary tolerates most of our mild winters but can be killed with a severe freeze like we experienced this year.
Cool Season Flowers:
You’ll want to wait until very late October or early November before planting pansies, as they suffer from excessive heat, but by mid-October you can plant chrysanthemums, pinks, snapdragons, and other cool-season bloomers. Direct-seed poppies and larkspur in October also.
Spring-Flowering Bulbs and Perennials:
Plant spring-flowering bulbs like daffodils and grape hyacinths now, but tulips and Dutch hyacinths need chilling time. Dig, divide, and plant iris, daylilies, and spring-blooming perennials, like daisies and purple coneflower.
Shrubs and Trees:
The only pruning you want to do now is to get rid of dead or damaged branches. Pruning stimulates new growth, and you don’t want tender new growth damaged by winter freezes. It is the perfect time to plant shrubs and trees, though. Make your selection at local nurseries now, while plants may still have flowers or fruit (like crape myrtle, American Beauty Berry, hollies). This way you are assured of getting the color you want. Planting in fall gives roots time to establish, so when soils warm in spring they are ready to support all the top growth that will emerge.
For most of East Texas, the average date of applying fall fertilizer for Bermuda and St. Augustine grass is October 15 (earlier for Texarkana, later for Beaumont). Choose a fertilizer with nitrogen and potassium (little or no phosphorus) and look for a combination of quick- and slow-release product, so roots will continue to be fed through the winter.
Fall is also a great time to check mulch levels on all beds, replenishing where necessary. A minimum three-inch layer of organic mulch, like pine straw, shredded leaves, or bark mulch helps retain moisture, retard weeds, and keeps roots warm in winter and cool in summer.
Though less supplemental water is needed during cooler temperatures, plants still need moisture year-round, so continue to water throughout the winter, especially newly-established plants.
If there are questions about your specific location or growing conditions, contact your local Master Gardener group or Texas AgriLife Extension office. Enjoy our lovely fall weather and the benefits of gardening this time of year.