August 1 is the official kick off date for fall gardening in my part of Texas. In reality, I actually start working on my fall garden around the middle of July. Like most of us in zones 7-9, my tomatoes are basically done by July 4th. When your spring tomatoes stop setting fruit you have two choices. Pull ‘em up and replace with new plants in August, or trim your exisiting vines up, give them a little shade, a few nutrients, and wait for the temperatures to drop.
Ever since the November night that I was late to my anniversary party because I was building cold frames out of old windows around the tomato plants I planted in August, I have been in the tomato trimming group. Little tomato plants planted in the 100 degree August heat will not always produce red ripe tomatoes before our first freeze. Because of this, I try and keep my spring tomato plants alive through July and August. To keep my spring tomato plants alive, I prune them by about a third to a half in mid-July. I then add a thick layer of composted chicken manure, mulch and put up some sort of shade. For me, this has been the best way to ensure a harvest of a few fall tomatoes.
While I am out trimming tomatoes I also do a good garden clean up. July is when I pull down any vines on my trellises that have stopped producing. This can included beans, gourds, cucumbers, cantelopes and squash. I also pull up any old mulch that is still lying on top of the ground. I take all of this dead vegation directly to the burn pile. Many of those bugs that caused you so much grief earlier in the year are sleeping and laying eggs in the mulch and plant liter under your plants. Because of this, removing it and burning it twice a year is a good pest control measure.
After my beds and trellises are clean, I amend the soil. I add about 3″ of whatever compost is on sale to the tops of my beds. I don’t usually till this compost in. I actually kind of use it as mulch. The compost will eventually get worked in when I plant or it rains or through the natural processes of all of the tiny little animals in the soil that feed off of the compost.
Finally, to conserve moisture, cool remaining roots and protect all of those micro-organisms in the soil I add a fresh deep layer of hay mulch. If you mulch with hay you need to be careful. Alot of herbicides that farmers use to control weeds in their hay crops are very persistent. There can be enough residue is some hays (particularly bermuda hays like coastal, Tifton and Jiggs) to kill your new plants that are trying to germinate or become established. I typically use rice straw as my mulch. In my experience rice hay has no residual herbicides and very few weeds.
After doing all of this prep, I spend a lot of time on the internet figuring out what I am going to plant and when I am going to plant it. This year, I found the best planting guide/calendar I have ever seen. This guide is on the Austin Organic Gardeners website. (they also have one for herbs). Instead of a list of dates, this calendar is a graphical representative of the entire year. It’s easy to read format allows you to quickly look up any plant you want. The headers show every month broken down into weeks and the rows are an alphabetical listing of all of the vegetables we can grow in this area.
My grandmother used to say you could find something nice to say about anything. So, I am going to say something nice about Texas summers. Even though it is 106 in the hot Texas sun right now, that sun is what is going to allow me to grow some of my favorite vegetables over the next six months. I know it is hot out there, but now is the ideal time to get that fall garden going. All of the sweat of July and August will pay off big in September and October. So suck it up and get busy. You will forget all about how hot July was when you are OUTSIDE in your garden harvesting broccoli, cauliflower, collards, and cabbage in January!