2012 Fall Gardening Tips

Right now it is so hot outside I work up a sweat just walking to the garden.  Photo by Heather White

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.

In my opinion, the best way to ensure a fall tomato harvest is to keep your spring plants alive through July and August. These mature plants will flower and bloom much faster than new plants put out in August.

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.

Put out a fresh layer of compost on your clean Fall beds. Animal manures like cow manure and chicken manure are a little higher and nitrogen than the palnt types. I use these to give a boost to my newly trimmed tomatoes.

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.

A large $70 roll of rice hay will supply me with all of the mulch I need for an entire year of gardening

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.

This very good planting guide is on the Austin Organic Gardeners website. This graphical guide is the easiest to use that I have found. They website has one for herbs as well.

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!

Preparing the Zone 9 Fall Garden

Even though it was 106 yesterday, it is time to get your zone 9 gardens ready for fall planting. I have to admit, with all of the talk of water restrictions, I am debating how much of a garden I am going to have this fall. I really cannot imagine not planting a garden, but I do think that I am going to scale back. No row garden for me this fall. Instead, I will be doing all of my planting in my potager (if you are a reader of Texas Gardener magazine, check out this month’s article that details how I built my potager).

Carrots and lettuce love the cooler weather of fall.

Preparation – Before you plant, you need to get the garden ready. For me, this is a fairly simple process. I practice no till gardening in my potager. So, to get my beds ready I do the following things. Note: these steps work well for flower beds as well. Since most beds have a mix of annuals and perennial, they are typically no till as well.

1. Remove all plant material that is left over from the spring garden. If you have not pulled up those cucumber or pole bean vines, then now is the time to do it. Also, if there is plant litter on the ground, remove it and destroy it (burn if you can, haul off if there is a burn ban). Old plant litter can hold a lot of pests that can “bug” you in the fall and then again in the spring. Squash Bugs over winter in plant litter so DO NOT move this debris to the compost pile. The squash bugs will actually thrive in the warm compost environment and be ready for another invasion in the spring.

2. Remove weeds. Thank goodness, weeds are not as aggressive in the fall. A good weeding now will reduce the number of times you will have to weed in the fall and winter. If there are no seed heads on the weeds that you pull, go ahead and put them on the compost heap.

3. Fertilize. Since I grow organically, I fertilize with various forms of compost. I use primarily mushroom compost but I will occasionally add in composted cow manure, rabbit manure, cotton bur compost and an alfalfa and humate blend. All of these are good sources of nitrogen. However, for good flower production (and ultimately vegetable production) you also need phosphorus. I use rock phosphate. Also, don’t forget about the potassium. Potassium (or potash) helps plants use water. Clay soils generally have enough of this in our area. However, since we are in a drought, I am going to add a little supplemental potassium this year. The best source of potassium for the organic garden is greensand. You can also add wood ash but it is high in lime so it can lower your pH.

Cabbage, and all brassicas, thrive here in the fall

Planting – In my humble opinion, fall is the best time of the year to garden in Texas. The temperatures are falling to a bearable level, the rains generally pick up and weeds are not nearly as much of a problem. Also, my favorite vegetables are the brassicas that thrive in the Texas fall. Patty Leander creates the planting guide for the Travis County Agrilife Extension office.  Click the link below to see here updated planting guide for our area.

Texas A&M AgriLife’s Vegetable Planting Guide by Patty Leander


Turnips are a two for one deal in the fall garden. Both the turnip and the greens are delicious and nutritious.