Q: My summer vegetable garden has finally bit the dust (no pun intended), but I am just not quite ready to put the garden tools up for the season. Can you give some details on growing vegetables in the fall?
A: As summer nears its end, it is time to gear up for another planting (and future harvest) season. This month is the perfect time to get your cool-season vegetable seeds and/or transplants in the ground. While several cool-weather crops can survive when planted in spring, they typically do not thrive, especially in spring weather like we experienced this year. Many cool-season vegetables, such as carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts, produce their best flavor and quality when they mature during cool weather. In Alabama, the spring temperatures often heat up quickly making vegetables such as lettuce and spinach bolt or develop a bitter flavor when they mature during hot summer weather.
As with any garden, careful planning and good garden management are crucial to your success. The first step is site preparation. Before preparing the soil for a fall garden, you must decide what to do with the remains of the spring/summer garden. In most cases, the decision is not difficult because the warm-season vegetables are beginning to look ragged. Remove all crop residues and weed growth, and till or spade the soil to a minimum depth of 6-8 inches.
If the spring crops were heavily fertilized, you may not need to make an initial preplant fertilization. If not, you can apply 1 to 2 pounds of a complete fertilizer such as 10-10-10 per 100 square feet of bed space. Be sure to thoroughly incorporate the fertilizer.
The next step is deciding on a planting method. Most cool-season varieties are available in seed and transplant form. If you choose to sow seed, maintaining adequate moisture is imperative to germination as well as continued growth after germination. An overhead sprinkler can help provide seeds with sufficient moisture to germinate. We all know how hot and dry late summer in Alabama can be, so be sure to keep the soil moist until the young seedlings have emerged.
Now, you should begin your regular vegetable garden maintenance routine. Continue to water based on the needs of the plants. As the plants mature, move from frequent, light waterings to single, deep applications. Like their spring-maturing relatives, most fall-maturing vegetables benefit from nitrogen sidedressing.
It is not uncommon for insects and diseases to be more abundant in the fall, mostly as a result of a buildup in their populations during the spring and summer. You may be able to keep these pests at tolerable levels, if you follow a few strategies. Strive to keep fall vegetables healthy and actively growing. Check plants frequently for insect or disease damage. If significant damage is detected, use an approved pesticide.
You can extend the season of tender vegetables by protecting them through the first early frost. In Alabama, we often enjoy several weeks of good growing conditions after the first frost. Cover growing beds or rows with burlap or a floating row cover supported by stakes or wire to keep the material from directly touching the plants. You can protect individual plants by covering them with milk jugs, paper caps, or water-holding walls.
Good luck and happy gardening!
Written by Bethany A. O’Rear of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES). She is housed at the C. Beaty Hanna Horticultural and Environmental Center, which is based at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.
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