Southern gardeners are blessed with many things. Bourbon, shrimp and grits, for example. We are also blessed with long growing seasons, and this year we have even had abundant rain while much of the rest of the country bakes in drought. We are also about to face a hurricane here in the panhandle of Florida, which could be stressful, but I am using the impending storm to propel me to get the garden ready. This morning I harvested the last crop of beautiful Seminole squash so it doesn’t get ruined by the torrential rains we are expecting. This native winter-keeping squash is one of my favorites, and we harvested enough to feed us through the fall and winter months.
In the South we have the opportunity to grow fruits and vegetables almost year round. In fact, July and August are the slowest months for the garden. This summer it has rained so much, it’s been hard to get out there just to keep up with the weeds. But as August draws to a close, the humidity begins to lighten up, and nights are cooler. It is time to get ready for fall gardening. Fall in the South is one of the best seasons to garden. The heat, humidity and insects abate, and we start planting many of the crops that are grown in the spring in other parts of the country. Lettuces, brassicas (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, cabbages), alliums (garlic, shallots and onions), fava beans and more will be planted between now and our first frost date in mid-November for harvesting throughout the winter and into spring.
Here are a few tips to get ready for fall gardening:
1. Take care of your soil. If you do not have soil that is full of healthy microbes and other beneficial organisms, your plants will not thrive. So take the time to give your soil some love! Add good quality compost, grass clippings, worm castings, and other organic matter to your soil. In late July and early August, we added a good 4-6 inch layer of fresh hay to all our no dig beds and raised beds as we finished the summer harvest and cleaned the beds out. The hay helps to keep the soil moist, prevents weeds, and will eventually decompose and improve the quality of the soil. It’s an inexpensive and simple way to take care of your soil. A couple of weeks before we plant for fall, I will add compost, aged manures, and worm castings to beef up the soil. When you used raised beds and plant intensively like we do, amending the soil is critical for a healthy growing season and a great harvest.
2. Order your seeds now! I just ordered all the seeds for Cowlick Cottage Farm from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. This company offers high quality seeds that are selected for southern gardens. Of course, there are many other great seed sources, so pick your favorite and place your order. I like to order primarily from one online source, because I automatically have an online record of everything I have planted for a season. Then it’s simple to add some notes and keep track of when we planted, what we liked and what didn’t work out so well. And I always like to try a new vegetable or two, just for fun. Try some Lacinato kale or some kohlrabi!
3. Learn about your gardening season. To plan a fall garden, it is critial to know when your first frost date is. Dave’s Garden has a handy tool to help you determine your frost dates simply by plugging in your zip code. Our first frost date at Cowlick Cottage Farm is November 16. Why is this important to know? Well, each crop takes a certain period of time to fully develop and mature. So in the fall, you count backwards from your area’s first average frost date to determine when to plant each crop. Your seed catalog or packet will tell you how long it takes for the seed to come to maturity. For example, Golden Sweet Snow Peas need 60-70 days to mature, so I need to plant them at least 60-70 days before our November 16 frost date in order for them to have time to mature. There are other cool weather crops that are not harmed by a freeze, such as kale, which actually benefit from a snappy freeze. In fact, many of the crops that we plant here will grow through most of the winter, especially if I cover them with a frost cloth on the really freezing nights.
Enjoy your fall garden!