Hard to believe but end of July is the right time to begin preparing and planting a vegetable garden for a fall harvest. This year Mother Nature is somewhat cooperating and sending an occasional rain shower that is definitely helping.
The first key for a successful fall garden is to get the weeds out. And if Bermuda or bahiagrass are among those weeds, you can't just rototill everything.
Solarization is one method to reduce weeds, and other pests, by using the sun's energy to pasteurize the upper layer of soil. However, this takes time. Prepare the soil, removing garden debris and weeds from your beds and then thoroughly water the soil. Cover the prepared area with clear polyethylene, sealing the edges with soil, to trap the sun's heat.
This doesn't sterilize the soil but reduces populations of harmful nematodes, weeds and other pests. It's critical that his is done during July and August, the hottest time of the year. Treat for at least six to eight weeks. You won't get to plant tomatoes or peppers, but the garden site will be ready in time to plant cool-season vegetables.
Another non-chemical method of killing weeds is to smother them under six to eight layers of wet newspaper, and then cover this layer with pine needles, old hay or grass clippings. Whenever weeds like Bermuda grass show up through the edges, place another layer of paper over it. By continually denying them light, they'll eventually weaken and die. Transplant through the papers, or just use them in the pathways. The paper will mostly decompose by next spring.
Hand digging is another option for real small plots, but take care not to get heat stroke; work early in the morning before it gets too hot.
There are also organic herbicides formulated with oils, soaps, vinegar and other ingredients that will kill many tender annual weeds, but will not eliminate Bermuda and other perennial weeds with one application.
For future weed control, once you have your garden prepared, always maintain some sort of mulch covering the surface of the soil to prevent weeds from taking over again.
Every time you prepare the soil to plant a new crop, always mix in as much compost as you can get your hands on. Add well-decomposed animal manure, fertilizer and lime if soil tests indicate a low fertility or pH, and work all ingredients into the soil.
Southern peas such as blackeye, purplehull, cream and crowders make a great, edible summer cover crop for building the soil and providing food. The pea vines can be mowed and rototilled under while still green for extra soil building benefits or allowed to produce peas and then tilled under.
Tomatoes and peppers need to be planted soon — by the first of August — if they are going to make a good crop before the first frost. What if your garden spot is not yet ready? Buy your transplants now and grow them in a larger container to plant in the garden later.
Get either six-pack transplants or four-inch transplants. Put them in a one or three gallon nursery container filled with potting soil. Do not use soil from your garden. Add slow release fertilizer (like Osmocote or other slow release formulation) to the soil mix. Set the pots in a sunny spot in the yard, not in the shade.
Every time you water, use a water-soluble fertilizer solution instead of just plain water. Your transplants will continue to grow and be healthy, just as if you have transplanted them directly into the ground. Once your garden site is ready, you have large, healthy tomato and pepper plants to set out. They are easier to take care of and you are assured of a bountiful harvest before the first freeze of winter.
Grow fast maturing tomato varieties for the fall harvest. Look for varieties with less than 75 days to maturity, such as Merced, Bingo, Celebrity, Whirlaway, and Carnival. 'Surefire' is a smaller, processing tomato variety (with thicker skin) which sets and matures all of its tomatoes very quickly, giving you a "surefire" harvest that beats the first freeze. Most cherry tomatoes bear within 65 days of transplanting.
Timing is very important for a successful fall garden. Heat tolerant/cold sensitive crops need to be planted in time to mature before cold weather slows and stops growth, while cool season/heat sensitive crops are planted late enough to avoid the heat, but early enough to take the first frosts of winter.
Seeded vegetables can be tricky to get up in the heat of summer. Soil often forms a crust on the surface after tillage and watering. This “crust” can hinder tender seedlings from breaking through. Here are a couple of tips to help get seedlings up in the summer.
Open a furrow down the row as you normally would to sow the seeds. Before sowing, take your garden hose and thoroughly soak the bottom of the seed furrow with water. Next sow the seed. Finally, cover the seed to the proper depth with dry soil and firm. The seed should stay moist enough until germination, and if you avoid overhead watering, the soil will not form a crust to hinder seedling emergence.
Other folks will place a board or wet burlap over the seed row to provide constant dampness to encourage germination and emergence. You need to check every day for signs of emergence, and remove the covering when you see the first seedlings breaking through.
The following are optimal "windows of time" for planting fall vegetables:
Tommy Phillips is the County Extension Agent, Agriculture/Natural Resources for Van Zandt County