Pick up any national magazine about gardening and you'll start seeing articles right around now about putting your garden "to bed" as "the season" ends. This makes me laugh every time I see it, because there is no end to the seasons for growing food here in Atlanta. In fact, one of the best seasons is about to start--some summer crops can linger long into October here, and so-called "cool season" crops will soon get their spotlight in the sun. What's more, the break in the heat (which has finally started) makes fall gardening a joy as gentle breezes blow, children play after school in the backyard, and dinner salads somehow magically appear night after night without any runs to the supermarket.
With the kids back in school, perhaps you have a little extra time on your hands, or maybe you can slip outside after work for an hour or so while the sun is still setting late. If you traveled or worked a lot this summer (or spent your time everywhere else but the garden), your garden may feel overgrown and neglected, and may therefore be the last place you want to go. Follow my easy tips, however, and I'll help you whip it back into shape and get ready to "fall" in love with your garden again.
1. Clean out plants that have had it. There is only so much you can ask of a plant, and if it is showing signs of distress and you've already tried what you could to help it, just move on. It's time. The good news? Pulling up the big prima donna plants of summer is easy and clears a large amount of space very quickly. Also, the ground beneath the plants is usually not weedy because the ground has been thoroughly covered by your plants, so there is a strong chance you will feel successful and see a satisfying visual difference very quickly. As for plants you think still have a little fight left in them, prune dead leaves, add additional supports where needed, toss some compost or organic fertilizer around the base, and use their towering height as an aid to your fall garden. (Hang tight--I tell you how in tip #3).
2. "Prep" your beds for fall. You'll hear gardeners saying this all the time, and it sounds very official. There are many ways to prepare your beds for each new season. You could simply freshen up your soil with a top-dressing of new compost and organic fertilizer, and you're ready to plant. You could throw in a quick-growing cover crop (like buckwheat at this time of year) to scavenge for nutrients and create additional organic matter to add structure and nourishment to your soil. You would cut this crop down in about a month and let it decay for a week or two before planting, so this could still work for fall planting if you did this one day this week. Finally, you could do a soil test and send it to your county extension office for evaluation. You'd get a report back in a week or two that would tell you what deficiencies your soil has so you could add exactly what's needed (be sure to convert the recommendation to organic inputs or ask the extension office to help you if you are gardening organically and you don't receive recommendations that reflect this popular option). Your timing right now is perfect for soil testing in time for fall planting. Call your county extension office for soil testing directions.
3. Plant fall crops. The Georgia Organics planting calendar does a great job of telling you, in general, what can be planted when, but of course there are always fluctuations from year to year since weather, as we know, is increasingly unpredictable. An additional indicator of planting readiness is soil temperature. Seeds all have their favorite soil temperature for maximum germination. Remember those tall summer plants that you left in the garden in tip #1? The soil in their shade may be cool enough to plant fall seeds several weeks earlier than expected, and then they can provide nice shade cover for fall crops while the sun is still scorching the garden elsewhere. Buy a soil thermometer so you know for sure. Want another tip for getting an early start? Cover an area of your garden with window screening as a shade cover.
Let's also not forget the . A great source to check moon phases and soil temperatures is the Old Farmer's Almanac online. Hint: Right now is the tail end of a great time to plant beets as the soil temperature is warm (which beet seeds like, believe it or not), and the moon is waning (which is a great for planting root crops). If you've been wondering why your beets just haven't worked out in previous years, my guess is you've been planting them too late in the fall (peak planting time in metro-Atlanta for most fall crops is September 1-October 1). Oh, and guess what? The new moon this week (which is the complete lack of a visible moon), means it's time to harvest root crops, like those sweet potatoes that have been vining everywhere all summer. I'm hearing reports of bountiful harvests already.
Come by my store on Briarcliff Road or visit online for supplies and advice. And get ready to join many other gardeners in their favorite growing season of the year.