Start now to prepare for fall planting season
If you’re a gardener in Austin, you may not know what to do with yourself this time of year. The tomatoes are harvested, other plants are shriveling and dying, and sunflowers are quickly taking over the plot.
But although this is the harshest season for your garden, there’s still plenty to be done to maintain what you have and to prepare the garden for the fall planting season, which starts in late August. Sari Albornoz and Jess Guffey, codirectors of the Grow Local program at The Sustainable Food Center, offer these tips for whipping your garden into shape.
• Mulching – It’s important to mulch heavily around your plants this time of year. Alfalfa hay, dry leaves, pine needles and fine wood mulch all work great. Mulch helps both to slow down water evaporation from the soil and to regulate temperature, so your plants will stay cooler and wetter. Another benefit of mulching is that it prevents weeds from growing, so you’ll have less work later.
• Water in the morning or evening – Plants are stressed this time of year. It’s best to water when the sun is out, because this will help to dry off your plants’ leaves, but watering in the heat of the day leads to evaporation before your plants are able to have a drink. Watering in the evening is best, but more than anything, be consistent in the time of day you water.
• Don’t water every day – In general, it’s better to water deeply two or three times a week than to water just a little every day. The roots of your plants only extend down into the soil as far as the water goes, so when you water just a little, the roots don’t grow as deep as they do when you water heavily but less frequently. This time of year, especially because we’re in a drought, you may need to water more often, though. Keep in mind that the city is in stage 2 water restrictions right now, which dictates based on your address which days and hours you’re allowed to water.
• Use soakerhoses or drip irrigation – These methods allow for more efficient watering because less water evaporates in the process. You can make your own soaker object by poking holes in milk jugs and filling them with water.
• Plant a cover crop – If large parts of your garden are empty right now, one of the best things you can do to prepare for the fall planting season is to plant a cover crop. Common summer cover crops in Central Texas include oats or legumes, such as black-eyed peas. Legumes planted as cover crops help to enrich the soil by converting the nitrogen in soil to a form that can be taken up by plants. When you take out the cover crop and plant your fall veggies, they benefit from that nitrogen. Planted as cover crops, these plants are not grown to be harvested — by the time they start producing, they’re no longer benefiting the soil. Instead, chop them down before they start producing, and till the materials into the soil to prepare the soil for whatever’s coming next.
• If you’re desperate to plant something that will produce food despite the hot weather, you do still have a few options. Corn, cucumbers, tomatoes, black-eyed peas, New Zealand spinach, melons, okra, summer squash, eggplant and peppers can all be planted this time of year, some from seed and some by transplant. Just remember that this weather is especially hard on new transplants, so it can be more challenging to get plants established this time of year. A new plant needs moisture every day for the first week or so, and once it’s established you can back off and put it on the same watering schedule as the rest of the garden.