Fall Gardening – By Mark Govan, Host “Florida Gardening”

The end of August marks a great time of year for gardeners. This is the time of year we need to be looking at both conditioning the soil of our fall vegetable gardens for new plants and starting our vegetables from seed so they are ready for the mid-September planting season. Conditioning your existing garden is as important as planning on which varieties of vegetables you are going to grow. Taking the time now to improve the soil in your garden will give you back tenfold in production and will also keep your plants healthier. This week I will go over the steps in conditioning your soil and I also want to give you a few ideas of what you can grow this time of year. The fun starts now so let’s get started.

Getting your garden ready for your new vegetable plants can be as easy as just adding a little additional organic matter or compost to your existing garden and tilling it in. I like to use Black Kow, Peat, and any composted materials I have laying around. Make sure you have removed any old plants and weeds from your existing garden before top dressing the soil. I use a simple way of distributing my organic matter over the top of the existing garden, a shovel. Just pour the materials I mention below into a wheel borough, give a few turns of the shovel to gently mix the materials together, and then shovel out the material over the garden. Do not worry about being too neat as this will be fixed later.

An average ten by ten garden will need an additional nine cubic feet of peat (or a mixture of peat, compost, and Black Kow), five pounds of fertilizer, and three pounds of dolomite. Make sure these materials are evenly distributed throughout the existing garden before turning or tilling them into the garden. Just evenly spread your Black Kow, and peat over the top of your garden with your shovel and then level the material out with a rake. A three to four inch layer of these materials spread evenly over the top of your garden areas and then tilled into the soil to a depth of six inches will help your garden produce some great looking vegetables this fall.

Turning this material into the ground does not have to be a backbreaking job. Most people think you have to turn this material deep into the ground but this would be a waste of time. There is no need to till deeper than six inches or one shovels depth, as most vegetable roots do not grow below this level. The key is to do this now and then let the soil rest before planting your vegetables for at least three weeks to allow the soil microbes to work on any compost that has not been completely broken down.

Use a sharp shovel to turn this material into the garden. Start on one side of the garden and work your way across turning each shovel full over. Then do the row behind and so on. Once you are finished, I like to smooth over the top with a steel rake just to take the high spots out. This gives a nice level appearance. Planting your new seedlings in a garden area that has not had the time to rest after adding soil amendments can injure your new seedlings by burning their tender roots. This waiting period will also allow worms to enter the garden and loosen the soil. While you are waiting for this material to “cure” you can start your new vegetables from seed.

If you plan on starting your garden from seed you should start picking out the varieties you are going to use and start them now. Starting plants from seed is very cost effective and will give you more plants to use rather than purchasing individual plants from the garden store. By selecting plants from seed you can also pick out many different varieties to grow and you are not limited by whatever the big box stores want you to plant. Try to use at least a few of the heirloom seeds for the old fashioned varieties of vegetables. These are great for the garden and most are easy growers. There are many websites available for you to pick out your heirloom seeds. Heirloom seeds are not genetically altered and if you like gardening organically or if you like the plants Grandma used to plant in her backyard garden, you will find many of the old fashioned varieties on these websites. If you have already purchased seeds from the local garden center you need to start planting them in starter pots now.

To start your seeds you need some sterilized potting soil which you can purchase at any local garden center and you will need a few seed starter pots. Starter pots come in many varieties. Some have individual cells numbering in the twenty to thirty cells per tray. These are great for starting small seeds like tomatoes or onions. Larger seeds require larger starter pots such as four inch pots. Squash, corn, and beans seem to do better in larger starter pots and you do not have to repot them before putting them into the garden. Some four inch pots are made of peat which can be easily transferred directly into the garden when the plants are of sufficient size.

If you are using plastic pots or old egg cartons to start your smaller seeds, you may have to thin out the number of sprouts that come up. I will generally wait about two weeks and then remove all but the best or tallest growing plants. Do not be afraid to plant more starter plants than you think you will use because there always seems to be one more place to put another plant. Make sure you keep your plants moist in the smaller containers as the smaller the container is, the quicker the soil will dry out.

Once you have planted out your seeds and watered them, I like to put my seeds in a windowsill or other sunny spot in the home. Starting plants in the home lessens pest problems from outside and you can watch the plants as they grow. When the plants are large enough or you can see the roots on the bottom of the pot, it is time to move them off of the windowsill and into the garden. Your plants should be at least four inches tall or better. If the plants were raised in small cells you may need to repot them one time into a larger container before placing them into the garden. This will ensure they have a healthy root system before putting them into the ground. Once you do plant them outside make sure you water them well every day.

In about three to four weeks after your plants have been planted, you need to fertilize them again. I will use an 8-10-10 granular fertilizer spread over the top of the garden with a hand held rotary spreader. Every other week I like to use a liquid fertilizer like Miracle Grow or Peter’s plant food mixed at one half strength and sprayed over the garden. Remember, vegetables are heavy feeders and you want to keep them growing during their entire life cycle. Keep watching your plants for signs of pests or diseases and treat them accordingly.

For those of you that have not had a garden before or you need help designing a garden space or properly laying out your garden, then there is a publication you can printout online for free from the University of Florida http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/topic_vegetable_gardening. The easiest way to access this guide is to just type into your web browser IFAS gardening guide. This will pull up the correct website. This guide will help you prepare and lay out a new garden. You can also find out what varieties of vegetables you should be growing in your area and this article will also go over some of the problems you will need to look out for when growing vegetables.

If you have read the Gardening guide I referenced above, you should know that gardens need full sun to grow the best vegetables and spices. Remember, because our soil is made primarily of sand which is not conducive to producing good vegetable crops, you will need to incorporate lots of organic material into your garden to give your plants a good base to grow in. Organic material also helps to control the damaging number of nematodes we have in our soil. Nematodes are tiny microscopic roundworms which feed on the roots of our plants disrupting the flow of nutrients to the plant. When you have a good organic base for the garden, nematode numbers are greatly reduced.

Some of the plants I am starting now include Bush or Pole Beans, Broccoli, Cabbage, Celery, Collards, Sweet Corn, Onions, Peas, Squash, Green Peppers, Tomatoes and of course, Watermelons. You can pick a few of these or choose some of your own favorite vegetables for your garden. Get started now and enjoy yourself. Gardening is my passion and I hope you will love gardening as much as I do. With these few easy steps I have outlined above you will soon be on your way to a great harvest! Never be discouraged if things do not work out the first year because as time goes on you will continually improve the soil of your garden by adding additional organic matter. There is no wrong way to enjoy gardening. Be happy and as always, remember, without plants, we would not be here.

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