Getting Your Fall Garden Underway

By Nancy Dockter
ALFN Vendor, Great Day Natural Produce

It is time high time to prepare a fall garden space. Most fall crops are planted late August through mid-October, so the sooner the soil is turned and amendments added, the better.

The heat. Even with the current break in the heat, this may the biggest barrier you face. Wear loose clothing (think baggy, thin, all-cotton dress shirt), bring along a bucket of ice water and a towel. Follow the shade. If it is still unbearable, make a large box fan your companion. It really helps.

Winter sun. Before you get started, envision the sun’s path during fall and winter. Right now, it is high in the sky as it moves east to west. Come fall, it will be low and southerly. Trees that then may put your garden in the shade might not be much of a problem once leaves have fallen, but that does not happen until November. Plants needs the bright, sunny days of October to size up before short day length slows them down in November.

Tools. You’ll need a spade and garden rake. I also recommend a short-handled mattock. A really good tiller may help, but to deeply turn the soil, you’ll need a spade or shovel. It’s a full-body workout, so you can skip going to the gym.

Mattock.JPG
A mattock tool

Clearing a bed. I once used a hoe to do this, but that created a mess of turned-up soil and weeds. One of the most valuable things I was taught at farmer school was how to “skim a bed.” To avoid churning up the soil as you work, attack weeds with a horizontal swipe of a spade, aiming the blade just below the soil surface. This separates a plant’s roots from its growth tip and top growth and renders most incapable of re-growth. Then rake away the chopped-off tops of plants. Use the mattock and spade to hack out the rest. If not too bulky, roots can stay (with the exception of Bermuda grass runners, which will re-grow). With the bed clear, you can now dig deeply (a foot at least) to loosen the soil. Then smooth the soil with a garden rake turned upside down. Take a breather and congratulate yourself.

Skimming a bed
Skimming a bed – a great arm workout!

Amendments. People write books on this topic. This hardly covers it. Did you get your soil tested? As a general rule, unless your garden’s soil is very fertile, compost won’t be enough to build strong, productive plants. You likely will need a source of more potent energy (think nitrogen) such as aged manure, blood meal, alfalfa meal, feather meal, fish emulsion, bat guano, or a commercial product. Your garden likely needs trace minerals (Azomite and kelp are sources) and lime to balance pH and add calcium, a critically important soil nutrient.

Mix all amendments together, broadcast, turn lightly, and rake smooth. Avoid displacing soil (and amendments) from one spot to the next. Water well to help amendments penetrate soil. If you are applying lime, it is best to do this several weeks before planting.

Planning. The U of A Cooperative Extension’s Year-Round Home Garden Planting Guide says what to plant in what month. Some plants do best by directly sowing seed; others do best as transplants (allow about a month to get them started). I recommend:

  • Direct sow: carrots, radishes, parsnips, turnips, spinach, and salad mix
  • Transplants: broccoli, cabbage, kohlrabi, collards. Scallions do much better as transplants but need about six weeks before moving to the garden. They will still be tiny, but they are very tough, so don’t worry if the soil falls off their roots during the process. Just stick them in the ground.
  • Either approach: kale, beets, mustard, lettuce, but any have a better chance as transplants

Try to get carrot seed (pelleted seed is worth it) in the ground late August to mid-September. Carrots need the abundant photons of the still-long days of early fall to bulk up. That is probably also true for other root crops. The greens can go in a bit later.

Moisture. For seeds to sprout, they need consistent moisture. That generally means watering twice a day. Don’t drown them. Even if the soil still looks moist in the morning from the watering the night before, seeds in a sunny spot will need more before the day is over. This is most true of carrot seed.

Gardening books. Check out Gardening When It Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times by Steve Solomon and The Book of Garden Secrets by Diane E. Bilderback and Dorothy Hinshaw Patent.

I can be reached at nedockter@gmail.com.

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