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Fall and Winter Vegetable Garden

by: Jim Binnings, Collin County Master Gardener

Question of the month: I have heard you can have a fall and winter vegetable garden here in Texas. Can you help get me started?

We are fortunate in Texas because our fall and winter seasons are “generally” mild. And because of that, we can grow vegetables all year round. I will break your question up into two articles. I will discuss fall gardening in this article and discuss winter gardening in my next article.

Let’s start with summer garden cleanup. Cut down all of the leftover summer vegetables. Also, pull all of the weeds out of your garden beds. You will need a clean garden to work with going into your next growing season. If the summer vegetables are insect free, it is fine to put them in your compost pile. If the plants don’t have woody stems, you can also cut them up and mix them into your gardens soil. If you have the space, it is advisable to cut the plants to ground level and leave the root ball in the ground. The root ball will add biomass to your garden and is a great snack for the microbes in your soil. If during this process any of the plants have insects on them, take these plants (roots also) to the trash right away. This is also time to clean your garden tools and do any needed tool maintenance.

Summer gardening will take a lot of nutrients out of the soil. Many summer vegetables like tomatoes are heavy feeders and will take most of the macro nutrient, nitrogen, out of the soil. The heat and dry conditions are also hard on the soil. Going into the fall growing season, it is critical to amend your soil and restore lost nutrients to the soil. This is also the perfect time to feed the microbes in the soil and get them active after a long hot summer. Actually, if you start gardening all year around, it is vital that you are constantly adding nutrients to the soil and feeding the microbes. I mention microbes because it is the microbes that release the minerals from the soil. Minerals which are needed by the plants.

Start amending your soil by adding a thin layer of dried molasses to your cleaned up garden bed. The carbohydrates and sugars in the molasses will energize the microbes and get them active again. Then on top of the molasses, add a layer of compost or aged manure. The microbes will go to work on this garden material right away and start the process of releasing minerals for the plants to use. This is considered a slow release of nutrients to the soil. If your fall plants are slow growing and not a deep green color this is an indicator of a nutrient problem. At this point you will need to supplement the compost with a faster acting balanced fertilizer. A soil test will also help you answer this question. If organic gardening is not your thing, add a small application of a complete fertilizer to your soil. A complete fertilizer has all three of the main macro nutrients in it (nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium). An example would be a fertilizer that is labeled as 20-20-20. Whichever way you go, after you amend your soil, water your garden every few days for two weeks or so and let your soil start recharging.

While your soil is recharging, decide which vegetables you want to grow. The key to success in a fall garden is timely planting. To determine when to plant a particular fall vegetable you need to know the average frost date (November 15th for North Texas) and the number of days to maturity. Texas A&M Agrilife Service has a great planting guide to help with vegetable selection. Here is the link. https://cdn-ext.agnet.tamu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/EHT-077-texas-home-vegetable-gardening-guide.pdf . Go to the end of the article for the plant selection guide. You can also go to your local nursery and ask them. If you are buying seeds, the packs have the recommended planting dates are on the back of the packages.

The average frost date is important because many late summer/early fall vegetables will do well until the first frost. Examples are beans, corn, cucumbers, peppers, squash, and tomatoes. Other cool season crops that will do well even after a frost are broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, lettuce, and spinach. You will find that many cool weather leafy vegetables actually taste better after a frost. Examples are kale, collards, swiss chard, arugula, and spinach.  And most of these greens will over winter and produce throughout the winter and into spring.

It is important to understand how vegetables react to frost to have a successful fall and winter garden. What is the temperature when a mild freeze (you don’t need to cover your mature plants) becomes a serious freeze (you will need to cover your mature plants)? There are two parts to this answer. First, if the temperature stays 30 degrees or above, mature plants will be fine. However, you should cover immature plants with a cover of mulch like straw or a manmade cover like a bag, box, or frost cloth. The second part of the answer is how long will the temperature be below freezing? If the temperature stays around 30 degrees for a few hours most mature vegetables will be fine. As soon as the Texas sun comes up, the temperatures will warm up quickly. On the other hand, if the temperature is going to stay below 30 degrees for several days, it is a good idea to cover your plants with some sort of frost cover.

Two tips for you. I would recommend that regardless of the vegetable planted, you put a thick layer of leafy/straw mulch on your garden. This will keep the soil from drying out so quickly and it will keep the soil temperature up in cold weather (down in hot weather). Also, if you have a mild freeze, you can use the mulch to build up around your immature vegetables. Another good tip is to water your garden well if a freeze is coming. It may seem counter intuitive, but the water will help keep the soil temperature up because water has a high heat carrying capacity.

And when your vegetables mature, harvest and enjoy. It is a good idea to harvest greens when they are small because they are tender and tasty at this point. You will not believe how good fresh greens taste. You may never go back to store bought greens. I haven’t! 😊

Once you have your fall garden has been planted and producing, it is time to think about your winter garden. Once you start gardening year round, a journal and a planting calendar will be very helpful and help keep you organized. You will find you will ask yourself the same questions every season. What vegetables do I want to try? When should I start them? Should I allow part of my garden to go fallow for a season? Am I rotating my vegetables making sure I don’t plant the same vegetable family in the same spot multiple times? Am I amending the soil enough (slow growing plants or a soil test would help answer this question)?

In my next article, I will talk about winter vegetable gardening. In the meantime, enjoy the cooler temperatures, the change of season and the fresh vegetables.

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