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Fall Gardening - Tropical John

Without question, fall is my favorite time of the year.  After a long hot Texas summer there is nothing better for the soul than enjoying a morning cup of coffee outside in the garden during a brisk autumn morning.  Even the plants can breathe a sigh of relief when the heat breaks.  They get a fresh fall rain and they reward us with one more burst of color and growth before they go to sleep for the winter.

Now just because most of our plants go dormant in the fall and winter doesn’t mean you can too!  There is way too much fun to be had this time of year out in the garden, whether it is a flower garden, vegetable garden, or your basic landscape.  Way too many of us wait until spring to get things going, but fall is the most important time of the year for all your garden tune-ups.  The following are my recommendations on what can be done this fall one section of your yard at a time.    

Let’s start with my favorite section of the yard, the perennial garden.  Considering the beds around my house are 75% perennials and Texas natives, let’s begin here.  I like to plant snapdragons (especially the taller varieties), pansies, violas, ornamental cabbage and kale, dianthus, alyssum, dusty miller, cyclamens, English daisies, and decorative Swiss chard among all my perennials.  This will provide you with an absolute sea of color next spring as your spring perennials begin to bloom.  In order to get these plants established before it gets too cold you need to make room in your perennial garden and get these planted no later than Thanksgiving.  I plan on this chore every year right after Halloween.  It is also time to break out the hand shears and loppers.  Don’t be afraid to cut back blooming perennials at this time – right down to the ground. 

Cut back the non blooming ones as well. This makes room for all those wonderful winter annuals.  If you have spring blooming shrubs like spirea, hydrangeas, or Indian hawthorns, do not cut them back at this time.  It will interfere with their spring bloom.  Now, I always like to add a fresh layer of compost to my beds.  One quarter to one half inch should be adequate.  Do not turn it into the soil because we don’t want to disturb the microbes and worms in the soil.  Under a good organic program, all the good living organisms in the soil will turn it for you!  At this point I will put a light layer of soil food (fertilizer if you must call it that) and dry molasses. As a general rule, I like to apply it at a rate of 10 pounds per 1000 square feet. 

Remember, once you have been organic for two or three years you shouldn’t have to use as much soil food.  Now it’s time to plant all those wonderful winter plants.  Mix them up, use lots of different varieties and have fun.  Get creative and go against the grain.  I am a firm believer the flower colors never clash.  Make sure to top dress your perennial bed with shredded mulch whether you plant annuals or not.  I like using fine shredded hardwood mulch for the dark color and the fact that it composts faster.  Native mulches work best, or a cedar is the next best thing. Be sure to add up to three inches for best results.

Speaking of compost, I really want to emphasize the benefits of spreading compost on your turf areas.  This is something that needs to be practiced here in Texas.  You won’t believe how good your turf will react to this next spring.  You will use a lot less water and soil food next year - not to mention less weeds, and little to no insects and disease. Remember, compost is Mother Natures own soil food! Just a quarter inch of compost will do the trick.  Bag or  bulk compost both work well, just are sure and apply it any time from November to February. The finer screened composts work best and can be found in bagged products like Humax Turf and Soil Builder or any of the fine Back to Earth composts.   I do this every year and my St. Augustine stays green longer in the fall and greens up sooner in the spring as compared to the many non-organic yards around the neighborhood.  As people comment on your wonderful yard, you can just say - “I’m Organic”!

Dirt Magazine Archives - December 2009

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