August 17, 2018

Tips for Fall Gardening

One of the downsides to living in a hot area like Austin, Texas is that our spring gardens die quickly when it becomes hot, which is early, like around May-June. If the heat doesn't make the garden plants wither away, the bugs associated with the heat will finish the job.

The upside is that we have a fantastic fall growing season. The weather is perfect and plants flourish! We also get a lot of rain in the fall, so watering the garden is less of a chore, and there aren't as many problem bugs.

While writing this I'm assuming you, the reader, already have a garden space. If you need help selecting a location for a new garden or preparing the soil for a new garden, click here [COMING SOON].

How do you know when to start your fall garden?

There are two important factors to consider. Starting too early, when it's very hot, could be disastrous for your young vegetable plants, but starting too late means that cold temperatures could kill your garden before it's time to harvest.

There's nothing worse than seeing a tomato plant loaded with green tomatoes when you're expecting your first killing frost. (Unless you like eating green tomatoes. In that case, pick them and carry on!)

Planting dates for Texas

If you're in Texas, Texas A&M has split the state up into 5 regions, based on the coldest annual temperature.  Here's their list of recommended planting dates for each fall crop.


Here in the Austin area we're "Region III", meaning our coldest temperature of the year is usually between 10 and 20 degrees F. We don't have many days that cold, and some winters it doesn't ever get that cold, but that's about as bad as it ever gets.

Planting dates outside of Texas

If you're not in Texas, don't worry, here's a tip to help you decide when to plant. Find out the average date of your first "killing frost".  If you live in a very cold place, this might be in September, but in the Austin area it's often November 5th-15th.  Sometimes earlier in the cool season we'll have a light frost that causes some damage to tender plants, but it doesn't kill everything. We're not talking about that.  We're talking about a hard freeze that kills most perennials and tender plants all the way to the ground.

Clues on the seed packet

Now look at the seed packets of whatever it is you'd like to grow and you'll notice that most seed packages have "Days to Maturity" listed on the package.  Take this radish, for instance.  On the bottom left side of the seed package you'll notice that this variety requires 22 days, or about 3 weeks, for reaching maturity. 

What's the significance of "days to maturity"?

That's simple.  You want to make sure you allow enough time between the day you plant your seeds and the day you expect your first freeze.  You need enough time to allow for seed germination (sprouting) and the number of days to maturity.  

For instance, if you want to plant tomato seeds, but you only have 3 weeks before your first hard freeze, you're better off saving your seeds for spring because most tomatoes require 65-85 "days to maturity" (plus however long it takes the seeds to sprout), therefore, 3 weeks would not be enough time.

This is less significant for some of the cool weather crops, like leafy greens and broccoli, which can withstand cold and freezing temperatures in moderate climates like central Texas.

How do I start my fall garden seeds?

Unlike starting your spring garden seeds, which is usually done indoors, most of your fall garden seeds can be started outdoors.  Some plants that don't mind the heat can be seeded directly in the ground, but I like to start most of my fall garden seeds in containers so I can control how much heat and sun exposure the fragile seedlings receive. 

Popular seed starting methods

  • Direct Seeding
    • Advantages: Easy. Wet the soil and put in the seeds. Done. 
    • Disadvantages: Difficult to control the fragile seedlings' sun and heat exposure.  You can't move them into a protected location if they start getting cooked in the sun, or if they're about to get pounded by a heavy rain storm.  Tiny seeds that are planted just below the soil surface are easily washed away when watered or when it rains, or sometimes they sink so deep that the seeds can't sprout and survive.
    • This is a good option for large seeds, like squash and cucumber.
  • Peat Pellets
    • Advantages: Cheap and available at most retailers.  You can plant the pellet directly into the ground later.
    • Disadvantages: Difficult to control soil moisture.  It seems like peat is either saturated or dry, and it's hard to keep peat an ideal, in-between moisture level.  Since there is no container, the roots of the fragile seedlings are exposed to the elements.  
    • This is my least favorite method for seed starting.
  • Peat Pots
    • Advantages: Cheap and readily available.  You can plant the peat pot directly into the garden soil later.  Any potting soil can be used.
    • Disadvantages: Like the peat pellets, the roots are exposed to the elements.  Since the peat is wrapped around the soil it wicks away soil moisture as it dries out. 
    • This is a good option if plastic pots aren't available.
  • Growers Tray
    • Advantages: You can start a lot of seeds in a small space.
    • Disadvantages: More work later.  Higher seedling mortality rate.  You have to dig up each fragile seedling without damaging its root system and transplant them into larger pots or into the ground.
    • Not recommended for beginners, unless you have a greenhouse.

My preferred seed starting method

  • Growers Tray with Plastic Pots
    • Advantages: The plastic pots retain soil moisture and protect delicate roots better than peat.  Sun and heat exposure are easily modified by moving the tray.  The trays and pots are reusable for many years if stored in a garage or shed.  Any potting mix* can be used.  (Note: As I always tell my customers, when it comes to potting soil, you get what you pay for.)
    • Disadvantages:  Like most of the other methods (except for direct seeding), you have to transplant the seedlings into the garden later.  I personally don't consider this a down side because by that point you have protected the seedlings and allowed them to grow a strong root system.
    • This is my preferred method for seed starting. 

Helpful products for seed starting

Heat mats results in faster germination, higher germination rates, and stronger root systems.  In other words, seeds sprout faster, more of them sprout, and more of them survive.  Heat mats aren't as crucial for fall seed starting, but they're very helpful for any seedlings you start indoors, like tomatoes and peppers that you plant for your spring garden.

The mat is placed underneath a growers tray to give seedlings "bottom heat" which help encourage root development and growth.  If you're going to use a heat mat, be sure to use a grower tray without drainage holes, or place one underneath your draining tray to prevent the mat from getting wet.

Peat pots can be filled with your favorite potting mix for seed starting and then planted directly into your garden soil later.

Grower trays are a versatile item for seed starting.  You can start the seedlings directly in the tray or you can use it to hold peat pots, peat pellets, or plastic grower pots.

I personally prefer to use a
growers tray with plastic grower pots for my seed starting.  The seedlings don't dry out as quickly as they do in a peat pellet/pot.  If stored out of sunlight when not in use the pots and trays are reusable for a few years.

A note about potting mix

You don't need special
potting mix for seed starting, as long as you use a good quality potting mix.  With potting mix, you get what you pay for, so don't even buy the cheap stuff unless you're just filling a hole that your dog dug.  
I prefer to use an organic mix if I'm planting seeds for edibles.  My favorite right now is New Earth Top Shelf Potting Mix, but it can be hard to find outside central Texas.  If you're local, you can get it at almost any H-E-B that has a garden section in front of the store.

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