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Fall Gardening

Robert PekelAugust is hot in Arkansas, almighty hot. It takes only minutes for the salt from sweat to sting my eyes. It’s dry, so dry the grass crunches beneath my feet when I walk out to investigate the garden. The peppers, winter squash and melons are looking good. Tomatoes and cucumbers are hanging in there, sort of, but the rest is history for this year. It’s been a good year for some things, and not so good for others. That’s normal. Gardening, like farming is a gamble. Diversity does help ensure that some crops are successful each year. I have also found it helps to plant vegetables that grow best in my climate, and using the best suited cultivars of those vegetables. For example, If I want to harvest cabbage in Arkansas I need a cultivar that matures in 45 days, before the heat sets in.

The weather is always a factor. According to the weather report, rain is on the way with September just around the corner. In the Ozarks that’s time to prepare the beds for a fall garden. A fall garden is one of the advantages of living in the south. Cooler, fall weather plus rain often produces the best root crops, greens, broccoli and cabbage. A successful plan for fall relies on timing. Knowing the last, average, frost-free date is important. Then, whatever the crop, check the days to maturity on the seed pack, and count back. For example, if planting radishes that mature in 25 days, and the last frost-free day is October 15, count back 25 days to September 20. That will be the day to plant radish seed. Like a summer garden, it’s still a gamble. An early frost disrupts the best laid plans.

Garden bed planted for fall. 

My fall garden requires only a fraction of space that the summer garden takes, so half of the beds rest until spring, but be it fall, winter, spring, or summer never leave the ground exposed to the elements. Protect the soil with cover crops or a mulch. Both will safeguard the living organisms in the earth, build organic matter, and create healthy, nutrient-rich soil. Oats make a good cover crop. Where I live, oats are planted in the first two weeks of September. For mulch I like oat straw piled at least 6 inches deep. Both oat seed and oat straw can be purchased inexpensively at a feed store. They are well worth the time and money.

One new idea I experimented with this year was mixing flowers among the vegetables to attract pollinators and beneficial insects. The flowers add visual appeal all summer, and keep the garden attractive after vegetables have reached their peak. Also, I did not experience an insect problem.

A bounty of melons and squash in a garden bed with flowers mixed in. 

After more than 30 years of gardening experience, horticulture classes, and trying to do all the right things, I have come to the conclusion that crop diversity, the correct cultivars, mulching and cover crops are the best foundation for a successful harvest. These actions I can control, but the weather still remains an uncontrollable factor.