Fall is the very best time to garden in Central Texas. This is the best time of the year to plant shrubs and perennials, as well as many vegetables. By planting in the fall, your plants will have the time they need to grow strong root systems that will see them through the heat and drought of the next summer. This will often be the difference between failure and success in Texas gardening.

While it is still warm, you can plant warm-season vegetables such as peppers, squash and tomatoes. If you can find large transplants of these vegetables, you will give yourself the best chance of having a good harvest before the first frost.

Look for varieties that have shorter days to maturity if you cannot find large transplants. If you still have tomatoes and other vegetables that made it through the summer, you can keep them growing for fall. Peppers in particular are known to sit through our hot summers and then suddenly start producing once the first cool days of fall arrive.

Make sure all these vegetables receive adequate moisture if it does not rain. If the temperatures continue in the high 90s, you will need to check to see that the ground around them is moist 2 inches down. You can use your finger as your gauge – the soil should be moist, but not soggy. You may need to water deeply twice a week in very high heat, but as soon as the heat lessens, reduce watering to once a week. Brief, shallow watering only encourages the roots to stay near the surface where they will dry out more quickly and then die.

Once cooler weather arrives, you can plant fall vegetables — ones that you eat the leaves or roots. All varieties of greens, lettuces, carrots and beets should go in the ground once temperatures have moderated and we begin to have fall rains. They will grow all winter, giving you fresh vegetables right from your garden when they are almost impossible to find at the grocery store.

Fall flowers such as pansies, alyssum, dianthus and large transplants of mums can also be planted once the weather cools. They can take a freeze and will be much larger and more beautiful in the spring than any that were freshly planted.

Amend the Soil

With any planting that you do, add lots of compost to the soil to help keep it fertile and productive. This is especially important in our heavy clay soils which can compact down if not regularly renewed with mulch. You can add fall leaves to any bed that will not be used right away and they will break down by spring.

I also make sure to add a nitrogen fertilizer to planting beds in the fall. I recommend ammonium sulfate and use it religiously in my own gardens. As with any soil additive, follow the package directions for the amount to add.

Shrubs and perennials flowers should be planted once the weather has truly and finally cooled down — probably in mid-October. These should be planted in areas with enough drainage and in the type of sunlight needed for the species you are growing.

Ask your nursery worker for their recommendation on the light requirements. Be sure to give each plant enough room to stretch out to its mature size without crowding to prevent maintenance and health problems.

This practice will also save you money by cutting down on the number of plants you buy. I have seen many areas in Waco planted with two or three times as many plants in a bed as recommended. These beds will have to constantly be pruned and often develop root and leaf problems due to poor circulation and overcrowding.

Staying the Same

Another essential gardening practice to follow when planting anything bigger than a small annual is to plant at the same level the plant was growing in its pot. If you err, err on the side of higher than that level — never lower.

Also, if the roots have grown around the pot, uncurl them and spread them out — cutting them apart if necessary. Not spreading out the roots can cause a slow death to occur over the next two or three years as your plant slowly strangles itself.

Follow these rules and have a great fall garden. With the cooler weather and more abundant rains, it is a wonderful time to plant and enjoy the fruits of your labors.

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Melody Fitzgerald is a McLennan County Master Gardener who has spent more than 35 years facing the challenges of Central Texas gardening.

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