It’s time to plant for the fall

Published 2:36 pm Wednesday, August 2, 2023

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Don’t rest on your laurels, hiding indoors during the Dog Days — it’s time to plant fall stuff.

In spite of torrid summer heat and humidity, when just leaning on a shovel leads to sweat dripping from elbows, we Southerners are blessed with a great climate for gardening year-round. In fact, unlike our northern neighbors who pin all their garden hopes between Memorial and Labor Days, we can have two complete, back-to-back, start to finish summer gardens between the first and last frosts of April and November.

But outside of those months you have to stay on top of things, and plant according to when stuff matures, not when it’s convenient for us to be outdoors.  Stop wringing your hands over how the heat and humidity are sucking the vigor out of both us and our gardens; it’s time to plant for Autumn.

Fall gardening is a misnomer when it comes to growing vegetables. Though we can plant a handful of truly cold-hardy vegetables, flowers, and herbs later, most old-hand gardeners know that fall is more about harvesting than planting. Many, but not all, types of others grow well in summer heat but mature best in the shortening days of fall, and even tolerating a frost or two to produce a bounty before cold sets in for good.

Waiting to plant them is a gamble that they will produce before fall’s first freeze; like it or not, we ought to be out setting some stuff in the dirt now so it can grow quickly and produce earlier.

Those who get right on it can actually have a super-productive second summer garden. There is a short window of opportunity left for planting traditional spring and summer favs like tomatoes, peppers, basil, marigolds, zinnias, and many other heat-lovers which can actually out-produce the same weather-battered varieties left over from spring. Insects may be a bit more intense, but that’s what netting is for.

And those cool-climate vegetables, including lettuces, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, beets, and the like, will grow quickly over the next month or so and be extra productive well before cold shuts them down. I am perfectly aware that a lot of lucky garden gamblers keep those plants going well into winter, but their quality and survivability, goes down quickly.

I base all this on what we know, from decades of truck crop farmers who want to have something to sell as early and late as possible. Every October for four decades now the MSU Truck Crops Experiment Station near Crystal Springs has shown off world-class flowers and vegetables, in full harvest mode, which were planted in July and August.

Watering deeply, not frequently, mulching where soils need protection from hot, drying sun, and controlling weeds and insects are what they do to coax the plants into a fantastic fall harvest. But planting in mid to late summer is where they start.

If you wait, it will just be a gamble. Some plants, like lettuce, produce quickly and I actually plant several times a couple or three weeks apart, to keep them coming along. Others, like garlic, kale and collards (and pansies and violas), can take cold weather and will make it through the winter and can be planted in October or November.

Main thing is, we are gardeners, not farmers. Rather than setting out a main crop once or twice a year, we keep at it, a pot, flower or raised bed, or garden row at a time, planting and harvesting and replanting as needed nearly all year.

And it’s time to get going for fall. Not wait ‘til fall.

Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to