Published on 09/15/97

Water, Mulch Keys to Fall Vegetable Garden

For most parts of Georgia, August is the main planting month for fall gardens. Some vegetables, though, can still be planted even in mid-September.

Vegetables with a 60- to 80-day maturity cycle such as collards, rutabaga, cabbage, snap beans and lima beans should have been planted in early August.

Shorter-season vegetables such as turnips and leafy greens can be delayed in seeding until September. You can still plant turnips and all of the lettuces.

Before you can prepare the soil for the fall garden, you need to decide what to do with the remains of the spring garden.

In most cases, this won't be a hard decision since the crops have already matured and are starting to look ragged. Destroy everything that doesn't look good. Put the plants in the compost pile unless they're heavily infested with insects and diseases.

Work the soil to 6-8 inches deep. Remember, poor soil preparation will yield a poor stand, and poor stands mean low yields.

If weeds infest the site, turn them under or destroy them. Many gardeners also choose to add more organic matter to improve the tilth of the soil during this preparation stage.

High-quality vegetables and ample soil moisture go hand-in-hand. Failure to provide enough water (1 inch or more per week) will stress the plants and reduce yields.

It's drought, not heat, that damages fall vegetables. So water the garden regularly when it doesn't rain enough.

Mulching is really important in fall gardening. When you plant, put down a layer of an organic mulch such as straw, leaves or compost. Even a layer of newspaper can be very helpful.

Mulches not only conserve moisture; they help reduce soil temperatures and check weed growth, too.

They have another benefit with leafy vegetables, as they keep water from splashing soil up on the leaves. That will make them easier to clean up when you harvest and will put less grit in your greens.

Mostly, though, mulches are good insulation. They help protect the roots from fluctuations in soil moisture and temperature. That not only helps in the heat that's still hanging around but will help insulate the roots from the cold to come.

It's not uncommon for insects and diseases to get their share of the fall garden. Most of the problems with insects and diseases are because their populations build up from spring through summer. As many other plant crops decline, lots of insects are just looking for something to hop on.

However, there is hope in keeping these pests at tolerable levels if you follow a few strategies.

First, review pertinent literature on insects and diseases. Learn to tell the difference between problem and nonproblem situations. Know what bug you're looking at.

Second, strive to keep the fall vegetables healthy and actively growing. Healthy plants are less susceptible to insects and diseases.

Third, check the vegetable plants often for signs of insects and disease damage. When you detect enough damage, use an approved pesticide if that's what's called for. Sometimes it isn't needed. Aphids, for instance, may be really bad, but you can often just wash them off.

True, fall gardening will have a few ups and downs during the growing season. However, the rewards of fresh vegetables will make it all worthwhile at harvest time. All the heat and sweat will be forgotten when the food is on the table.

Wayne McLaurin is a professor emeritus of horticulture with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.