When it comes to vegetable gardening, understanding the seasons and the proper time to plant various crops is so important to success. Although it certainly doesn’t feel like it, we are gradually transitioning into fall — and that affects what we can plant.
Cool fronts may begin to make their way into our area this month, bringing welcome relief from the heat. Still, daytime highs regularly reach the 80s and 90s well into October. During this transition period, warm- and cool-season vegetables rub elbows in the garden.
September is almost like a second spring when it comes to the vegetables we can plant now. Familiar crops planted back in March and April, like summer squash, winter squash, cucumber, tomato, pepper and bush snap beans, can be planted again now. While bush snap beans can be planted through September, the rest of the crops need to be planted immediately to give them time to produce before freezes hit. This applies to south shore gardeners — for north shore gardeners, planting this late is riskier.
While we generally plant squash and cucumbers seeds directly in the garden, at this point, it would be best to plant transplants if you can find them at local nurseries, garden centers and feed and seed stores. Definitely use transplants to plant your tomatoes and peppers.
We also begin to plant cool-season vegetables this time of the year, like broccoli, Swiss chard, mustard greens and bunching onions. But this is still quite early in their growing season, and there is no hurry to get them planted right away.
STARTING THE GARDEN
If you don’t have a vegetable garden, now is a great time to start one. Site selection is critical. All vegetables produce best with full sun, so the site should receive a minimum of six hours of direct sunlight. All-day sun is preferable,
Be sure to prepare new or existing beds properly before planting. Clear the site of all weeds or old, finished vegetable plants. Turn the soil with a shovel or tiller to a depth of at least eight inches, and spread a two- to four-inch layer of organic matter over the tilled soil — chopped leaves, grass clippings, composted manure or compost can be used. This helps to maintain the organic matter in the soil, which encourages strong, healthy root systems, retains moisture and promotes vigorous plant growth.
Fertilizer can be added on top of the organic matter. Generally, choose a general purpose fertilizer that has an analysis with a higher first number, lower second number and third number in between, such as 15-5-10 or anything similar. Apply per package directions.
Gardeners should consider having their soil tested through their local LSU AgCenter Extension office to determine the pH (acidity or alkalinity) and amount mineral nutrients in the soil. This will help you in selecting a fertilizer and determine if there is a need for lime. Gardeners north of Lake Pontchartrain may need to add dolomitic lime to raise the pH level and add calcium and magnesium to their soil. It is extremely rare that lime would be needed on the south shore, where the soils are rich in calcium and magnesium and slightly alkaline.
Blend the organic matter and fertilizer thoroughly with the soil. Turn the soil by digging with a shovel, garden fork or a tiller until the added materials are evenly distributed in the soil. Form the soil into raised rows about eight to 12 inches high and two to four feet wide with narrow walkways between them, and you are ready to plant.
Watering is particularly important when planting during the intense heat of late summer. Beds that are direct seeded should be watered lightly every day until the seeds come up and then monitored carefully. Newly planted transplants may also need daily attention for the first week or two they are in the ground.
Mulches can help considerably by preventing soil from drying out so fast, and I recommend their use. Transplants should be mulched as soon as they are planted. You cannot apply mulches where a crop has been direct seeded as it will interfere with the seeds coming up (the same way mulches prevent weed seeds from growing). Wait until the seedlings are several inches tall and then mulch.
There is also work to be done in the herb garden. Regularly cut back basil to remove the flower spikes and encourage plants to continue to produce leaves (the flower spikes are rich in basil flavor and can also be used in cooking). Basil is an annual, and ultimately plants planted months ago will begin to wind down. Basil transplants can still be planted into the garden now for a late crop.
If herbs such as sage, lavender, thyme and catnip managed to make it through the summer, they should begin to revive as the weather gets cooler later this month and in October. Remove any dead parts and fertilize lightly to encourage new growth.
Many herbs will have grown vigorously during the summer, particularly if not regularly harvested. Cut them back about one-third to half their height in late September to get them in to shape. Dry or freeze the extra harvest or share it with friends.
Learning how to vegetable garden successfully here is within everyone’s ability. You just need to make an effort to identify sources of accurate information and take advantage of them.
The LSU AgCenter has a wealth of online home vegetable gardening information. Do a search using “LSU AgCenter vegetables” and you will see lots of helpful publications on growing vegetables. The LSU AgCenter’s Vegetable Planting Guide is an excellent publication that includes year-round planting dates for vegetables. You can also email your parish LSU AgCenter Extension horticulturist with specific questions.
You may also buy a reference book or two on vegetable gardening, but do make sure they are written for Louisiana or the Deep South. “The Louisiana Urban Gardener: A Beginners Guide to Growing Vegetables and Herbs” by Kathryn Fontenot, vegetable specialist with the LSU AgCenter, is an excellent choice.
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