The free class on Fall Vegetable Gardening I attended last Saturday was outstanding. I loosely adhere to the old adage 'you get what you pay for' so I was not expecting all that much from a 'free' class, especially one offered by a retail business. At most, I expected to get a few pointers and maybe hear about the latest gardening tool or product for this area. Even though Producers is an ag co-op, they are still a retailer ...in the business of selling their wares to the public. I half expected coupons to be handed out for discounts on those tools or products which, of course, would be available for purchase from the store hosting the 'free' class. The skeptic in me always looks for a catch when something is offered for free. I was pleasantly surprised on all fronts.
I have been to Producers dozens of times in the five plus years we've lived in this area but this is the first time I was there on a Saturday when the free classes are offered. I was surprised to find out I was only one of about a hundred people attending yesterday's class. I had no idea attendance would be that high and I was amazed to see the lengths the store went to accommodate the attendees. Large display racks were temporarily moved off to one side to make room for the rows of folding chairs. Two tables were set up where you entered the area ...one with registration sign in sheets and a nine-page handout of the material that would be covered in the class and the other with several carafes of coffee and trays of cookies. The store apparently goes to a lot of effort and expense to host these classes every week and I really didn't come away with the impression I had been to a sales pitch.
One of the things I learned that we will be implementing this coming year is that it's far more beneficial to rest and improve your soil during July and August than to push for production during the two hottest months. This part of Texas has relatively mild winters and it's entirely feasible most of the time to keep a garden going for nine to ten months out of the year. But just because we can doesn't mean we should. Gardens need time to rest, organic matter needs to be worked in to replenish depleted minerals and restore balance to the soil. The speaker recommended cleaning out the garden at the end of June. Remove the old crop, clear weeds and grasses and add approximately three inches of well-composted material. Work the compost in by hand or with a tiller, then saturate the garden with water to a depth of at least four inches. Let the water soak in, then saturate the ground again the next day and the day after that. By the third day, you should be able to dig down 8 or 9 inches and still have very damp soil. If the soil is not damp to that depth by the third day, you are not watering enough. When it is damp to that depth, flood it one more time to the point you have standing water, then cover it with clear plastic and leave it covered until the first week in August. The hot summer sun on the clear plastic will sterilize the saturated soil, killing any seeds, fungi or bugs that may be in it. Even in a normal summer, the temperatures under the plastic will reach at least 160 degrees during the day. That heat will help speed up the decomposition of the compost you just added.
The first week September, remove the plastic and 'fluff' the soil by hand or with a tiller. Additional store-bought compost may be added at this time if necessary. This is not the ideal time to add material from your home compost because you need to transplant seedlings to your fall garden by the middle of September and two weeks is just not enough time for typical home composted material to break down in the soil. It is also not good to work horse or cow manure into the soil because it adds too much phosphorous and will stress your seedlings.
Mid- to late-September is the ideal time to transplant seedlings into the garden. Most of us keep our thermostats set so that temperatures in our homes fluctuate very little between daytime and nighttime during the summer. So if you started your seedlings yourself in an air-conditioned setting, it's best to move them to a shaded area in the yard for a few days before you transplant them into the garden so they can become acclimated to the more extreme outdoor temperature fluctuations between daytime and nighttime.
If you purchase seedlings for your vegetable garden, look for boxy, full-leaved specimens, rather than the tallest or the one that already shows flowers. Height that is disproportionate to fullness is a plant's response to tight quarters and having to compete for sunlight. Early flowering is not a sign a vigor, it's a sign of stress ...literally according to Dr Masabni, the plant is saying, 'OMG, I'm going to die soon ...I must reproduce!' That generated some chuckles, as you can imagine, but he's right. The base instinct of all life is to survive and reproduce. Plants are no exception.
If these kinds of classes are offered through your local ag co-op or the county extension office, I urge you to take advantage of them. All of the classes won't be relevant to your situation, but take advantage of the ones that are. Knowledge is something we need to stock up on occasionally too.