A Cool Weather Garden Beckons You in July's Heat
By: Brenda Bolton, Mobile County Master Gardener, www.mobilecountymastergardeners.org
Calendar holidays are convenient reminders of cyclical garden tasks. Labor Day is about right for the laborious dousing of shrubs with oil spray for insects (always read the label). December holidays announce time to prepare spring planting beds, as though December isn’t busy enough. Valentine’s Day is for pruning your roses for a beautiful if belated Valentine’s bouquet. And hot, humid, July 4th— in an act of mocking cruelty —heralds cool weather edibles and pushes you out to work in the heat. In blistering sun, with backyard tomatoes fresh on the tongue, it takes more than a little imagination to visualize cool weather veggies. But life is about timing, and now, in these sweaty summer doldrums, is the time to work.
The best gardens are deliciously dirty with dark, rich, loose soil smelling of earth and sun, and maybe the cat, but that’s another story. July is the perfect time for a soil test (kits available at Alabama Extension office, 1070 Schillinger Road N.) Even if you have done a soil test in the past, your soil changes. Nitrogen, for example, has high motility and is often not evenly distributed in soil. A soil test is submitted listing the plants to be grown. The ideal soil pH for veggies is 6.0 to 6.5. A soil test report identifies your soil’s pH and nutrient needs and can help you avoid the heartbreak of blossom end rot—on your tomatoes, that is—from calcium deficiency. Hot July is the time to add nutrients or compost, and solarize the soil to reduce disease, weeds and pests, except the cat.
In Alabama, August and September are the main planting times for a fall garden, but even in Mobile’s July heat, some transplants can be set out and seed flats begun. For a precise planting date, count back from the average date of the first killing frost, late November to mid-December in Mobile, using the number of days to maturity of the crop you are planting to set your start date.
Spend early July playing in the dirt. Soil testing, solarization, amendment and bed preparation take advantage of the hiatus between summer and fall crops. Later in the month, a few seeds can be planted directly into the garden, including pole beans, winter squash, and cucumber. Plant small seeds about 1/4” to 1/2” deep and large seeds like beans deeper, 1/2” to 1” deep. Keep soil moist for germination. July is the time to set out transplants for a fall season of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant. Don’t let seedlings and transplants dry out, and use shade covers if plants stress. Plant a tall plant like tomato to a depth half the length of the exposed stalk to provide more root growth for water uptake and stability.
August and early September are the prime months to sow seeds of those beautiful, iconic autumnal vegetables that grace the southern table as side dishes and centerpieces, colorful favorites like squash, cabbages, beets, carrots, red potatoes, broccoli, Swiss chard.
The specific planting dates, August to October, for these favorites can be found in several Alabama Extension publications in convenient chart format. The Alabama Vegetable Gardener guide with planting dates is available from Alabama Extension online at: https://www.aces.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/ANR-0479_080819L.pdf. Notice that fall dates for south Alabama are 10 days later than those on the chart. Notice also that the dates are for seed sowing in most instances. These publications are also available at the Mobile County Extension office, 1070 Schillinger Rd N.
In early AUGUST, plant seeds directly into the garden for winter squash, beets, carrots, and in mid to late month, addcertified seed potatoes for Irish red varieties, and favorites like beans, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, collards, kale, lettuces, mustard, summer squash, and turnips. Continue transplants of tomatoes andpeppers into early August. In SEPTEMBER plant seeds directly into the garden for beets, brussels sprouts, turnips, and in mid to late month, carrots, collards, kale, lettuce, mustard, onion seeds, radishes, spinach, Swiss chard, parsley. Keep soil moist for germination. In mid to late September, transplant seedlings from flats or pots for beets, broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts, collards, kale, lettuce, mustard, spinach, and onions. Plant marigolds in with veggies to reduce nematodes. In early OCTOBER, continue planting winter-hardy transplants such as beets, carrots, collards, kale, parsley, lettuces and spinach. Be prepared to protect tender plants in brief freezes.
NOVEMBER, DECEMBER, JANUARY - Give thanks for the bounty of a southern garden, begin soil preparation for spring planting in December, and protect crops from frosts, freezes, winter pests, and of course, the cat.
For further information about timing your plantings, see www.mobilecountymastergardeners.org/resources and click on the link to SOW, a gardening calendar provided by the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service. Another rich resource for the gardener is www.aces.edu.