Q: I am new to Mobile but have been here long enough to know gardening here is different from that of most any other part of the country. I understand that gardens planted in the fall can be very successful — maybe more so than those planted in the spring. Can you give me some tips about fall gardening on the Gulf Coast?

A: You are correct on both counts: Gardening on the Gulf Coast is unique, and fall gardens do have a longer growing season. Actually, because Mobile County is so close to the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, we can grow vegetables an average of nine months per year. The trick is in knowing what to plant when. Other advantages of the fall garden: fewer insects (at least later in the fall), less watering, excellent flavor and pleasant working temperatures.

Soil preparation
Because leftover debris from spring gardens can harbor diseases, it is important to remove the residue and old mulch, along with summer weed growth (which might seed before frost sets in) as soon as possible before preparing your soil for fall planting. You may amend your soil with what you already have on hand: kitchen compost, dead leaves, old pine straw, etc. After incorporating any organic matter, a soil test is a good idea if you didn’t have one in the spring; you may want to apply manure or 10-10-10 fertilizer before tilling to a depth of at least six to eight inches.

Photos | James Miles/Judy Weaver

Photos | James Miles/Judy Weaver

Mobile County Extension Office agents have suggested that the very best time for planting on the Gulf Coast is from September through October. Why? Because this provides your plants with the longest growing season of the year — September through March. Also, cool-season vegetables that mature during cool weather generally have the best quality and flavor. Spring temperatures in south Alabama often rise quickly, causing tender vegetables such as lettuce and spinach to bolt — or develop a bitter flavor when planted in March for spring and summer harvest.

Suggestions for planting times on the Gulf Coast: early September — broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, collards, and nasturtiums; mid-September into October — kale, lettuce, mustard, spinach, cabbage and chard. Also in October — garlic, onions, and herbs such as cilantro, parsley, oregano, dill and lavender. And if you want spring strawberries, October is the month to plant those plugs!

If you are planting from seed, be especially aware of the number of days it will take for the plant to mature related to the estimated first frost dates in your area. The Plant Hardiness Zone Map shows Mobile and Pensacola to be in Zone 8 where the estimated frost dates are Oct. 30 through Nov. 30.

The back of your seed packet usually shows the approximate number of days it takes from planting the seed to harvest time. Remember that young seedlings need adequate moisture to continue growing after germination; keep the soil moist until the young seedlings sprout. Think about investing in drip irrigation to provide consistent moisture for seedlings and more mature plants.

For the diehards
If you are really into winter gardening and want to continue growing beyond the frost dates, consider using a floating row cover to prevent frost from settling on the leaves and prevent heat escape, especially at night. A more advanced option would be a cold frame, which is essentially a miniature greenhouse used to extend the growing season.

Photos | James Miles/Judy Weaver

Photos | James Miles/Judy Weaver

Other tips from the experts: Plant fava beans to grow over winter to improve the soil and have another source of great greens. Also, because the ground in Mobile virtually never freezes, root crops such as sweet potatoes, carrots and radishes — if properly mulched — can usually grow throughout the winter into March.

Good luck and happy fall gardening to you all!

What: Lunch and Learn
When: Monday, Sept 19, noon to 1 p.m.
Where: Jon Archer Center, 1070 Schillinger Road N. (Mobile)
Topic: “Ikebana, the Japanese Art of Flower Arrangement” with speaker Mary Rodning

What: Monthly Master Gardener meeting
When: Thursday, Oct. 6, 10-11:30 a.m.
Where: Jon Archer Center, 1070 Schillinger Road N. (Mobile)
Topic: “The Fungus Among Us — Mushrooms in Your Garden” by speaker Juan Mata, USA Biology

MASTER GARDENER HELPLINE: Call 1-877-252-4769 or send your gardening questions to coastalalabamagardening@gmail.com.
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