Q: When do I plant lettuce in my garden?

A: During the sauna we call “coastal summer,” I overheard my husband declare, “The people who came here must have settled in winter!” Now, in our beautiful coastal autumn, it’s clear they swapped two months in a sauna for a long planting season and a year-round harvest.

All summer we feasted on tomato, cucumber and pepper in salads flavored with basil and other summer herbs. This month begins our next three-season salad bowl, and your lettuce is the main ingredient.

In our coastal zone, set out lettuce plants during the fall, winter and through early spring months.  In fact, a variety of healthy vegetables grow only in our cooler fall. Our area nursery retailers have fall lettuce and vegetable plants and the Mobile Botanical Gardens fall marketplace in October offers lettuce plants as well.

Since you’re planting lettuce this fall, remember that the “leaf lettuces” are the easiest to grow. Why not try some other cool season veggies, too? Broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, carrots, collards, turnips, garlic and onions — all will be delicious on your fall and winter menu.

Time your plant maturity to occur around the first expected frost, but stay prepared to cover plants in our unpredictable weather. Mature lettuce plants aren’t as tolerant of freezing as seedlings, but you can extend your fall crop by using row cover protection from periodic freezing temperatures.


Q: Last year my fall tomatoes rotted on the ends. What caused it? Can I prevent it this year?

A: While our coastal growing conditions give us fall tomatoes for salads and Saturday game day salsa, they also present various problems brought on by those same conditions. Yin and yang, right? Unfortunately, your fall tomatoes last year were the probable victims of a common condition known as Blossom End Rot (BER). I know, Blossom End Rot sounds like an ‘80s British heavy metal band. It’s actually a physiological disorder induced by over-irrigation and caused by calcium deficiency, sometimes from too much acid. (OK, still sounds like a heavy metal group.)

Droughty soil or damage to the roots from excessive or improper cultivation (severe root pruning) can restrict water intake, preventing the plants from getting the calcium they need. Control BER with these steps:

• Keep the pH of the soil at 6.0 to 6.5. Perform a soil test and apply the recommended rate of lime 2 to 4 months before planting tomatoes.

• Apply the required amount of fertilizer when necessary based on soil test results for tomato. Applying too much fertilizer at one time can induce BER.

• Use mulches to conserve moisture. Use pine straw, straw, decomposed sawdust, plastic or newspapers.

• Give your plants adequate water but don’t over-irrigate. Tomato plants need about 1.5 inches of water per week during fruiting. Extreme fluctuations in soil moisture result in BER.

• If you experience severe problems with BER, you should remove the infected fruits. Otherwise the damaged area could serve as an entry point for disease-causing bacteria or fungi.


Q: I would like to grow an organic fall garden. Can I use a galvanized steel horse trough for the planter?

A: Many experts mention the possibility of contamination due to the galvanizing process, which uses zinc having the potential to release cadmium, a metal of concern in vegetable production. At the very least, the metal container could absorb and hold too much heat, damaging roots.

I would advise an organic gardener to plant vegetables in plastic, canvas, untreated wood or clay containers and save the galvanized trough for ornamentals. A galvanized container spilling over with ornamental cabbages, pansies, marigolds, mums and ivy would be beautiful this fall.

Email us your questions at [email protected] or call (toll free) 877-252-4769, the Master Gardener Helpline answered by Mobile and Baldwin county Master Gardener volunteers.