September Gardening in South Florida - prepping for fall
September is another tricky month in our unique South Florida gardening calendar. Fun fact: September is the second rainiest month of the year (the most rainy being June) with an average of 10 inches of rain for the month. Its also still intensely hot and humid in September, despite fall decorations showing up at the grocery store and pumpkin spice lattes being advertised online. We always spend lots of time telling new customers and enthusiastic inexperienced gardeners to "be patient and keep waiting" through the month of September because it still is really quite early to do your fall planting. That being said it's certainly not too early to prep your garden for fall, install new gardening spaces, or start a selection of seeds for your fall garden.
Prepping your garden:
Taking time in September to prep your garden for fall will pay off when its planting time. If you've cover cropped your garden you'll want to consider chopping down and incorporating those cover crops now so that they have some time to decompose and compost in place before planting. Also, if your garden has been languishing empty through the summer it likely has some pesky weeds in it or big old diseased plants, so get them out of there and cover your soil with a thick layer of hay so they don't just come back with a vengeance. When we prep a garden for planting we also perform a technique called "double digging" which is essentially just loosening all of the soil with a shovel. This aerates the soil, reduces the compaction that likely occurred during summer, and also if you do have roots from nearby trees creeping in this process will kill them if done properly. It's hard to explain double digging because its so simple people tend to think they must be misunderstanding... but basically you just put a bit of muscle into using a shovel to dig every square inch of your garden up. Once you've got a shovel full of your garden soil and theres a hole where it used to be you just drop it back in there, it'll break up upon impact and naturally loosen up that way. If you encounter roots, use the sharp shovel to cut them and remove them.
One more thing... if you have compost and organic granular fertilizer to add to your garden thats best done at the same time as your fall planting, so that none of the nutrients go to waste in the meantime.
Installing a new garden space:
September is a great time to build yourself a new garden or expand your current one! Our classic raised bed that we encourage beginners to build (or have us build for you) is a 4 x 8 foot raised bed made out of pressure treated pine from the lumber store. The wood we buy is 10" x 12 x 2 and we cut it down to a 4 foot and an 8 foot length for each side. We also use 4 x 4 posts in the corners and carriage bolts to secure it all together. Heres a pic for reference if you'd like to build yourself one to those exact specs:
After laying down your wooden bed you'll want to add a liner like the one we sell, so that neighboring trees don't send their roots there to look for water and nutrients (trust us, they will do it, they can literally smell the new rich soil when you lay it down), and then soil. Soil is a whole thing, because there are so many contradictory opinions about what you need to have in your soil and what you should buy for it. Don't let picking the right soil get too daunting. All commercially produced soil is basically lifeless and nutrient-less. For example, when you buy the bagged stuff from a big box hardware store, that material is primarily chopped up woody material and peat moss, and its been pasteurized aka sterilized (its required by law so it can be shipped safely from state to state). If you buy soil from a local producer like us its a bit better, because we don't pasteurize the soil and its made from local ingredients, but its still not perfectly balanced, doesn't contain much composted material, and doesn't contain the vital nutrients your plants need to thrive. We like to think of it as a filler, on top of which you add the good stuff to make it alive and healthy. Think of the soil as the flour in the cake, and the microbes, bacteria, worms and other living goodies found in your homemade compost is the yeast. Ok we're gonna run with the cake baking metaphor here.... the last essential ingredient for plant success is a granular organic fertilizer... the sugar! Oh, and then once it's all mixed in, water and bake in the sun!
Our soil mix is made of composted woody material, humus (thats completely decomposed organic matter), pine bark (thats for drainage) and coconut coir peat moss blend (thats for holding water). This filler soils basic role is to keep the water content of the soil balanced, thats why most of the ingredients are either for moisture retention or moisture drainage. Read more about our soil mix here, where we sell it to hundreds of DIY gardeners every season.
There are lots of other options for building a garden space besides the classic wooden framed bed. We love using corrugated metal Vego Garden Beds for gardens where people want the plants higher up (so they don't have to bend down so low to interact with the garden or so their dogs don't jump in them). We also love these cedar planters from Gardeners for people who want to put their gardens on hardscaping or pavers or patios and balconies.
If you're more interested in going serious DIY you can also build yourself an in ground garden. This involves having a space without much root competition (so a space thats at least 20 feet from all major nearby trees in all directions) and a bit more elbow grease than other gardens. You'll first need to clear the space of all plants including grass, then lay down some cardboard and then mound new soil on top of that cardboard layer and shape it into a plateau into which you plant.
Here is an in ground bed in progress. Roots were removed from the area, the native soil was mounded up, then cardboard added and finally a plateau of fresh new soil.
Here is the same space being planted. This will only last one season but it was more affordable to make because it doesn't have a wooden border or a container.
Seed starting for fall:
Seed starting is one of the trickiest parts of home gardening, which is why companies like ours exist in the first place! Theres a lot to be said for letting the experts grow your vegetable starts. If you're doing it yourself not only do you need the know how, but you also need somewhere safe to keep them (they cant get rained or nor can they handle full sun exposure), plus you need a stash of specialty materials (germination mix, cell trays, under trays, misters) and of course you need to go online and buy a packet of seeds for every single plant you want to grow (at 3$ a packet plus shipping). Or, you can head to your local specialty organic plant nursery (thats us!) and pay us 4$ a piece to do all of that heavy lifting for you!
If you do want to try yourself your first task is to watch our seed starting video on youtube or consider joining the new "Secrets of Seed Starting" workshop we just added to our events calendar. That video is jam packed with all of our favorite techniques and materials we use to get good results and healthy seedlings.
You might be wondering when you should be prioritizing all of this activity! If you are building new garden space do it whenever, just cover the new soil with hay to protect it until you plant it. If you are starting seeds, keep in mind that we start selling 5 week old tomato seedlings on October 15th. So we start our tomato seeds (and kale, and cilantro and almost all of our plant varieties) on Monday September 13th. While we start them in cell trays like the one above we "up pot" them into 4" pots at 3 weeks old, to get them even bigger and stronger before they get planted into gardens.
If you need supplies for revamping or building a new garden hit us up! Our nursery in the Redland will be open every Saturday from 10-5 and we have lots of soil, compost, fertilizer, and seeds for you to use on your September projects. We also sell raised bed kits, which come with everything you need to get started plus we will deliver them! We are super duper here for you as you head into your first or your fifth gardening season, and we cant wait to see you at the Heirloom Tomato Seedling Sale, this coming October 15th - 17th.