Fall is Here and It's Time to Garden

Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
Make your garden a paradise.
Fall has finally dropped our temperatures and lightened our humidity. Shoppers at the grocery store today were already loading up the pumpkins and buying miniature pickup trucks decorated with fake autumn leaves and "Apples 4 Sale" signs. The pumpkin spice latte crowd are happy and Halloween devotees are already decorating their houses. But no one is more thrilled with the change in the weather than gardeners.
click to enlarge There is such a thing as too much basil. - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
There is such a thing as too much basil.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
Many of us have neglected our flower and vegetable beds for a couple of months now. August depresses this gardener with its heat, humidity and blood-sucking bugs. A couple of weeks ago, we had a weekend with relatively cooler temperatures and I forced myself to put on my gardening clothes and spray myself down with bug repellent. I tackled the vegetable garden first, which was overgrown with Thai basil plants. It killed me to pull up plant after plant but the basil was keeping the sun away from what little I have left growing in the garden including the leeks and peppers. In the end, I pulled up about 30 plants while the bees buzzed around me, clearly upset that I was taking away the basil flowers that they had been feasting upon. I left about ten plants, so the bees and I should have enough basil to last until the first frost.
click to enlarge Don't be fooled by its pretty blooms. It's an invasive weed. - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
Don't be fooled by its pretty blooms. It's an invasive weed.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
I also pulled up tons of  little weeds that resemble mimosas. In fact, one of its common names is Little Mimosa. However, it's botanical name is Phyllanthus urinaria, an ugly name for an ugly weed. It's also called chamberbitter and gripeweed, two more fitting monikers because it definitely makes me bitter and I do a lot of griping while trying to conquer the little buggers. I also had to tackle bindweed in the front flower beds. Bindweed looks very much like morning glory with pretty purple blooms and heart-shaped leaves. Unfortunately, it is extremely invasive and its vines will choke out other plants if left to its own devices.

After hours of weeding, I had planned to start sowing some vegetable seeds. My glutes, or butt cheeks, had a different idea. They felt they had done a hard day's work and that a frozen pina colada on the patio would be more conducive to their happiness. I agreed, which is why, two weeks later, I am scrambling to get bean and squash seeds sown in time to get a harvest.
click to enlarge Is it lush or overgrown? - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
Is it lush or overgrown?
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
I also had to buy some large tomato plants to replace the seedlings I recently bought. While waiting for the weather to cool down, I let my three very healthy tomato plants chill out on the counter of my outdoor kitchen. A couple of days later, they looked as if they had been gnawed in half. A tomato hornworm was the culprit. I apologize to all the Buddhists who may be reading this, but I squished that little mofo and I enjoyed doing so.
click to enlarge Some Thai basil is left for the bees. - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
Some Thai basil is left for the bees.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
So, the weather is fine and excuses are no longer valid. Fall vegetable gardening can be just as pleasurable and rewarding as spring planting. Yes, it's a bit late for tomatoes but many Houston gardeners can keep a patio tomato plant alive through the winter and reap the benefits of a few ripe fruit. They rarely have the same flavor in December but it's better than nothing. For those who want to chance it, cherry-type tomatoes are the best bet. They produce faster and ripen quicker.

I always take a chance with green beans, too. I only plant ten seeds or so and it is usually enough for a few meals. Fall is also the best time to sow seeds for carrots, beets and spinach. Lettuce loves cooler weather and a packet of mesclun mix will provide all kinds of surprises when the seeds germinate.
click to enlarge My carrots this year were stubbies. - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
My carrots this year were stubbies.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
I never have much luck with carrots myself. They germinate and grow fine but are rarely tasty. I have the same issue with beets. No matter what I do, they taste like dirt. However, the beet greens themselves are edible and they make beautiful additions to salads when picked young. Or you can get all cheffy and decorate hors d'oeuvres with them.

Peas are another easily grown vegetable, or legume. Wando is great for our climate but it requires a trellis or something to climb. I have found that Lincoln peas are also good for Houston. They still require a little staking but they only get two to three feet high. However, it can be difficult to spot the pods in the greenery. Peas can be sown in Houston now through December for winter harvest.
click to enlarge These tomatoes and herbs will definitely get planted this week. - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
These tomatoes and herbs will definitely get planted this week.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
Gardeners will also find plenty of herbs at nurseries and big box stores  right now. This is a great time to plant most herbs. Basil will last until it drops to 40 degrees but others like thyme, rosemary, oregano, mint and parsley like the cooler fall temperatures and will often make it through the winter in Houston. Basil and parsley also self-sow so observant gardeners might find little seedlings emerging in the spring if the plants are allowed to go to seed.
click to enlarge Wishbone flower does well in sun or part sun. - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
Wishbone flower does well in sun or part sun.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
For flower power, fall is a perfect time to introduce some color to the landscape. Dianthus, snapdragon, Gerbera daisies, angelonia and penta thrive in autumn and can continue blooming through a mild winter. Torenia, or wishbone flower, is another good choice for fall. I planted mine in spring and they are still going strong but they have also self-sown a few newbies for me. And, of course, many folks with fall fever will bring home pots of mums. After they have served their decorative purpose, they can be planted in flower beds where they can exist for years. I have some that I forget about until they start to put out buds. They have spread all over my beds and I just let them do their thing. I have two that are at least eight years old.
click to enlarge A forgotten mum is getting ready to bloom. - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
A forgotten mum is getting ready to bloom.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
Azaleas and other shrubs do especially well when planted now. It gives them time to get established before the winter but the more moderate temperatures also help them not to perish before doing so. Roses are also a great choice for fall planting but it isn't easy finding them this time of year at nurseries. Catalogs are a good option, though.

In the next couple of months, bulbs will arrive at the stores. I usually plant most of my spring flowering bulbs in late October or early November. Tulip bulbs, however, I chill in the vegetable drawer of my fridge for six to eight weeks and plant them in early December. I have gotten them in as late as early January and still had some success.
click to enlarge What's the story, morning glory? - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
What's the story, morning glory?
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

Sometimes gardening may seem like a lot of work. Bugs, heat, frost, drought, storms all seem to be waging a battle against our yards and gardens. Still, a couple hours of work a week can result in a landscape that produces fresh herbs, fruits and vegetables for nourishment of our bodies and flowers and foliage that nourish our soul. The words soil and soul are separated only by a letter and they both need to be fed to flourish. The toil will be rewarded.
click to enlarge Gardens help sustain other living things. - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
Gardens help sustain other living things.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
And gardeners of all types should take out a few moments, or lazy hours, to enjoy the beauty and bounty they have created with their own hands with a little help from Mother Nature. As the autumn wind gently kisses us in the fading sun, we can sip our pumpkin spice lattes and watch the butterflies and bees flit about us, knowing we made a little part of the world lovelier.