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Now's the time to prepare garden for fall, winter

By MARY COLLISTER
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 4, 2002

We hope for some cooler mornings and evenings this month so we can get into our yards with a little more comfort. October is the month to prepare for fall and winter gardening and, of course, it would be much more pleasant to do if the temperature and humidity drop.

Cool or not, there is much to keep us busy this month. The Hillsborough County Cooperative Extension offers a range of classes this month. On Saturday, Compost Happens and the Water Wise workshops begin at 9 a.m. at the cooperative extension office in Seffner. You need to register in advance by calling 744-5519, ext. 142, this morning. Another is scheduled for Oct. 26.

On Tuesday, Backyard Florida Habitat begins at 7 p.m. at the Jimmie B. Keel Library. That same evening Bromeliads is offered at 7 p.m. at the Riverview Library. On Thursday, learn about Container Gardens at the Jan Platt Library beginning at 10 a.m., or take in Shortcuts and Tips by Master Gardeners at 10 a.m. at the New Tampa Library. Poisonous Plants is the topic at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 14 at the Bruton Memorial Library.

If butterfly gardening is of interest to you, catch the workshop at the Temple Terrace Library at 7 p.m. Oct. 15. At the Port Tampa Library on Oct. 16, you can learn about Landscape Pitfalls beginning at 10 a.m. Gingers are the topic Oct. 17 at the Austin Davis Library at 10 a.m. If you want to play the Landscape Design Game at the cooperative office, set aside time on Oct. 24 from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Registration is required.

For more information on any of these workshops and many more, call the extension office at 744-5519. Workshops are scheduled for the remainder of the year.

After gathering information at one or more of these workshops you'll be eager to begin work in your own yard. If you plan on having a vegetable garden or just tucking a few edible plants here and there in your landscape, now is a good time to prepare the soil and decide what to plant.

If you have a particular area set aside for your vegetable garden, amend the soil now. Add as much organic matter as you can get your hands on. This may include compost, kitchen scraps (excluding meat and bones) or leaves. Work all this into the soil. If you want to speed up the decomposition process, place plastic or cardboard over the area once the soil and amendments are blended together. Remove the cover when time to plant. Using plastic will also help sanitize the soil, killing weed seeds and some pests and diseases.

When it's time to plant in about 30 more days, think about lettuce, tomatoes, melons, cucumbers, onions or just about any other vegetable you and your family enjoy. If you don't have an area for vegetables only, plant a few in with your ornamental plants or in containers. I find both these methods provide vegetables we can enjoy throughout the winter.

I prefer growing my tomatoes in containers. It gives me more control over the soil and moisture. I also have fewer pest and disease problems. Using a good quality soil in the containers gives me much better results than the bargain brand. I like a soil with added fertilizer. It gets the plants off to a great start.

If you use containers, think about scattering a few seeds of a loose-leaf lettuce variety around the perimeter of the pot. These will mature before the other slower maturing vegetable crowds them out. A loose-leaf type lets you just harvest the leaves as you need them, a few at a time.

During this planning period, don't forget to think about adding color. I have decided to stick with the tried and true in my front bed: petunias. They always do so well there and really add a burst of color. I cleaned out the bed, removing the summer stragglers, worked in compost and mulched the bed. I will wait a few weeks before planting. It is still a little hot. Before planting the petunias, I will work some slow-release fertilizer into the bed. In the past, I found this really got them off to a good start and then just periodic applications of a water-soluble fertilizer kept them blooming well into the spring.

I'll wait for the garden centers to get in the 48-plant packs of the petunia. That way, for not much money, I can plant the petunias very close together for maximum color in the bed. I have tried seeds in the past. They do fine, but try my patience. I want the color more quickly.

With the rain we've had, my perennials have really taken off. Planted mostly in the back yard, their exuberant growth will mean the need for fewer annuals to fill in bare spots. I am pinching the perennials back to encourage thicker, stronger growth. I have fertilized already and expect many blossoms this fall.

Continue to use the month as a time to clean up your yard, learn new gardening tips and prepare for the fall planting season. With some good planning, our yards will shortly be filled with color and vegetables.

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