Autumn Abundance

From fall vegetables to beautiful blooms, the possibilities for your garden this time of year are endless. Garden expert John Floyd shares his tips for making the most of the season.

Mid-September is that pivotal time on the calendar when the night temperatures begin to cool. That means early morning gardening becomes a pleasure again. This is when I take a close look at how much damage the summer heat did to my plants and make notes as to what needs to be done to avoid damage in the future. I also inspect for insect and disease problems to make sure I have them taken care of before my fall garden explodes. If you are having trouble getting your own garden problems under control, the Hanna Center at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens is your free source for help. Remember to take an image of the problem, along with a specimen off the plant with the problem.

This is the time of year I start planting my fall vegetables. If you don’t have a dedicated space for vegetables, you can easily grow them in containers. Seeding lettuces is a good place to start, and you can do that any time after mid-September until late October to guarantee a great fall reward. Simply follow the seed packet instructions.

Once the night temperatures fall into the 60s, I also seed turnips, kale, mustard, and tender greens. My son has a raised bed, and he likes to plant carrots and beets in his garden at this time too. For broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, collards, and cabbage, I buy transplants. When planting these vegetables, be sure to loosen the roots slightly if they have been growing tightly in the container.

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A lot of people ask me how far into the fall they should wait to plant pansies. I prefer to wait until the soil cools, which is usually around the first of October. Instead of buying the biggest plants you can find, you will have better success by buying freshly delivered plants with no yellow leaves. Ideally, you want them to have one or two blooms and lots of buds rather than being in full bloom. Also, when you tap them out of the flat or pot, make sure they are growing well with good white roots that are not pot bound.   

If you are looking for one of the nicest bulbs of fall, plant spider lilies. The best place to get them is by asking a neighbor to share some of theirs with you. You also can buy them from mail-order bulb suppliers and a few garden centers. Just remember that they are very expensive bulbs. If I were going to buy one now, I would probably purchase a white one. A friend of mine had a clump last year with a dozen or so blooms that created the most beautiful white cluster. I have bought yellow ones in the past but have never had them produce more than one or two flowers after several years. While red spider lilies are somewhat common in the metro area, bulbs such as colchicums, fall crocus, and sternbergia are rarely seen but can thrive as well. However, they are hard to find in bulb catalogs or nurseries. I suggest looking to a quality mail-order company, such as White Flower Farm.

And as you are planning your fall garden, don’t forget one of the most important things—planning time to enjoy it.

Floyd’s To-Do List: September/October

Late September through October is the best time to put out pre-emergent herbicide to try to prevent germination of one of the worst weeds in turf—Poa annua. If you do not control this particular weed by applying herbicides in the fall, you have very few options to control it once it germinates in late winter through spring. Most of the time, I have to resort to pulling it by hand. Products containing Betasan, Dimension, Halts, or Barricade will provide the best control. If your infestation was really dense last spring, it’s okay to do two applications—one in late September and one in mid- to late October.

If you have already purchased your fall bulbs, I suggest waiting a little longer to plant them. For spring-flowering bulbs, such as spring crocus, daffodils, and hyacinth, I generally hold off on planting them until after Thanksgiving. In the meantime, the best way to store the bulbs is to keep them in the refrigerator. They need to have a certain amount of chilling to ensure quality blooms. For best results, place them in paper or mesh bags. Do not place them in plastic bags.

There are many types of sasanqua camellias that you can buy and plant now, but I am especially impressed with the October Magic series of sasanquas that are featured in the Southern Living Plant Collection. The Magic series has a variety of colors available, and they offer a showcase of blooms from October until a heavy frost kills the blooms. The other nice thing about the October Magic group is that most garden centers carry them in the fall.

A favorite plant of mine that I always plant in the fall to enjoy spring blooms is the old-fashioned sweet William. However, it can be hard to find, especially in single colors. If your local garden center does not have sweet Williams in solid colors available, ask if they can get them from their supplier. I prefer single colors such as the pink selection Newport Pink. I am also partial to the white selection in my garden. If you have ever grown sweet Williams, you know that they are very fragrant. While these plants are classified as perennials, most people in our area treat them as annuals. Keep in mind that sweet Williams do not like shade and prefer well-drained locations.

The question about the right time to add fresh mulch in the fall is a good one. I like to wait until the leaves have fallen and the temperatures have dipped enough to cool the soil before I apply mulch. Remember that you need to allow the roots of your new spring-flowering annuals and perennials to harden off a bit so they will be more cold-tolerant before you mulch them for winter weather. I usually wait until Thanksgiving to mulch them.

Don’t Miss!

The Fall Plant Sale at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens Spring Plant Sale on Saturday, September 12 from 8 a.m. – noon. Shoppers can choose from native plants, sustainable trees, shrubs, herbs, perennials, camellias, and more. The sale benefits the educational programs, outreach activities, and ongoing enhancements of the Gardens. A Member Priority Shopping Day will be held on Friday, September 11, from 4 – 5:30 p.m.

John Floyd has been gardening in the Birmingham area for more than 30 years. In addition to his day-to-day experience, John has degrees in horticulture from Auburn and Clemson Universities and was editor-in-chief of Southern Living. For daily tips and more garden information, visit

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