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It's time to plan your fall garden

The end of summer can be busy, but don't forget to think about starting a fall vegetable garden.

Successful vegetable gardens offer their owners fresh air, sunshine, exercise, enjoyment, mental therapy, nutritious fresh vegetables and economic savings. Statewide, there are more than 1-million vegetable gardens, averaging 300 square feet and a retail value of $300.

Getting started

Choosing a Location: Select a plot of good, well-drained soil near a source of water. It should be close to the home for convenience but should not be shaded by tall buildings or trees. Enclosing the garden spot with a fence is usually a good idea.

The garden design: Before planting, make a paper plan, including vegetables you intend to plant, where and when. Make a list of supplies and then order or purchase. For information on recommended vegetable varieties for fall gardening, send a long, self-addressed, stamped (33-cent) envelope to "Vegetable Planting Guide," 12175 125th St. N, Largo, FL 33774-3695.

Soil preparation: Have the soil pH checked to determine whether any additives are needed. Some local garden centers will do pH tests, and small soil-testing kits are available for those who wish to do their own testing. Soil testing is also done at the Cooperative Extension Service for a fee of $2 per sample. If you choose to bring your soil to this office, take several small samples at a 2- to 3-inch depth and mix together to form about 1 cup. Results and recommendations will be mailed to your home.

Organic matter: Most Florida soils benefit from applications of various forms of organics, such as animal manure, rotted leaves, compost and cover crops. Thoroughly mix liberal amounts of organics in the soil well in advance of planting, preferably at least a month before seeding. Spread 25 to 100 pounds of compost or animal manure per 100 square feet if you do not expect to use inorganic fertilizer. Well-composted organics may be applied at planting time. Because levels of nutrients are inconsistent in compost, accompanying applications of balanced inorganic fertilizer may be beneficial.

We often get requests about sterilizing soil (small amounts) in the microwave. A Pennsylvania State University study determined it would take about 15 minutes to sterilize soil. It should be moist, whether using a conventional oven or microwave. Soil moisture is essential to ensure the killing of disease organisms, insect pests and weed seeds.

It is time to start seeds for winter annuals. Seeds of calendulas, pansies, petunias, nasturtiums and sweet peas can be planted in trays of seedling mix. When plants have their first true leaves (second pair of leaves), they should be transplanted into individual containers and grown until planting time. Mid- to late September is the time to plant fall and winter annuals.

Pruning and rooting projects

This is an excellent time to root hibiscus cuttings. You could use some of the pruned-off tops to increase more desirable plants. A rooting medium of half sand and half peat will do the job. The cutting should root within three to five weeks, depending on the quality of the cutting. When the cutting has developed enough new roots, pot it or set it out in the place it is to grow. Some protection should be given to newly rooted cuttings. A light cloth over them will keep them from sunburn and wilting. Do not fertilize newly set cuttings. Wait about 10 to 15 days, then use a weak, soluble fertilizer solution. Some hibiscus cuttings root poorly. If you run across this condition, it would be advisable to bud or graft for a new plant.

Remember that flower buds on your azaleas have started to form, so don't prune anymore this year. Refurbish mulch and apply iron when leaves show signs of the deficiency.

Common ornamentals such as oleander, hydrangeas and azaleas can be propagated by cuttings this time of year. For azaleas, take tip cuttings 3 to 5 inches long with several leaves left attached. Many rooting media can be used, such as sand or a mixture of peat and perlite. Place the cuttings in the medium and keep moist by covering with a plastic bag or use a mist system. A rooting hormone may hasten root growth. If you have any cold-sensitive ornamentals, try rooting cuttings before winter, and keep the young plants in a protected spot this winter. Then, if the ornamental freezes, you'll have replacements for the spring.

Continue to remove faded flower heads from your crape myrtles. This will encourage growth for more blooms. Flower buds are usually waiting to develop if old blooms are pruned off.

Late August is a good time to be thinking about pruning roses. Remove healthy top growth as well as twigs and branches that are dead, diseased, injured or unsightly, thin or spindly. Shorten main canes and lateral branches, removing small twigs and some of the oldest canes. Leave at least one-half the length of each main cane that is 1 to 3 years old. The first flowers can be expected eight to nine weeks after pruning.

Satisfy your finicky fern

The finer the fronds, the more temperamental the fern, especially when used as a house plant. The delicate leaves of maidenhair tend to be very finicky, while the tough-leaved holly fern is easy to grow. Frilly leaved ferns need high humidity. Daily misting of the foliage may help, but it is best to increase the humidity by the use of a humidifier.

Pinch back chrysanthemums and poinsettias for the last time before the end of the month. This final pinching will make your plants more compact, encourage branching and, therefore, produce more blooms.

Grow your own plant from the top of the next pineapple you purchase. Take the cut-off top and root it in potting soil or water, then plant in a protected area where it will receive several hours of sunlight each day.

Stylar-end breakdown is primarily a post-harvest disorder of limes, which can cause serious fruit losses, especially during the hot, humid summer months. It first appears as a tan patch at the bottom end of the fruit. This can rapidly spread to include over half of the surface area in severe cases. Other fruits such as calamondin, lemons and oranges may also be affected by stylar-end rot. This problem appears to be of physiological origin because no microorganism can be recovered from the affected tissues in the early stages of the breakdown. Fruit can be harvested and used by removing the bottom portion. No control is known.

Banana clumps may be divided now. Remove suckers from the main plant with a sharp, flat shovel or knife. Lady Finger and Cavendish varieties are best for fresh fruit. Orinoco produces a tasty, frying-type banana.

Occasionally chemicals for homeowner use are purchased and the only directions are for mixing large quantities such as 100 gallons. You would need a huge yard to use that much. A general rule is when the label reads 1 pint per 100 gallons of water, it is equal to 1 teaspoon per gallon of water. One pound of wettable powder per 100 gallons of water is equal to approximately 1 tablespoon per gallon of water.

Many plants experience an iron deficiency, especially when growing rapidly and in alkaline soil. A soil test will determine the best way to correct this problem. If your pH is above 7.0, you may need to apply a soil acidifier. Iron deficiencies can then be corrected by applying iron chelate or iron sulfate according to label directions.

Fine sands found around Florida are a problem at times. The inability of water to enter this fine sand makes it difficult to get enough moisture to plants and grasses. This condition can be corrected by incorporating colloidal phosphate prior to planting. Use 2 to 5 pounds mixed with the soil when planting a tree or shrub. Before laying sod, spread and spade into the sand 1 cubic yard of colloidal phosphate per 1,000 square feet.

When a plant or tree seems to die suddenly, turning totally brown and retaining its leaves, there is a good possibility that mushroom root rot is the reason. No effective control is available to stop this disease once it invades your plants. Remove dead trees orshrubs and the soil in which roots are growing. Where possible, delay replanting in that location for one year.

Old flowerpots can be cleaned by soaking them in a one to five vinegar and water solution, then using a scrub brush to remove loosened particles. Sterilize used containers by dipping them in a mixture of one part chlorine bleach to nine parts water.

Compiled by Opal Schallmo and Nancy Volmar of the Pinellas County Cooperative Extension Service. If you have questions, call them at (727) 582-2100.

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