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Enjoy a successful fall veggie garden with Tampa community garden's tips

Cool autumn breezes will dance across our gardens bearing pumpkin promises and green bean dreams in just four days — the first day of fall.

You gotta believe!

There's lots to love about autumn in Florida, but my favorite is fall veggies. I don't plant much. Over the years, neighboring trees have grown and now shade half my little veggie bed. Vegetables need six to eight hours of sun, a fact I blithely ignored as I continued planting the whole bed the last couple of years. That didn't work out so well.

Neither did planting winter veggies in September. Or starting fall vegetables from seeds this time of year. Plants take 75 to 90 days to mature from seedling to harvest, and starting from seed adds another 30 days. That puts them in the danger zone for winter frost and freeze. (We do have plenty of veggies that love our winters; just don't plant them now!)

If you want fresh, homegrown side dishes for your Thanksgiving feast this year, Kitty Wallace suggests using starter plants this month. That's what they'll be planting at the Tampa Heights Community Garden on Saturday, Fall Planting Day. (You're welcome to visit from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at 605 E Frances Ave. in Tampa.)

Kitty has been the coordinator of this hugely successful garden since it launched in July 2011. Back then, a dozen residents signed up for raised-bed plots on land leased from the city along Interstate 275. Today, individuals and groups tend 86 beds and produce a bounty of edibles.

"We're not scientific, but it works," says Kitty, who volunteers on behalf of the Tampa Garden Club, where she's immediate past president.

Longtime gardener and University of South Florida professor Rebecca Zarger agrees.

"We had great success with collards, lettuce, broccoli and carrots last fall," says Rebecca, who joined the garden a year ago. "The combination of Kitty's bone meal amendment and soil from Mother's Organics really seems to produce well, even better than my own raised bed at home."

Ready to start a fall veggie bed? Kitty shares what has worked at the Tampa Heights Community Garden:

Create raised beds no more than 4 feet wide for adults; 3 feet for kids.

Those widths allow adults and kids to reach at least halfway into the bed to weed and harvest. Any wider and you have to step in the bed — potentially disastrous! Most beds at the garden measure 4 by 8 feet. (Use lumber, bricks or other framing materials to create a frame at least 10 inches deep. The University of Florida recommends using ACQ Ground Contact-treated lumber or synthetic wood to avoid toxins and delay rotting.)

Fill your bed with nutrition.

The Tampa Heights garden uses soil from Mother's Organics in Seffner. While 6 to 8 inches works, Kitty recommends 8 to 10 inches. The extra depth helps conserve water without using mulch, which can suck nitrogen from needy veggies. Side-dress new plants with compost, a mix of blood meal, bone meal and cottonseed meal, and light fertilizer by placing handfuls on the soil alongside the plants.

Plant the right plants at the right time.

Plant broccoli and green beans now and you should have plenty for Thanksgiving, Kitty says.

She suggests waiting until it's cooler, usually October, to plant favorites such as cucumbers, zucchini, summer squash, beets, carrots, cabbage, tomatoes and Brussels sprouts.

Find the University of Florida's vegetable planting guide at solutionsforyourlife.ufl.edu/lawn_and_garden/calendar/.

• • •

Tampa Heights garden beds get watered every morning for 15 minutes through a micro- irrigation system when the summer rains stop. That means gardeners need only spend 15 to 20 minutes a day twice a week to pull weeds and do other maintenance.

"Over the years, watching which beds are successful and which aren't, we've seen that time commitment makes a difference. So I tell our new gardeners, you have to put that into your schedule — whether it needs it or not," Kitty says.

That's good advice for the home gardener, too, unless you're hand watering — that takes more time.

Let's get out there and plant some beans! At least we'll be thinking fall, if not feeling it. Yet.

Contact Penny Carnathan at pcarnathan49@gmail.com, her blog, digginfloridadirt.com, and join the chat on Facebook at Diggin Florida Dirt.

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