Fall officially starts Sept. 21, just a few short weeks from now. Soils baked by the summer sun are cooling, night temperatures are lowering, and plants are responding. It is time to think about planting.

Fall is great for planting in Tucson -- the heat of summer is over, there are three to four good growing months before freezing temperatures set in, and it's not too hot for humans to work outdoors. So what can you plant? Plant it all! Trees, shrubs, vines, accents, groundcovers, lawn, perennials, bulbs, herbs and vegetables.

Vegetable growing can be fun and easy in fall. There are fewer weeds, fresh produce from your own garden tastes so good, and vegetable gardening can help get you fit in several ways.

Vegetables are loaded with vitamins, minerals, and roughage. Vegetables are not loaded with calories. In fact, some diet plans say you can eat as many vegetables as you want and not count the calories.

The physical activity involved in gardening is good for your body. A study some years ago determined that seniors over 65 who had actively gardened for most of their life were less likely to be found in adult care facilities. The study also found that the gardeners suffered fewer hip fractures. Researchers wouldn't speculate if this was due to the exercise involved in gardening or the better nutrition of the gardeners.

Vegetable gardening does not take a great deal of space or time, unless you want it to. Vegetables can easily be grown in large pots on the patio. If you want to turn over the earth rather than potting soil, go for it.

Start small, you can always convince your spouse of the need for more garden next season. You will be suprised the amount of fun you can have with a strip two feet wide and only 10 feet long. Wherever you grow, try to find a spot with six or more hours of full winter sun. If possible, avoid competing tree or shrub roots which will steal water and nutrients.

Plan on saving the seeds of what you grow. I have found that the best variety to plant is the offspring of the plants that survived well in my garden. I let a few plants go to seed at the end of the season. Save the seed in brown paper bags sealed in a plastic bag in the fridge. A plastic bag is necessary because frost-free refrigerators can be too drying for seeds, and the old kind of refrigerators are too moist.

What to plant? For the shorter cooler days ahead, it is best to plant green vegetables. Plants with fruits, like tomatoes and peppers, usually do not survive the winter cold, and will not set fruit. Thus the fall and winter garden in Tucson has mostly leaf, stem, and root produce. There are two notable exceptions; peas and winter squash.

Garden peas come in a vast array of types, but they all need to climb. Your yard fence or a wall is one option for small spaces. A length of chicken wire can be hooked on the wall.

Edible pod peas are the most fun to have in the garden, because you can munch them straight off the vine. Start now for longest availability of snacks.

Try some of the snap, bush, or pole beans, but if there is a hard freeze, they may not survive. Short season winter squash may set fruit before the frost if you get it into the ground now.

Root crops will do best with a soil that is more sandy than normal garden soil. I have a patch of the garden with extra sand for carrots especially.

Even with this aid, the half-long or short types do best in Tucson. Roots to plant from seed with a nice harvest in a few weeks to months include carrots, radishes, and beets.

These are good candidates for growing in a giant pot on the patio. Interplant with annual flowers for color.

Root crops to plant now and harvest months from now include jicama and horseradish. Both take over 200 days to mature. Horseradish should be ready in June, while jicama will taste much better if harvested next fall or winter.

Parsnips, turnips, and rutabagas are a "plant and pray vegetable." They need a cool winter to make a large tasty root. If we have another hot winter like last year, the roots will not amount to much.

Root-type crops to plant from sets or seed include chives, garlic, leeks, onion, shallot, scallion, and potatoes. I have tried various potatoes, and had the best luck with smaller varieties. My favorite shallot is a variety the O'odham have been cultivating for generations, available from Native Seeds/ SEARCH in Tucson. I bought mine at the Chili Fiesta at the Tucson Botanical Gardens. This year's festival will be Oct. 26 - 27.

The kinds and amounts of leaf crops you plant are limited only by the space you have to put them in. Any extra are generally well received by friends and neighbors, although mine are getting just a tiny bit tired of arugula. Arugula, also called Italian mustard, is a spicy addition to salad.

The plants love the cold weather, I have even found ice coating on leaves that later acted as though nothing had happened. Most members of the mustard family are cold tolerant to some degree, including mustard, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, chard, Swiss chard, collard greens, kale, kohlrabi, and the Chinese leaf cabbages, bok choy and pak choy.

Lettuce doesn't like the cold as well. Related to dandelions, it prefers warm soil for seed germination, then cooler weather to grow in. This means you have from now to November to plant lettuce, then again in March. Although lettuce comes in head or leaf types, I have found that the leaf types tend to do better in Tucson. It is also easier to harvest just a few leaves for a quick healthy salad for two.

There are some annual herbs you can plant in your fall garden. All of them are members of the carrot family, including anise, caraway, dill, fennel, and parsley. Cilantro, so great in Mexican cooking, is also known as Chinese parsley or coriander. It does very well in the winter garden, and by April will start to bolt, making flowers and seeds rather than more leaves. Leaves can be chopped and frozen for later use, but quickly loose flavor when dried. The seeds can be saved for making pickles with the fruits of the summer garden, but that is another story.

If you would like help planning your planting, or wish to sign up for the next landscape class in September, call me at 292-0504. Please feel free to leave a voice message.

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