Remember way back in early July 2023 when it was just a “Texas Heat Dome?” A simple event with dimensions and origins that we could pretend had sensible meteorological explanations and a discernible ending? And now we are in a proper state of emergency, and though it is amorphous, its roots are still very easy to trace. It is capitalism, it is climate crisis, it is the end times, it is our fault, and it is our burden. And now it is September, a month associated with cooler climes and easier days, a fresh growing season and an end to all things summer and eternal sunshine. These associations have never been quite true in the deep South, and are less true than ever this September, the coldest September of the rest of your life. And when it comes to growing plants—food plants specifically, seasonally appropriate food plants more specifically—it is best to approach seasonal transitions with subtlety and ease, taking note of changes in your garden and acting accordingly. I have railed against the idyllic seasonal fantasy garden plan many times before, and I am here to rail once again.
You may long to pull up all of your plants right now because they look awful. Do not. It is a terrible time to pull up all of your summer crops and start anew with fall plants. Always has been, now more than ever.
First, this drought. It is not the norm, but here we are, and here we may find ourselves again. It is not a good time to plant new babies in the ground, even if they are accustomed to massive heat. The cardinal rule when planting new plants of any sort in the ground is to make sure they get ample amounts of water early on so that they may grow their roots deep and therefore be independent and unneeding of your helicopter mom wet hose action as they grow into their own. And in a drought, this is hard to pull off without nature’s help. On top of this, you are being a part of the larger problem, needlessly, dare I say, uselessly, using up the collective resource that is drinkable water.
That said, as soon as temperatures aren’t oppressively hot and rain is something of a dependable phenomenon, it is safe and good to start planting your autumnal ilk. But when you do so, do not pull your babies of generations’ past out of the ground simply because you are ready and eager to plant something fresh. Again, I know the temptation to pull everything old out, lay some fresh dirt down, and start anew is fierce, but hold off if you can help it. Instead, pull your dead and fill in freshly-made holes, add fresh soil where there is space, pull weeds everywhere all at once—but leave the summer plants that are still hanging around, as they may be far from done serving you with fresh and healthy delights.
Second, if anything is alive at all after this year’s particularly treacherous summer (and odds are extremely decent that every summer henceforth will be no less treacherous) it deserves a chance to thrive in easier times. And you should allow it this chance not just out of the goodness of your heart, but because it is testament to a plant that is heavily adaptable and worthy of saving seed from in order to perpetuate future generations of heat-handling children. Also, if it is a fruit-bearing plant, it has likely been too hot for it to produce the tomatoes or peppers or what-have-you that you expect from it. Even if it is not fruit-bearing, like basil or a summer green, it will provide you with happier, healthier leaves for eating and cooking when the air cools down a bit. If it has survived up until now, it will thrive later. Even in a world of more moderate summers, it is a good idea to hold onto summer crops that provide fruits, as many of them put out their best bounty as late as January and even February. Midwinter tomato and pepper yields are truly glorious to behold.
If movies have taught me anything, it’s that fresh starts are prone to failures that create outcomes ranging from awkwardness and alienation to full on poltergeistic terror. You do not want to find yourself haunted by the ghosts of plants that could have been. But if movies have taught me anything else, it’s that everyone deserves a second chance, and everyone loves a good redemption story. Just because your plants look a little sad now doesn’t mean they won’t bounce back with a fierceness once they’ve been taken out of survival mode.
So, it is September and you are ready to make some changes to your garden space. How should you proceed on a practical level with this sensible seasonal sage advice? Like so, more or less in this order, insomuch as there is any order here:
- Pull any and all properly dead plants.
- Pull any plants that have gone to seed all the way. And save their seeds! These are special plants if they made it far enough to want to reproduce in our August hellscape.
- Yank up all your weeds.
- If you can afford it and are feeling fresh, add a new layer of soil to your garden space, anywhere from one to six inches deep. Any plants still in the ground will have hardened stems by now and will not be negatively affected by a little extra soil at their bases.
- Plant new plants where there is space! But only if we’re getting *some* rain. At this point, I would stick to brassica (kale, broccoli, mustard, collards) and common culinary herbs, as most of these can handle fairly serious heat.
- At the base of each of your plants, young and old, sprinkle a little handful of organic granular fertilizer.
- Water like hell for a week or two! No amount of water is too much for your plants, young or old. Again, if we are still deep in drought, just don’t even go there. But if we have some semblance of “regular” weather, drown your babies and watch them turn into beautiful monsters.
And this is how we begin anew, not with a thoughtless bang, but with a precious whimper. The seasons have no respect for any semblance of rigidity or normalcy and neither should you. Ease your gardening mind into the warm bath of climate chaos and the rest will follow.
illustrations by Rachel Speck