How could anyone think about fall during the current heat wave? However, it is time for gardeners in Central Florida to begin planning for their fall garden, especially if you wish to take advantage of the incredible variety offered by seeds. Floridians face a special challenge when planning for fall, because lingering summer heats can damage many traditional fall selections, so our choices must be able to handle both heat and dry spells. I highlight some of the best new and old options in seeds which you should sow at the end of August to maximize the fall display. For those of you who prefer to work with seedlings there are some interesting new variations of more traditional fall plants.
I favor marigolds for fall because the simplicity that make many people overlook them. But these little burst of color are steady performers that flourish despite the fluctuations of Florida weather. Heat tolerant and drought resistant once these plants get established they can quickly fill in open areas with deep green foliage and bright flowers. New varietals offer deep maroons, single petal blooms and any shade of orange or yellow you could want. Ferry Morse offers a terrific line of marigold seeds that have creative variations that will make you forget the little yellow pompoms from childhood.
A similar option is calendula; Pennington Seed has a good selection of organic and non-organic calendula seeds. Traditionally a spring plant in cooler climates, it flourishes in Florida winter conditions. The trick to succeeding with these seeds in Florida is to water a little every morning (if it rained the previous afternoon don't water) until the seedlings have 3-4 leaves, then go to watering only on mornings that the plants look slightly wilted. Within two weeks the plants should be able to survive off just normal rains or once weekly watering.
For those who prefer a daintier option, pansies and petunias perform beautifully. They need a little more care and watering, but once established can handle the heat if they have shade. I recommend planting them in beds with midday and afternoon filtered sun or in pots that can be positioned so these delicate blooms do not burn. Again Ferry Morse offers a variety of options including the traditional jewel colors. I suggest trying several varieties to see which can adapt to your bed conditions best, because I find a difference in how the different varietals handle heat, sun and drought. For instance, the Romeo amp; Juliet mix loses blooms in heat and drought, but explode with new blooms within a few days of cooler or wetter weather.
If you prefer to use seedlings to ensure that you get the color you want, there are several good choices this season. Most garden shops and home improvement stores carry several varietals of rudbeckia. A simple, bright plant that offers hardy blooms and great color, rudbeckia can handle heat and drought with minimal impact on its performance. I also love that it can come back quickly after a frost. Viva offers a good seedling for Florida, just ignore the printed reference to this being a summer plant.
Salvia also perform well at this time of year. In the past few years a line called Florida Friendly Plants has popped up at Home Depot and local garden shops that provide some ideal varietals for Florida conditions. I find that for traditional blue salvia the Mystic Spires obtain good height and color, while the Victoria Blue salvia remain relatively low but still offer plenty of blooms. For some brighter salvia options, Tropical Salvia is a native plant that flourishes year round and provides a constant show of bright red blooms. A bonus for me is how salvia attract a variety of butterflies into the yard.
Another Florida Friendly offering that does well in fall is porter weed. These pants come in red or purple and bush out so that one plant can cover up to three square feet quickly. For a bed look you will need to trim down this plant every other month or if you have space let it reach its full height of five feet. Porter weed will get cold burn if temperatures go below 30 degrees, but it recovers well and can handle severe trimmings. I like it for fall and winter because even after cold damage it will bloom again within a week. Plus these plants are very drought hardy, I planted my porter weed last August and have not watered it since last November.
After transplanting the seedlings you should ensure they get some water daily for the first five days and watch for wilting. After these first few days of babying, get tough with your plants. Begin watering only when they show signs of wilting in the mornings, do not water in the afternoons because it might just be a normal reaction to the heat. Eventually all of these plants should survive on normal rainfall (if we go more than a two weeks without a decent rain you should water them). With minimal care and a little planning you should be enjoying a colorful garden come October.