Right now, before you forget, put a rubber band around your wrist to remind you of one gardening task that cannot be postponed: Planting seeds for fall garden vegetables. As summer draws to a close, gardens everywhere can morph into a tapestry of delicious greens, from tender lettuce to frost-proof spinach, with a sprinkling of red mustard added for spice….
…. You can meet all of the basic requirements for a successful, surprisingly low-maintenance fall garden by following the steps outlined below. The time you invest now will pay off big time as you continue to harvest fresh veggies from your garden long after frost has killed your tomatoes and blackened your beans.
Count back 12 to 14 weeks from your average first fall frost date… to plan your first task: starting seeds of broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, and kale indoors, where germination conditions are better than they are in the garden…. As soon as the seedlings are three weeks old, be ready to set them out during a period of cloudy weather.
When is too late? The end of July marks the close of planting season for cabbage family crops in northern areas (USDA Zones 6 and lower); August is perfect in warmer climates. Be forewarned: If cabbage family crops are set out after temperatures have cooled, they grow so slowly that they may not make a crop. Fortunately, leafy greens (keep reading) do not have this problem.
In addition to putting plenty of supernutritious food on your table, your fall garden provides an opportunity to manage soil fertility, and even control weeds. Rustic greens including arugula, mustard, and turnips make great triple-use fall garden crops. They taste great, their broad leaves shade out weeds, and nutrients they take up in fall are cycled back into the soil as the winter-killed residue rots. If you have time, enrich the soil with compost or aged manure to replenish micronutrients and give the plants a strong start.
Several of the best crops for your fall garden may not only be new to your garden, but new to your kitchen, too. Set aside small spaces to experiment with nutty arugula, crunchy Chinese cabbage, and super-cold-hardy mâche (corn salad). Definitely put rutabaga on your “gotta try it” list: Dense and nutty “Swede turnips” are really good (and easy!) when grown in the fall. Many Asian greens have been specially selected for growing in fall, too. Examples include ‘Vitamin Green’ spinach-mustard, supervigorous mizuna and glossy green tatsoi (also spelled tah tsai), which is beautiful enough to use as flower bed edging.
As you consider the possibilities, veer toward open-pollinated varieties for leafy greens, which are usually as good as — or better than — hybrids when grown in home gardens….
With broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and their close cousins, hybrid varieties generally excel in terms of fast, uniform growth, so this is one veggie group for which the hybrid edge is a huge asset….
Finally, be sure to leave ample space for garlic, which is planted later on, when you can smell winter in the air. Shallots, multiplying onions, and perennial “nest” onions are also best planted in mid-fall, after the soil has cooled….
4. Watering Fall Garden Plants: Keep ’Em Soaked
Even short periods of drought stress can put a nasty kink in the growth curve of most fall crops. Dry soil can be murder on slow-growing beets and carrots, and any type of setback can devastate temperamental cauliflower. Your best defense is to install a soaker hose before you set out plants or sow seeds….
Keeping newly planted beds moist long enough for seeds to germinate is easy with leafy greens such as arugula, Chinese cabbage, collards, mizuna or turnips, because the seeds naturally germinate quickly, in five days or less. But beets, carrots, lettuce and spinach are often slower to appear, which means you must keep the seeded bed moist longer….
5. Go Mad for Mulch
Whether you use fresh green grass clippings, last year’s almost-rotted leaves, spoiled hay, or another great mulch you have on hand, place it over sheets of newspaper between plants. The newspaper will block light, which will prevent weed growth, help keep the soil cool and moist, and attract night crawlers and other earthworms. To get the best coverage, lay down the double-mulch and wet it thoroughly before you plant your seedlings. Cover the soaker hose with mulch, too.
6. Deploy Your Defenses Against Garden Pests
Luscious little seedlings attract a long list of aggressive pests, including cabbageworms, army worms, and ever-voracious grasshoppers. Damage from all of these pests (and more) can be prevented by covering seedlings with row covers the day they go into the garden. Use a “summer-weight” insect barrier row cover that retains little heat, or make your own by sewing or pinning two pieces of wedding net (tulle) into a long, wide shroud. Hold the row cover above the plants with stakes or hoops, and be prepared to raise its height as the plants grow….
Summer sun can be your seedlings’ best friend or worst enemy. Always allow at least a week of adjustment time for seedlings started indoors, gradually exposing them to more direct sunlight….
Getting the Most from Your Fall Garden
High-density planting in double or triple rows can increase your per-square-foot return…. Use a zigzag planting pattern to fit more plants into less space while allowing 18 inches between plants. Use dwarf varieties when spacing plants closer together, because too much crowding can lead to delayed maturation and low yields.
Cut-and-come-again harvesting can prolong the productive lives of heading crops such as spring-planted cabbage and Chinese cabbage. As long as the primary head is cut high, leaving a stout stub behind, small secondary heads often will develop within a few weeks….