The end of the summer is just the beginning of a new season of delicious harvests in a vegetable garden. No matter where you live or how much space you have, it's easy to grow fall crops -- in garden beds or in pots.
"Fall and winter gardening is a no-brainer," says Andrea Mull, who works on seed and vegetable trials at Territorial Seed Company in Oregon. In the Pacific Northwest, she says, fall gardening "is kind of a specialty we do," but she recommends it for gardeners everywhere. Cold climate gardeners have learned that fall and winter are ideal for beautiful leafy greens of all kinds, including lettuce and mesclun mixes, kale, collards and chard, and for root crops such as carrots, beets, parsnips and turnips. A late-summer sowing of peas will produce a healthy harvest of both peas and pea shoots for heavenly salads in the fall. Tomatoes, of course, are out of the question unless you live in an area completely without freezes.
Vegetables in the brassica family -- kale, collards, broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts and cabbage -- produce their best and most delicious harvests in cooler fall temperatures. They actually taste even better after a touch of frost.
Although the days are growing shorter, conditions in the fall are great for growing, Mull says. The population of garden pests plummets as summer fades away. Rainfall may be more reliable, and soil moisture isn't lost to evaporation as quickly as it is in summer's heat. Temperatures in fall are also more comfortable: Neither you nor your crops will have to fight the heat.
Fall crops fall into two categories: those you plant and harvest before the holidays, and those that stay in the ground through the winter, to harvest in very early spring. It's easy to keep track of: Launch your fall garden with vegetables in the first group, those you can pick in the fall. Now is the time to plant them.
"We plant a lot in August," says Renee Shepherd, owner of Renee's Garden seed company. By the end of summer, "I've had all the zucchini I want," Shepherd says, and she is ready for kale, spinach, Swiss chard and Asian bok choy and tatsoi. "It's a great time for baby leaf mixes, and for lots of herbs, the ones you want to use every day." Shepherd's business is in northern California, but her company also has a trial garden in Vermont, where fall crops flourish with the help of lightweight fabric row covers, a low-tech way to keep the garden growing through nippy fall weather. She also plants radishes in late summer and early fall, along with kohlrabi, escarole and broccoli rabe.
Finding a place for fall vegetables can be a challenge if your tomato plants are still producing and the peppers are just hitting their stride. Claim some space on the family picnic table and start seeds in six-packs, Shepherd suggests, to give them a head start, and then make room for the little seedlings when you take out your old bean and zucchini plants. Or you can "sow seeds under and around things that are still growing," she says. Another approach is to grow fall crops in pots: Lettuces and greens adapt very well to containers. Their colors and textures are beautiful and make a nice change from mums in pots on the front porch. Pick leaves for salads all you like -- the plants will just keep growing.
Territorial Seed Company promotes fall vegetable gardening in a special catalog of winter blends, each with three or more varieties of carrots, kale, beets and other crops that perform better in the fall than in spring. Cool-season lettuce varieties such as romaine and oakleaf lettuce will produce a quick crop that even gardeners in frigid-winter areas can harvest before the first frost, Mull says. In the Pacific Northwest, she can harvest many crops through the winter, pinching off leaves from kale and collard plants for months. Mild-climate gardeners everywhere can do the same.
If you've never grown a crop from seed before, fall is a good time to get started, because leafy greens germinate especially well in response to changing temperatures. Radishes, peas, parsnips and carrots are also good bets.
You can also start with transplants of broccoli, spinach, cauliflower, cabbage and other vegetables, says Joan Casanova of Bonnie Plants, which ships transplants to garden shops around the country in the fall. When you buy transplants, they're already about six weeks old and are ready to go in the ground. Starting with transplants also gives you a chance to catch up if you neglect to plant seeds in August. You can still plant seeds later, if you like, but medium-size plants are more resilient than tiny seedlings, and they'll bounce back better from a light frost.
The biggest obstacle to success in a fall garden is not starting one at all. With a couple of packages of seeds, a six-pack of broccoli or kale, and a few minutes in the garden, you're on your way to an easy and delicious fall harvest. Dig in.
When you're ready to retire your vegetable garden for the year, it's time to plant a cover crop to see it through the winter. A planting of grains, grass, legumes or other cover crop adds fertility, helps limit weeds and invasive grasses, and builds soil structure. "Anything you can do to protect your soil for the winter is beneficial," says Andrea Mull of Territorial Seed Company. Cover crops look great, too.
Two great sources for seeds for fall crops are:
-- Territorial Seed Company, territorialseed.com
-- Renee's Garden, reneesgarden.com
-- Bonnie Plants, bonnieplants.com
Lightweight fabric row covers are available at garden shops and through mail-order specialists, including Territorial Seed Company.