The Joys of Fall Gardening
By Randel Agrella
© Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co.
Home gardeners often overlook one of gardening's greatest pleasures: the fall garden.
All too often, novice and experienced gardeners alike fall into the trap of thinking spring through summer, and that's all she wrote. Sadly, they are missing out on about half of the pleasure (and the healthful produce!) that a well rounded garden affords.
Plantings need to be timed appropriately, of course. Just as you wouldn't plant warm season crops much ahead of the last spring frost-date, so too there are plenty of crops that are positively at their best in the fall garden. But there's a catch: the time to plan and make a start is now--if you wait until fall to plant your fall garden, you've waited too long, and the train will have left the station without you!
Here is a list of reliable fall veggies, along with a typical sowing date we might use in the Ozarks. Our climate is USDA climate zone 6; our last spring frost date is maybe April 15, and our first fall frost date averages around October 10 or so. (You must adjust these dates to fit with your own average dates.) Here's what works in our area:
Bush beans--July 15
Brussels Sprouts--July 1
Asian Greens--July 15
Swiss Chard--July 1
These dates represent the latest possible planting in our area--in many cases, planting could proceed 2-3 weeks earlier. Also, these dates are far from set in stone. Another Ozark gardener might list them slightly differently, and every year is unique. But they make a pretty good starting point.
Another point that summer-only gardeners often overlook is this: the first frost isn't the end of the world. Even tender crops like tomatoes, peppers and squashes may survive a light frost with only minimal burning of the outermost leaves. But anything cooler than about 30-29 degrees spells the end for them. However, most of the crop types listed above are not so tender. Some, like kale, turnips and radicchio, may actually be improved by frost. Lettuce and spinach certainly aren't improved by frost, but neither are they harmed, until temps begin to drop well into the twenties. In a gentle fall, that could be six weeks or more after the first frost. Some years, we can harvest unprotected cold-tolerant crops well into December!
Ah, but what about protected crops? For centuries, European farmers have used glass jars, called cloches, to create a warmer microclimate immediately around their plants. These may be scarce nowadays but there are plenty of modern substitutes. Most versatile of these is floating row cover, a porous, ultra-thin membrane of spun-bonded plastic. (Brand names for this product include Reemay and Agri-bon.) Row cover comes in various thicknesses; the heftiest grade is said to protect tender plants from freezing, up to 12 or 15 degrees of frost! Other methods include covering plants with sheets or blankets on cold nights and mornings, setting plastic milk jugs, with the bottoms removed, over the plants, building a "box" of hay bales and covering with old windows--the possibilities are virtually endless, for resourceful gardeners on a repurposeful mission. Such devices can literally add months to the life of the garden. In fact, in many climates, it becomes possible to garden--and eat fresh, wholesome produce--all year round!
But it all starts with a seed, planted at just the right moment. And it's getting to be that time!