Fall in love with fall gardening
By Vicki Mattern
Mother Earth News
With tomatoes, peppers and melons now hitting their late summer stride, it’s easy to forget that autumn and early winter can be as abundant as spring and summer. Those who seize the opportunity for a second season of growth will find the planning and planting well worthwhile.
The steps to a bountiful fall garden are simple. Choose crops suited to fall growing conditions (see the list of crops and recommended varieties at the end of this article). Ensure your chosen site has organically enriched soil and adequate water. And start now. If you don’t have seeds on hand, use our online seed finder.
You can replace spring-planted lettuces, peas and brassicas (broccoli and its relatives) with new plantings that mature in fall. Seeds and transplants will take off quickly in the warm summer soil. They’ll appreciate cooler nights, too.
Look forward to peak flavor and performance for many crops that do not prosper in summer heat. Lower temperatures are ideal for producing crisp lettuces without the bitterness or bolting that can occur in hot weather. Frost-kissed kale, Brussels sprouts and cabbage have a special sweetness. Carrots, beets and turnips also thrive in the fall garden and, after harvest, can be kept in a pantry or root cellar so you can enjoy their goodness well into winter. Collards, mustard and other greens also like cool weather.
Favored Crops for Fall
When deciding what to plant now for fall harvest, gardeners throughout most of the country should think greens and root vegetables, advises John Navazio, a plant-breeding and seed specialist at Washington State University and senior scientist for the Organic Seed Alliance in Port Townsend, Wash., which conducts annual tests of crops and varieties to evaluate their cold hardiness.
Leafy greens (such as lettuces, spinach, arugula, chard and mâche) and root veggies (such as beets, carrots, turnips, radishes and rutabagas) as well as brassicas (including broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, kale and Chinese cabbage) and peas will all thrive in the cooler weather and shorter days of fall. In many regions, some of these cold-hardy crops will even survive the winter to produce a second harvest in spring. (See “Stretching the Season,” below.)
If you garden in the South or other areas with mild winters, you can grow all of those crops as well as heat-loving favorites. “Here, we can set out tomato transplants in late August,” says David Pitre, owner of Tecolote Farm, a certified organic farm near Austin, Texas. Pitre also plants okra, eggplant, peppers, winter squash, cucumbers and potatoes in August and September for winter harvest. Plant cool-season crops in the garden after temperatures cool — late September or later.
Fall is also prime garden season in the Pacific Northwest, where abundant rain and cool (but not frigid) temperatures are ideal for growing brassicas, root crops and leafy greens planted in mid- to late summer. The hardiest of these crops often hang on well into winter if given protection, such as row covers or cold frames.
(For full details on which crops to plant now in your region for fall and winter harvests, check out our What to Plant Now pages, or sign up for a free, 30-day trial of our online Vegetable Garden Planner — MOTHER)
Hardy Fall Varieties
After you’ve decided which crops to grow for fall harvest, zero in on specific varieties. “There are big differences in cold hardiness among varieties,” Navazio says. “Some are better able to photosynthesize at cooler temperatures.”
For the past several years, the Alliance has been conducting trials of as many as 170 varieties of 11 different crops for their quality and performance in fall and winter. Among them, kale, radicchio and Swiss chard have been tested extensively and confirmed cold hardy to 14 degrees Fahrenheit with no protection. Several varieties stood out for the Alliance and market gardeners.
Broccolis. Opt for varieties that produce plenty of side shoots, rather than a single large head. “‘Diplomat’ and ‘Marathon’ can survive the heat of late summer and thrive when cool weather arrives in fall, producing a second cutting as late as Thanksgiving,” says Elizabeth Keen, co-owner of Indian Line Farm, a 17-acre organic operation in Great Barrington, Mass. In Austin, Texas, Carol Ann Sayle, co-owner of Boggy Creek Farm, grows ‘Packman’ and ‘Diplomat’ for harvest by Thanksgiving and cuts ‘Marathon’ by Christmas.
Carrots. Consider storage ability when choosing carrots for your fall garden, says Thomas Case, owner of Arethusa Farm, a certified organic farm near Burlington, Vt. Both Keen and Case like ‘Bolero’ for fall growing and winter storage.
Lettuces. Whether you garden in the North or South, lettuces are a mainstay of the fall garden. Several European heirloom varieties are especially durable: ‘Rouge d’Hiver’ (a flavorful romaine whose leaves blush red in cool weather), ‘Marvel of Four Seasons’ (also called ‘Merveille de Quatre Saisons,’ a sweet and tender butterhead with red-edged outer leaves) and ‘Winter Density’ (also called ‘Craquerelle du Midi,’ a compact bibb type with deep green leaves) are good bets. Even in Zone 5, these lettuces will hang on into December and, with the protection of heavy mulch or a cold frame, will often return with renewed vigor in early spring.
When the lettuces go dormant in winter, you can count on mâche to fill your salad bowl. Mâche (or corn salad) is delicious and will survive and continue to grow in colder weather longer than any other salad green, says Eliot Coleman in his classic book Four-Season Harvest. In his Zone 5 Maine garden, Coleman seeds mâche inside a cold frame from September through early November for harvest until April, when overwintered lettuce resumes its growth.
Kale. Of the popular Lacinato-type kales, ‘Black Tuscan’ consistently rated best in the Alliance tests for cold hardiness, vigor, flavor and stature. The Alliance also recommends ‘Winterbor’ (a tall Dutch kale), ‘Red Russian’ and ‘White Russian’ (two tasty Siberian kales). It’s hard to go wrong with kale in fall, no matter the variety: All have superior flavor when temperatures drop into the 20s or below. “Sugar is the plant’s natural antifreeze, so as the temperature drops, more starches are converted to sugar, sweetening the flavor of kale and other brassicas,” Navazio says.
Radicchio. Still considered a specialty vegetable by many, radicchio thrives in the cool conditions of fall and offers a wealth of possibilities in the kitchen. Of the more than 20 varieties tested by the Alliance in the past two years, a few Italian open-pollinated varieties proved most cold-hardy. ‘Variegata di Luisa Tardiva’ and ‘Variegata di Castlefranco’ produce upright, variegated heads similar to romaine lettuce, with beautiful hearts and radicchio’s signature bitterness.
“Grown in cool weather, they are delightful, with a mild spicy flavor,” Navazio says. Although some of the plants’ outer leaves were “toasted” at 14 degrees in the Alliance trials, you can strip off any damaged leaves and enjoy the tasty interior.
Navazio suggests slicing the heads, then wilting the leaves in a pan with cipollini onions, as cooks do in Italy, or dressing the heads lightly with olive oil and roasting them on the grill or a campfire. For cold hardiness and flavor, Navazio also recommends ‘Rossa di Verona’ and ‘Grumolo Rossa.’