Thursday, August 27, 2015

(How Not To) Plan and Plant Your Fall Garden

Or, Turning Summer Defeat into an Autumn Victory

Triumph! My first ever deliberately planted fall garden.

This is how my fall garden planning usually goes:
  1. In the spring and early summer, I have visions of my late-summer garden magically transforming into a lush oasis of cool-weather or storage crops like broccoli, spinach, and carrots.
  2. In July and August, as the summer harvest and my work schedule simultaneously pick up, I'm lucky if I get any time to think, let alone do much garden maintenance. I'm mostly in garden survival mode at this point.
  3. Once I finally get the weeds back under control, I realize most of my summer vegetables are either still yielding pretty well (tomatoes, shell beans, and zucchini), still ripening slowly (winter squash), or have already self-seeded (dill). This assumes, of course, that Mother Nature has been kind in the way of enough rain to keep the garden from totally crisping up. More on that later, however.
  4. So usually around August and September I decide to just keep the summer crops going until the very last minute, and forgo any kind of special fall crops. One year this worked out really well, as a matter of fact: a mild winter meant I still had lush dill growing in early December, as I described in this post.

Not only was the dill that year still lush enough to collect beautiful frost on December 11, a few days later when I ate some it wasn't frost-burnt at all!

But this year I didn't plant any zucchini, my cucumber vines succumbed to some kind of disease and/or crispy heat and not enough rain while I was away on vacation, and I eventually decided both varieties of shell beans and the (volunteer) Delicata squash vine looked to be about done too, again probably due to a dry spell coinciding with my absence. So for the first time ever I have actually moved beyond the dreaming phase of having a fall garden.  Yay!

Taking Action

First I pulled the spent crops and composted them or discarded them (depending on whether I suspected them of being infected with a disease). I raked any additional debris out of the now-empty beds, and made eight shallow furrows beside my garden pathways. I marked each row with string tied between sticks at each end, just like my parents taught me, and filled them with some lightweight potting soil for easy germination (easier than in my ordinary garden soil, anyway).

Next I inventoried my seed stock for what might make good fall crops. I wanted veggies that were quick to mature or cold-hardy. I consulted a fall planting chart in Washington Gardener (August 2015 issue) that suggests when to start various late-season vegetables in Maryland. I'm right in the proper window on some of my crops, but several weeks late on others. Oh well, next year I'll have to plan a little better. I had some appropriate seeds left from this year or last year, plus some that were even older. I gathered all the seeds that would be cold-hardy and made a quick map on some scrap paper to keep track of which crop would go where. Otherwise I'm liable to lose track of my intended layout from one row to the next, to say nothing of identifying the tiny baby sprouts when they appear. 

A quick sketch of my garden, including the locations and seed contents of each new fall row.

The following morning my husband and I got up early and sowed carrots, radishes, lettuce, and spinach seeds, as well as some several-year-old remnants of broccoli, bok choy, and brussels sprouts. I don't know whether I'll get much of a germination percentage out of these old seeds, but figured why not at least give them one last shot. It was a gorgeous cool sunny morning, unusual for Maryland in August, and I enjoyed working in the garden.

A few of the new rows of fall vegetable seeds, sleeping soundly under the soil and mulch.

Frost, schmost!

If I had planned for a fall crop long in advance I would have checked our average first-frost date, and counted backwards from there to see when a crop should be planted in order to reach maturity before frost. If I had available, or could make, some kind of frost protection (like cold frames, cloches, cold tunnels, etc.) I could be more lenient with a crop that would take longer to mature. Also cold-hardy crops are safe to mature after frost; many, like brussels sprouts, are said to be sweeter after a light frost. But I didn't really plan ahead very well. I was just lucky that many of the seeds I already have look likely to mature in time.

In terms of age and my expectations for germination success, the radish, carrot, and spinach seeds are this year or last year's seeds. The lettuce is several years old but grew fine this spring. The broccoli, bok choy, and Brussels sprouts are also several years old, but had mediocre to moderate germination rates when I did germination tests a couple winters ago. That's partly why I still have them on hand: they didn't seem worth taking up space in the springtime for the low chance I could get anything, yet I can't bear to just consign seeds to the landfill. Now since I have room and time in the fall garden, I figured I might as well give these poor old seeds a row each. If I have no germination within a week or two I plant to  overseed with more carrots or radishes. In fact, I found I only had about half a dozen seeds left for the Brussels sprouts, so I've already overseeded that row with radishes anyway.

Preparing for both heat and cold

To conserve moisture, I heavily mulched between the rows with the same kind of shredded wood mulch I used earlier in the spring. I had miscalculated how many bags I'd need to buy back then, but that turned out ok since now I have plenty for the new rows which badly need it. I'm watering the rows a couple times a day and still am not sure that's enough in the August sun. At least it's not as hot as August normally is around here, for now. Later in the fall when it starts to get cold I can heap more mulch or fallen leaves around semi-tender plants like the lettuce, if need be. I doubt I'll need much cold protection for most of the new crops, though. I know from experience that the carrots will make it through the winter unscathed. I usually have one or two that I miss at the summer harvest and only discover the next spring when feathery foliage and a lacy white cluster of flowers begin to appear.

What I would do differently for next year's fall garden

If I had planned this from the start and had known for sure in advance that I'd have time and space for a fall garden, I would have saved some seeds in spring for it. Instead I planted all of my lacinato kale seeds early on, and now have bags and bags of frozen kale to add to soups and stir-fries this winter. Which is great, but I didn't really need all of it harvested at once. Keeping some to be grown later and eaten fresh in September or October would have been nice, I could have frozen any excess then too. I also would have  bought one or two additional seed packets for the fall. Some newer broccoli or bok choy would be nice, for example, and some extra beets wouldn't go amiss either. I had enough beet seeds for a decent spring/sumer harvest but not more than that.

What I would do the same next fall

 My crop rotation this year happened to put the surviving crops (tomatoes and peppers) all on the outside sections of the garden, so I have the entire center block to plant fall crops. That was just chance, really, since normally I'd expect to be getting a second harvest of beans from still-surviving vines. If I planned for a fall garden from the beginning, though, I would do something similar. I'd plant the longer-producing crops in a big section of the garden (not haphazardly scattered throughout the different units), and the plants I expected to pull mid-summer would be in a different section so it's easy to switch out without having to wade carefully through the tomato vines.

I would also plant the fall garden whenever I could, even if for some reason I missed the "perfect" planting date range for one crop or another, just as I did this year. Better to plant late than not at all, I figure, especially since that so-called first frost date is an average anyway. It's always possible we have a longer, milder fall than usual! I wouldn't spend a ton of money and effort if I were more than a couple weeks late, admittedly, but since this year I had a lot of somewhat old to very old seeds I wanted to use up anyway, it worked out.

Finally, I would buy more bags of mulch in the spring than I need, and store them in the back garden shed or under the porch until I needed them later. Having all that mulch readily available made it easier for me to get off my bottom and just do this, rather than procrastinating and rationalizing that I couldn't start until I'd made a trip to the garden store next weekend to buy more mulch.

Go Ahead And Do It!

Whether you live in the midAtlantic area like me, or further north or south in the U.S., you probably still have time to plant some kind of fall crop if you have room in your garden. I would wholeheartedly encourage you to try scattering some lettuce seeds in there, or get more complicated like I did with several kinds of cold-hardy vegetable. Do check your local first-frost (average) date, count how many weeks you've got, and then compare that to the time to maturity on the seed packet, especially if you're buying the seeds new right now. Hopefully you'll at least have time for some baby lettuce and tasty young radishes, maybe you'll even have enough time for some radishes or carrots to mature and be available to you throughout the winter. Yum!

I think having an idea of how likely it is that you'll get the crop you expect is important in planning and planting a fall garden that won't be crushingly disappointing. I pretty much threw caution to the winds since I'm already late on certain crops and since I already had the extra seeds. I wouldn't recommend that to someone who has never before considered having a fall vegetable garden, though. Since I've always dreamed of having one but never quite acted on it, the simple act of sowing the seeds is enough triumph to be worth the effort this year. Of course I'll be sad if I get absolutely no harvest from my new rows, but I'm still proud of making a tough summer work to my advantage.

Have you ever grown fall vegetable crops in your garden? Do you use protection like cloches and cold frames to do so, or not? Let me know in the comments. I always like to learn from other gardeners.

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