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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 your fall garden. 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. In North America’s southern half, as long as seeds germinate in late July or early August, fall gardens can grow the best cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower you’ve ever tasted. In colder climates it’s prime time to sow carrots, rutabagas and turnips to harvest in the fall. Filling space vacated by spring crops with summer- sown vegetables will keep your garden productive well into fall, and even winter.
Granted, the height of summer is not the best time to start tender seedlings of anything. Hot days, sparse rain and heavy pest pressure must be factored into a sound planting plan—and then there’s the challenge of keeping fall plantings on schedule. But 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.
1. Starting Seeds
Count back 12 to 14 weeks from your average first fall frost date (see page 53) 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. Some garden centers carry a few cabbage family seedlings for fall planting, but don’t expect a good selection. The only sure way to have vigorous young seedlings is to grow your own, using the same procedures you would use in spring (see Start Your Own Seeds at MotherEarthNews.com; we’ve got a list of recommended pages on page 52). As soon as the seedlings are three weeks old, be ready to set them out during a period of cloudy weather.
If you’re already running late, you can try direct-seeding fast-growing varieties of broccoli, kale or kohlrabi. Sow the seeds in shallow furrows covered with half an inch of potting soil. Keep the soil moist until the seedlings germinate, then thin them. The important thing is to get the plants up and growing in time to catch the last waves of summer heat.
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.
2. Think Soil First
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 the 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.
You can also use vigorous leafy greens to “mop up” excess nitrogen left behind by spring crops (the organic matter in soil can hold quite a bit of nitrogen, but some leaches away during winter). Space that has recently been vacated by snap beans or garden peas is often a great place to grow heavy feeders such as spinach and cabbage family crops. When sown into corn stubble, compara- tively easy-to-please leafy greens such as lettuce and mustard are great at finding hidden caches of nitrogen.
3. Try New Crops
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, supervigor- ous 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. The unopened flower buds of collards and kale pass for the gourmet vegetable called broccolini, and the young green seed pods of immature turnips and all types of mustard are great in stir-fries and salads. Allow your strongest plants to produce mature seeds. Collect some of the seeds for replanting, and scatter others where you want future greens to grow. In my garden, arugula, mizuna and turnips naturalize themselves with very little help from me, as long as I leave a few plants to flower and set seed each year.
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. Breeding work is underway to develop better open-pollinat- ed varieties for organic growers, but for now, trusted hybrids such as Belstar broccoli, Gonzales cabbage or Snow Crown cauliflower are usually the best choices.
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. In short-season areas these alliums are planted in September; elsewhere they are planted in October.
4. 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. Try laying out the hose in various patterns and turning it on to get a good look at its coverage first. If the hose won’t stay where you put it, use short stakes or wire staples to hold it in place.
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. Simple shade covers made from boards held above the bed by bricks do a great job of shielding the germination zone from drying sunshine, or you can shade seeded soil with cloth held aloft with stakes or hoops. You may still need to water by hand to make sure conditions stay moist, but shade covers can make the difference between watering once a day or four times as often.