Fall Gardens Gaining in Popularity

Many vegetable planting charts indicate the best time for planting seeds indoors is generally between February through April, depending on the vegetable. The best time to put out transplants can range from April to August. Yes, August! Seed planting time outdoors ranges from April to September. Yes, September!

The summer solstice is about two months past. We don’t often think about it, but we have on average between 123 and 143 freeze-free days each growing year where we live. In my last column I mentioned we were at the 70th day, more or less, of the freeze-free season, and getting ready to collect some produce whose days to harvest numbers were being satisfied. That was two weeks ago. So, let’s somewhat arbitrarily say we have between 40 and 60 frost-free days remaining. We can be conservative, and maybe a little daring, too. 

Bush beans germinate successfully when the soil and the air temperatures have warmed up both day and night. That’s what we have in mid to late August. There are several early varieties one might give a try. I might even try a bush Lima or a few early yielding wax beans. I know the weather is unpredictable and the date of the first frost is uncertain. Beans are so prolific, I think they’re worth a try right now. 

Where we live here in the Catskills, the unwritten but often spoken phrase around St. Patrick’s Day is, “Got your peas in yet?” Peas don’t like the high heat or sunlight of mid-summer. But, we are past that by a month.  Nonetheless, peas don’t enjoy too much shade or too cool temperatures, either. Both will compromise their flavor. There are lots of pea types that are worth a try now, especially the early edible pod sugar snap ones. There are no guarantees with these warmer loving crops, but I think it’s worth a try. (We do believe there’s global warming, don’t we?)

Yes, the tomatoes, sweet corn, peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, celery, melons, squash, and other bounty of the continuing season cannot be redone, but they are coming in now. Harvest and savor their goodness. Relish their physical beauty, and the emotions they ignite. You should have until at least late September, and perhaps a gift of a few or more weeks. 

Now that beans and peas have been encouraged with caution (that’s why I used the word ‘try’ repeatedly) we can move forward with greater expectations. 

We are truly entering another great growing season. It’s real and sustained and guaranteed to provide satisfaction. What lies ahead is wondrous for its diversity of texture and taste. To do this you need to change your focus as you continue to savor the goodness that’s coming from your garden put in probably around the Memorial Day weekend. Remember those times, marked by rushing about and scrambling and getting everything ready for the planting weekend, and wondering all the while whether there still might be a frost coming. When is the next full moon? Etc.

As the days grow shorter and the nights cooler, we alter our palates to a different level of enjoyment: eating tasty and delicious foliage and roots. These will flourish in the autumn. With the 40 to 60 frost-free days remaining, we needn’t be concerned. Most of what we are going to plant will benefit and become enhanced by the change in temperatures and day length. There is an added bonus to a fall garden: there are fewer problems from insects and diseases, both of which prefer warmer temperatures to do their dirty work. Also, rainfall is usually more even and regular. 

Our August sowing can include spinach, collards, kale, Swiss chard, leaf lettuce, broccoli, and mustard. Radishes, and endive germinate fast and like cooler temperatures. Beets, carrots, and turnips sown now can be harvested after hard frosts for extra sweetness. They will be smaller, but wonderful.  Bok choy and other Chinese vegetables, rutabagas, leeks and Brussels sprouts enjoy the fall weather and improve as cold weather arrives. 

So, here we are savoring all the garden goodies of our earlier and continuing efforts, and at the same time extending the season so that when that bushel basket of summer plenty begins to dwindle, usually in late September or early October, we are already segueing into our second season’s crops. These later crops are famously sweeter and more tender than those planted earlier.

Leafy salad greens can be snipped with a scissors after about 20 or 25 days. They are eminently edible and tasty as it gets. Think lettuces, mesclun, arugula, spinach, chard and chicory. Broccoli rabe and attractive kale also fit into this regimen, maybe harvesting a week later. Leave an inch or two above the soil line and subsequent harvests will be coming along well into November and maybe later. 

Thinking more exotically? A few more that love cool temps are miner’s lettuce (Claytonia), mache (corn salad), and upland cress (St. Barbara’s herb) harvested young, ten or fifteen days after sowing.

Here’s hoping you have a second harvest well into the colder months. Don’t forget to label where the root vegetables are planted. These will gain in sweetness, as the ground gets really cold. If it’s not frozen, go get ‘em. Beets, carrots, turnips, and daikon radishes will be smaller, but wonderful.

When do you plan your gardens for next year? In winter as the snow flies? Before winter sets in, make maps of your garden spaces, and maybe, plan one or two beds for a succession planting in late season. It can be your second harvest: fall produce for you, of course, and maybe to share. A sugary gift to others is always appreciated. You might even favor this later gathering in cool weather as surprises from the earth.

From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on August 15, 2007

© 2007 Ed Mues. All Rights Reserved.