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Fall gardening

(post, Caroline Lewis)

Your tomatoes are finally enjoying some serious heat and you’re in the middle of harvesting the bounty of all that hard work done this spring, right? But don't forget that late summer and fall are the perfect time to plant seeds and starts for fall and over-wintering crops. Trust us; in cold, rainy March, you’ll be happy to be able to harvest something fresh, organic, and nutritious right out of your garden. 

Here are some reasons why this is worth doing, and some suggestions on what to grow.

h3. Why bother?

Here in the Pacific Northwest, and any relatively mild climate, your garden doesn’t have to lie fallow all winter. Nor do you need a cold frame if you’re growing season-appropriate vegetables. This is an important consideration for anyone with a raised bed or other urban garden, especially one in a front or side yard. It’s really nice to have the garden continue to be green and productive during the winter months. Your neighbors will appreciate not having to look at dried cornstalks and dead tomato vines, too. Fall-bearing and over-wintering plants can fill in empty spots from already-harvested summer crops or anything that didn’t make it this year.

Of course, the real reason we’re going to all this trouble is to grow food, and it’s awfully nice to find it in the middle of winter when there really isn’t much at the stores and a fresh spinach salad or kale for your soup sounds particularly appealing. Many gardeners think the growing season begins in May and ends in the fall. But we plant our gardens more or less continuously from early March until mid-October. Right now, we’re planting in anticipation of harvesting salads in winter, broccoli in early spring, and garlic in July.

If you want to be the first person on your block to enjoy spring carrots, spinach, or chard, plant them between now and around the end of September. They’ll grow a little before it gets really cold, and will then just hunker down over the winter. In the early spring — usually in March — we give everything a good dose of compost and some organic nutrients like feather meal and fish-bone meal, then watch those dormant plants come alive.

h3. What to grow in fall and winter

Most people think of winter squash, leeks, potatoes, and cauliflower as fall or winter food. But these are all planted in spring or early summer, harvested in the fall, and just happen to store long enough to help us get through winter. What we plant later in the season includes salads and other greens, root crops like carrots and onions, and some fun and unusual vegetables, such as kohlrabi and fennel. Here are some of our favorites.

Salad greens

We’ve been really successful with winter salad greens, even in particularly cold weather and without having cold frames. Our hands-down favorites are spinach and mâche 
(aka corn salad, shown here), a petite and very cold-hardy, mild-tasting French lettuce. We plant mâche at nine per square foot and it makes a very pretty sight planted in alternating squares with other, larger salad greens. 

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Mâche."]

Other favorite salad greens to plant now include arugula (which has a milder flavor in fall than in spring) and cold-hardy lettuces such as Rouge d’Hiver, Arctic King, and Winter Density. 

Depending upon when you plant them, these greens might be ready to harvest in time for Thanksgiving or Christmas, or they might soldier right on through the winter. Spinach tends to do just that, and then when the weather starts to warm and it’s given some nutrients, it grows prolifically over a number of weeks, allowing one to harvest leaves and come back for more.

Greens and the cabbage family

Swiss chard, collards, and kale can be grown nearly year-round. In fact, as with many cole (cabbage family) vegetables, a light frost brings out kale’s sweetness. We are planting chard and kale right now. It’s best to get it in the ground right away, to give it time to become established before cold weather hits.

[%image broccoli float=left width=300 caption="Purple sprouting broccoli."]

Unfortunately, it’s now too late to plant anything that forms a head — broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower, for example. Purple sprouting broccoli, shown here, is good to get in the ground in August; it then over-winters as a rather large, attractive bushy plant. In April, just when we think it will never produce anything, it suddenly sends out multitudes of pretty purple florets. We harvest these continuously throughout April. They turn green when cooked and are amazingly tender and delicious. We give this one plenty of room — one plant centered in four square feet — and rely on it to help the winter garden stay green and attractive.

Kohlrabi is another cole-family crop that can be planted until the end of August. A cross between a turnip and cabbage, it is delicious roasted or in soups or purées. It forms a small-enough head to be able to be planted until around the end of August and harvested about 60 days later. We are particularly fond of the purple variety, which is gorgeous in the fall garden.

Root vegetables, onions, and garlic

If it’s too late for potatoes, it’s definitely not for other root vegetables, including carrots, beets, radishes, onions, shallots, and garlic. Our favorite carrot for over-wintering is Napoli, a sweet and cold-hardy Nantes-type that we plant from early August through the end of September. As with spinach, it starts re-growing in early spring and produces a crop of slightly pale but very tasty roots about eight months after it was seeded, usually in April. 

We plant onions in September and harvest them in late June or so (earlier if harvested as scallions). While most people around here think of Walla Walla sweets, our favorite is Bianco di Maggio. It’s similarly sweet and much more rot-resistant and cold-hardy. Walla Walla sweets just don’t seem to thrive in both cold and wet conditions, in our experience.

[%image scapes float=right width=400 caption="Garlic scapes."]

Perhaps our favorite over-wintering vegetables are garlic and shallots. Planted in September and October, they send up leaves that stay green all winter, then reward us with (for hardneck varieties of garlic, and sometimes shallots) delectable shoots or scapes in late spring. The rest of the plant matures by early summer. Garlic keeps for months and is worth the wait, producing nine heads from a single square foot of garden space, with superior flavor to what you can find in a grocery store. Shallots are similar in growth habit and are a versatile and delicious addition to the pantry.

Fennel, favas, and peas

Finally, there are some miscellaneous vegetables you might like to try over-wintering. Fennel can be a little tricky to grow. We’ve had particular success with Finale and are also trying Victorio this fall for over-wintering. When it thrives, fennel is delectable and, given its high cost at stores and farmers' markets, worth growing. 

Fava beans and peas can also be sown in the fall, producing abundant crops in late spring. We’ve had mixed success with peas — in some gardens, they never germinated or eventually froze — but they’re easy to plant and worth a try. Having super-early peas well ahead of the spring-planted varietals is a real treat after a long winter.

Whatever you decide on, the important thing is to start training yourself to think of the garden as a year-round, ongoing source of food rather than just a summer project. Doing so will provide a source of healthy food over a longer period of time, as well as keeping your raised beds green and attractive during the winter months.

reference-image, l

broccoli, l

scapes, l