The Fall Garden

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By late summer, all our work has finally paid off. The baby pumpkins twine around the corn, and soon another season of the garden will come to a close, as we harvest our major bounty of corn, tomatoes, and strawberries, and then kick back all winter. When the first frost hits, we’ll have less to do than kids in a small town. Our garden will be bare but well mulched or cover cropped against the return of spring in 1995. Until then, we may put the arduous task of gardening completely out of our minds.

“Oh, we’re not done yet,” Joy says, ruthlessly thinning some vegetable.


“No, not by a long shot. What about the fall garden?”

Again, what? I have a question: “Won’t we be a tad busy at harvest time to put in any more corn and tomatoes?” Joy gives her head a fast shake, as if to dislodge something in her ear. “Wow. Climb out of that hammock and turn off your notebook, honey. We’ve got to talk. You’re in the wrong hardiness zone to be thinking that way. Let’s do a little late-season dance around here.” Dumbly and mutely, I follow her into the house, to review a diagram that she’s been working on. I thought it was the plan for next year. It wasn’t that at all.

“See, here’s where we’ll put the kale, the radishes go here, the beets down here, eventually garlic here, the Chinese cabbages over in this corner…”Her finger points, and her eyes gleam insanely.

Didn’t we already plant all that stuff? “Yes and no,” Joy explains. “Some of them.” We talk. Over iced mint tea, I discover a few facts of life about late summer. Apparently, it’s about time to plant again.

People in mild climates tend to put their gardens to bed too early, for two reasons: (1) because, like me, they have gardened in places where winter means short autumns and deep frostlines, or (2) because they don’t care to eat fresh food all winter if that means a lot of root vegetables, like turnips and beets, or a bumper crop of rabbit food, like kale and Chinese cabbages. But here (hardiness zone 8) and in other parts of the country, some gardenables grow best and biggest when planted in midsummer, just a few months before the first frost.

The good news and the bad news, fellow nongardeners: We’ll all have fresh garden produce longer than we thought. Not only that, but by building cloches now, we can extend the tomato harvest, and there are varieties that will provide green tomatoes for chutney. (“Oh, never mind the tomatoes,” Joy says.) Furthermore, we will not have the expected glut of ripe vegetables, all of which must be canned, eaten, or given away at once. By staggering planting times, the garden can be made productive, if not uniformly bountiful, for much of the year. The good news.

However, the reason we didn’t plant as much in the spring as I thought we were going to is that Joy was planning all along to squeeze in a second crop of garden veggies. All the work we did before is paying off, but now we have to do it some more …all over again …twice. Okay, how about a second fall crop of corn? “Not unless you can think of some way to get it to ripen real fast and jump into the greenhouse before the first frost comes,” Joy says. Sounds like a no.

Out in the garden, I hear more good news: More crops in a given area means less space needed, and thus less tilling, weeding, and fertilizing. Joy points that out right away. “And see, this way we can get a second crop of broccoli and cauliflower before the first frost. Don’t make a face; you like garlic, right? Around here, we need to plant garlic in the late summer or fall, if we want to harvest it next July.” (This rule applies to most regions with a temperate winter, but in colder climates, one can plant garlic very early in the spring. Or wait until fall, mulch the hellebore out of it, and hope for the best.)

Garlic is lovely stuff: a food, a medicine, and a spicy complement for tomatoes in cooking. Eat garlic and chew parsley afterwards; you’ll live forever and your breath won’t smell.

Thinking about garlic, I almost get converted to the idea of an ongoing garden, until Joy mentions rutabagas. “And remember when we planted rutabagas in mid-July? We can have fresh rutabagas all winter, until March or so.”

Oh? What happens then? Do they acquire a flavor?

“They go to seed.” Thus to make more icky rutabagas. “Well, I think they’re delicious,” Joy says.

She is not alone. Steve Solomon, proprietor of Territorial Seed Company and author of a series of books about gardening in the maritime Pacific Northwest, calls certain people “corn and tomato gardeners.” (Add “strawberries and garlic” and I fit this description.) To make his fall garden yield more nutritionally efficient, Solomon actually learned to like and eat rutabagas, beets, and kohlrabi, changing his diet to match his garden rather than the other way around. Mr. Solomon is an eloquent speaker and an expert gardener. We buy our seeds from Territorial. I admire his books. But he or anyone else can have all the kohlrabi on my plate.

Kohlrabi is a typical root vegetable that can be planted twice in a season, in most parts of the country. The taste is subtle, somewhere between a fresh turnip and a wet telephone book. Did you know it was a Brassica? Do you use the word in conversation? Are you aware that brassicas are members of the mustard family? If so, you are a true gardener. If you enjoy the taste of kohlrabi, grow right ahead and consume them. Count me out.

All right, the category is “Plants That Can Be Eaten, Supposedly.” For twenty points, name ten brassicas. Joy?

“Turnips, rutabagas, kohlrabi, cauliflower, collards, Chinese cabbage, kale, broccoli, brussel sprouts, and radishes. That’s ten.”

Let’s ignore the first three, unless you’ve got some hungry pigs. But radishes are quite tasty, actually. You can grow three crops of radishes, and a couple of extra in the South, where it grows all winter. To avoid maggots, don’t plant it where any member of the cabbage family has grown in the last three years. Cauliflower isn’t bad with cheese sauce, and the best way to raise cauliflower is to plant late, around mid-June, spaced about a foot apart. Don’t plant it in the same place as last year, or the year before that. Mulch heavily to keep the soil cool, and harvest before the individual buds begin to loosen. The cabbage worm will go after it, so slop on some Bacillus thuringiensis.

And finally, let’s not forget good old broccoli, sometimes called “childbane.” Surely your children will thank you if you plant some more broccoli 10 weeks before the last frost, and so will the flea beetles (who loved your radishes to death but still have an appetite). Stick it in the ground ten to twelve weeks before the last frost, 18″ apart. It’ll need less bug control in the late summer and fall than it did in the spring.

Aside from those, we do not need to further discuss the above brassicas, many of which may be eliminated from any meal without loss to the taste buds. Naturally, Joy disagrees, especially about Chinese cabbage, which can be planted the first day of August. A beet is not a brassica, but omit it as well because July 1 is about the latest planting date, and beets taste exactly like beets. Instead, let us concentrate on expanding our corn-and-tomato gardener horizons with other yummy food that may be grown in the fall garden. Garlic, to begin with.

If you live in New England, the mountains of Colorado, or the upper peninsula of Michigan, now is the time to move to a state with mild winters and plant garlic. Alternatively, you can remain where you are (Maine, Montana, Minnesota) and still have fresh garlic braids hanging in your kitchen next summer, if you plant in the fall and mulch it like crazy.

In fact, now is the ideal time to perform triage on your garden, deciding which plants to move to your heated greenhouse—build one of those against your house, and you’ll never regret it. Many plants will get stomped by the first frost. Some, like garlic, can overwinter, even in cold climates, by burrowing down in the dirt under deep and massive mulching. I’ve heard of people who use entire bales of straw to protect their garlic; the bales will rot in time for a spring garden.

Garlic grows best in cool weather. Ditto onions, another allium. Alliums do not like clay soil, by the way; they prefer loose, fluffy loam. When the tops are dry, mid-August to early September, uproot and sun-cure onions. Fall is a good time to plan next year’s crop; it’s hard to find robust onion seeds, but consider starting seeds indoors in January, because there are more varieties of onion seeds available than onion sets. Try a wide range, and you’ll find out which ones like your garden and which ones keep all winter. It’s an adventure, a gamble that can pay off, and you won’t get hurt unless you plant twenty acres.

Don’t bother looking for garlic seeds, however; they’ve been grown from bulbs for so many years that the seeds aren’t viable.

In some parts of the country, the best time to harvest onions is August, and the best time to plant garlic is in the fall. Harvest onions, then plant garlic—sounds backwards, doesn’t it? Beginners can start with softneck artichoke garlic, experiment with elephant garlic, and work their way up to hardneck rocamboles, the large-cloved gourmet garlic also known as Italian Silverskin.

There are a few things to keep in mind about latter-season crops. You’ll need to fertilize them, because the soil has been depleted of nutrients by the previous vegetables you’re just now harvesting. Side-dress them with a balanced fertilizer after they’re established. Kelp meal works fine, even on young plants, because it won’t burn them. It’s a good idea to rotate leafy and root crops; in other words, plant a root vegetable after a leafy one, and the other way around. This foils bugs and diseases, evidently, and each type of veggie gets nutrients the other kind didn’t need.

It’s depressing, but try not to forget that winter will come someday. When it does, especially in those places where it comes hard, you want your late- summer and fall crops to be the hardiest, sturdiest, fastest maturing cultivars you can find. And make it a point to find out which hardiness zone you grow in, because the climate of North America has been getting warmer or colder, depending on who you talk to. At one time, Florida was all zone 9, but someone noticed the hard freezes smacking the citrus orchards down there, and last I heard, the northern part is now zone 8, same as the Willamette Valley of Oregon. And temperatures can vary within a zone; mountains and south-facing valleys may be in the same growing area, but they don’t have the same growing conditions at all. So get a hardiness-zone map and see how your garden fits in. It’s one thing to be conservative or daring when you plant, but another to be misinformed. When in doubt, use a soil thermometer.

This year, I’m trying an experiment with my most favored vegetable. I cut some tomato shoots in late July, placed them in a bucket of warm water all day, and transplanted them; not as many as I wanted, because Joy saw me. But for you tomato addicts whose tomatoes all ripen at once, it might be something to try. I’ll report the results later. (“Never mind the tomatoes,” Joy advises.)

While researching gardening topics and working in our own garden as a novice, I have noticed one gardening fact that stands out above all the rest: Mulch is Good. Lots of mulch, generally, is better than a little, and miles above bare soil. Mulch protects the shallow roots of blueberries, improves the structure of the soil, keeps squash, melons, and pumpkins from contact with dirt, prevents wind and rain erosion in dry country, keeps the garden paths from becoming mud bogs in wet climates, controls soil temperature all year long, makes tomatoes bigger and insulates late plantings from freezing. Overall, natural mulch (such as rotted straw) is preferable to plastic (which is good, however, for some things, such as heating the soil in spring). The new porous textile fabrics are permeable to moisture and air, and easier on the back to apply. Some people, I’m told, even use old carpet. I would imagine that it must be frequently shampooed.

If you have a big, big garden, you can plant green manure crops like wooly pod vetch, alfalfa, fava beans, and a number of others, in fallow beds. These plants add organic matter, spread nitrogen, pull up nutrients from the subsoil, and, in some cases, suck up excess water (fava beans) and choke out weeds (vetch). Leguminous cover crops are particularly good at fixing nitrogen, Joy says. I didn’t even know it was broken.

How To Grow Garlic

Break a head of garlic into several cloves. Plant them 4″ apart, 1 inch deep, in rows 18″ apart; point up, root down. A pound of garlic cloves should yield ten pounds of garlic bulbs, if everything goes perfectly. Garlic is shallow rooted, so weed and cultivate with care. You can interplant with cabbages and lettuce, but not legumes, according to the garlic experts; it won’t hurt the garlic, but legumes won’t thrive, even in soil where garlic was grown. Garlic repels insect pests, lovers, and vampires, but not the onion maggot (gray fly larva); burn all infested plants.

Does Anyone Like Beets?

Like beets. “You forgot beets,” Joy reminds me. Consider the beet edible and it is a good substitute for meat protein; not that it has any, but when you stab it, it bleeds. In other words, it can be raised, but can you keep it down? You can sow it on July 1, because beets like warm soil and moderate temperatures. Or you can start an early crop ; space narrow rows a foot apart, a month before the last spring frost. Here’s something from a book of mine: “Beets are a real treat when pickled.” So’s my Uncle Mort. This author implies that kids will drop their chocolate when they hear you’ve got pickled beets for them. This is a lie. Tell your kids this is what happens to turnips that play too much Mortal Kombat on their Nintendos. (Nintendoes? Potatoes? Ask Dan Quayle.)

Photo by Adobestock/leopictures

Chinese Cabbage

“Ignore the tomatoes,” Joy recommends, “and put down some useful information about the Chinese cabbage. All right, the pe-tsai (“white veggie,” in Chinese) grows rapidly in the cool autumn air, in many kinds of soil. Naturally, it prefers well-tilled rich foam, but it will take sand and like it, provided you amend it with humus and well rotted manure. (Well, rotted manure: a handy curse phrase, fresh from the garden.) Keep the soil moist and plant your seeds in the first week of August or so. At 5 inches, thin to a foot apart. It’s frost-hardy, and even after it freezes, you can pick and eat it. It’s tasty, unlike a few root vegetables I could name.

We need to be growing and using thousands of crop species, not a few dozen. —Dr. Carol Deppe, Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties, Little, Brown, 1993 

Twelve months of fresh vegetable harvest is possible most years in most maritime locations—if you know how. —U.S. Grant, Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades, Sasquatch Books, 1989.