Fall Planting Guide for the Garden

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fall onions
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Plant a fall garden for delicious late-season harvests.
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Fall tubers: the Jerusalem artichoke.

Unless you’re a demon composter, the fall chores of raking leaves, grubbing out garden trash, gleaning mummies from the fruit trees, and dragging tomato stakes, cucumber trellis, and all to the barn can be downright depressing. It’s a requiem for the joyous season of life and growth, and a harbinger of the winter to come with leaden overcast, chill rain, sleet — and in the north country where I come from — snow. Lots of snow. Month after month of snow. I like to brighten the fall clean-up blues with a good dose of spring-of-the-year cheer by planting and seeding now for next year’s garden bounty and lawn and flower beauty. My fall planting guide describes a set of methods that make it all possible.

The Fall Garden 

First — beginning as soon as the last crops are harvested — comes the vegetable garden. I want to avoid disease buildup by not planting the same vegetables to a plot for two years running, or more often than every third year. For example, never following cabbage with broccoli or any other brassica, which would encourage a buildup of the club-root plant pathogen in the soil. Before I begin raking, composting, and tilling, I sketch a plan from memory (still fresh but likely to fade by next spring) of what varieties went where during the year’s largely unplanned succession planting. During the year, we follow one crop with another to enjoy up to three harvests from each part of the garden—say, early radishes followed by bush beans followed by late chard or early lettuce. I hold the tomatoes up off the soil on stakes so that I can plant late (winter-keeping) beets or carrots under them.

With the memory of last year’s crops refreshed, and keeping in mind that I’ll soon be planting for next year, I can almost work up a little enthusiasm for cleaning up the garden trash, pulling the stakes still supporting dry bean and tomato vines (then burning them to kill off wilt spores and mosaic viruses—adding the ash to the compost), tilling in wilted plant residue, shredding and composting the old corn stalks and any picked-clean Brussels sprouts stems.

Once cleared, the garden gets a rough, once-through rototilling. Then I let it rest a while. Birds attracted to the fresh-turned soil will scratch around after exposed insects and weed seeds that had planned to over-winter in the soil. If we have rain followed by a few warm days, some weeds will germinate as well — but will be eliminated when I fine-till the surface again in a week. I continue with a fast, shallow tilling every week or two — each gleaned by birds — until the cold is settled in firmly enough that the animal’s water bowls are rimmed with ice most mornings. I don’t want my fall-planted seeds to think that spring has arrived, so they’ll germinate — only to be killed with the onset of deep winter.

Indications will be different where you live, but it’s time to do the fall planting on my place when a thin crystalline rind forms on the garden loam in the morning that makes a crunching sound as I walk over it. I prefer to do my fall planting early in the day while the garden surface is still crunchy, as the soil turns to slippery mud when it thaws.

Varieties for Fall Planting

First I round up half-used seed packets where I’ve absentmindedly left them on window sills in the barn, under the bench in the tool shed, and in odd jars and boxes in the pantry. I winnow out seeds of the subtropical nightshades: tomato and eggplant; the cucurbits including squash, melons and cucumbers; plus corn, beans, and other warmth-loving plants. Planted into winter-dry soil, such seeds might winter over all right (otherwise, how would we get one or two “volunteer” tomato or squash plants in the compost every year?). However, all but a very few lucky or super-hardy seeds would rot, fail to germinate, or die from damping-off fungus

The only varieties that I find to be consistently reliable are those that do best during the cool of spring and fall, including fast-growing species whose leaves (lettuces and spinach, for example) or stems (kohlrabi, chard) are eaten in the early vegetative phase of growth, or biennials (carrots, beets) that produce roots that over-winter and go to seed their second season. Most plants grown to maturity for their fruits (tomatoes, cukes) or seeds (beans, corn) aren’t suitable.

And I will admit that-in fall planting, as in all else-some years are better than others. By and large, the longer we stay in the deep freeze in winter and the rainier the spring, the lower the success rate. But, if a fall-planted row fails, I just hoe it in and replant in spring.

For the most part, I find that old-fashioned rank-growing, non-hybrid “heirloom” varieties do best under hard conditions of all kinds-fall planting included. Production may not be as great or quality as refined as the fancy inbreds, but open-pollinated varieties are closer to their wild forbears, thus hardier and better adapted to weather extremes.

Lettuce. For a lot of years now, the star of my off-season plantings has been Oak Leaf lettuce. You never see the big-lobed leaves of this loose-leaf variety in stores, as it isn’t particularly attractive (looks like pin oak), gets tough and leathery in warm weather, and is quick to bolt to seed. But in my garden, the seed will withstand the worst winters, and the succulent young leaves are tolerant of spring frost. The plantings can be spared spring frostbite if-once they are up and growing-they are covered during a severe spring cold snap or late snow with a sheeting that can be held up off the leaves. Best are floating cloches: half-tubes of clear plastic sheeting on wire hoops (I use a length of clear plastic held up on coat hangers with the hanger straightened and stuck in the soil. With luck, I can be picking a few leaves from the fall-seeded Oak Leaf lettuce plants before the neighbors have even bought seed of their fancy Butter-Bibb types. Old-fashioned Black-Seeded Simpson is another loose-leaf lettuce that usually does well.

Peas. Traditionally, the most rot-resistant seed peas are the small, smooth-seeded kinds-as opposed to large, wrinkle-seeded. However, wrinkle-seeded Little Marvel is reliable in my garden. A happy surprise has been Oregon Sugar pea, the original eat-it-pod-and-all variety. Seed is small and smooth and the vines grow more vigorously than the new improved edible-pod peas, so I plant them in a long row at the back of the garden, and supply them with an eight-foot-high chicken wire fence to grow on once the vines are a few inches above ground and beginning to put out their curly lit¬tle climbing tendrils. If you don’t give the aggressively growing vines something to climb on so they can reach sun, they’ll try to climb up one another and will form an impenetrable ground-mat.

Carrots. Old-fashioned short, thick-shouldered New England-bred Danvers varieties do better in my fall-planted garden than French-originated varieties-either blunt-ended Nantes or long, slim Chantenay types. I avoid hybrids and fragile super-sweets. Getting to the often muddy super-early spring garden to thin too-close-planted carrots can be difficult. So, I mix one part of the tiny seed to ten parts fine sand and shake it like table salt into the soil. The sand can only improve drainage in the row.

Beets. I plant the big, rough seeds of Detroit about an inch apart in the row and plan to pull every other one to cook as greens as soon as leaves fill in the row. Since every beet seed will produce several seedlings, a second and often a third meal of greens comes off the rows before the most vigorous plants are left to grow bulbs.

Onions. I’ve had no luck with sets. Most rot, and if they do survive the winter, the flavor is savagely strong; I suspect that they want to go to seed. I do well with seed of bunching onions-the kind you pull green and use as scallions. The round, black seed is large enough that you can distribute it easily by rolling between your thumb and forefinger. Plant seeds about a quarter inch apart so the little onions won’t be too crowded. The Welsh Onion in particular has a reputation for holding up well under fall planting conditions.

Spinach. The big seeds are best distributed an inch apart in the row and thinned as soon as the soil is dry enough to walk on. The old favorite Longstanding Bloomsdale does best for me.

Kale. Winterbor is a new, super-frost-hard variety that I plan to try in place of traditional Blue Scots types. Kale is slow to grow, but can be harvested for months if you continually pick outer leaves before they get too high (up to 3 feet), and let the inner leaves grow. I have heard that gardeners in less chilly regions treat this variety as a perennial, protecting it against severe chill by packing it in straw under a bushel basket. I will try that.

Radish. Any red radish will succeed if we have a quick, relatively dry warm-up in the spring. But, plant very thinly as they need a good inch in the row to produce bulbs and are up and growing first of any fall-planted seed.

Assorted Greens. The seed catalogs are full of exotic greens these days and I try one or two each year in fall plantings, with varying success. Raab and most other fast-growing leafy-type broccolis are worth a test. Some of the 45-day peppery mustards such as Rocket Salad or Regula do well. I’ve never had much success with chards, even though they hold up well to fall cold at the end of the growing season. New Zealand spinach is no good at all.

A side note: If you garden in a less severe climate than we do, I suggest that you look through the specialty seed catalogs for over-wintering seed varieties. In the relatively balmy winters of England and continental Europe, they have been over-wintering brassicas and other hardy varieties for years. Though most of their offerings are best suited to Northern California and the balmy Pacific Northwest, Territorial Seed Company lists several overwintering varieties worth a trial anywhere-including Merida, a Dutch carrot that I will try out this year for the first time.

Varieties for Transplant

Jerusalem Artichoke. Fall is the best time to transplant most hardy perennial bulbs and tubers — including the Jerusalem  artichoke or Helicanthus tuberosus, a native N. American sunflower-long cultivated by Eastern and upper Midwestern Indians — that develops edible tubers along the roots. They are crisp and celery heart-like when eaten raw and a cross between kohlrabi and watery boiled potatoes when cooked. But they lack starch so are a traditional potato substitute for diabetics (they store carbohydrate in the form of inulin, which converts to fructose sugar rather than glucose). You can buy tubers from seed houses, or in a few specialty vegetable markets, or get them from gardening neighbors (the beds are prolific, spreading and hard to eliminate once established).

It is easy to find gone-wild stands — characterized by six to nine-foot high stalks topped by sprays of two to ten 4-inch-wide sunflowers — in fields and around old farms and homesteads. In late fall, the yellow petals will be gone and the sunflower seeds long eaten by birds, but stalks  will remain standing, topped by dried-out miniature versions of the pitted sunflower hearts you see atop garden sunflowers left for the blue jays at summer’s end.

With a garden fork, dig deep to loosen the soil around each stalk and you’ll pull up a cluster of delectable tubers. Plant them six inches deep and six inches apart both ways along the back of your garden. The sunflowers will grow and spread and become a nuisance unless you grub the tubers out each fall. Harvest as many edible-sized tubers as you can find. Enough will remain to renew the stand no matter how thoroughly you glean.

The tubers should be scrubbed well but needn’t be peeled. You can slice and eat them out of hand, or in salads or a lemon marinade, or cook them as you would carrots or potatoes. One warning: They do give some people gas. If you have any food sensitivities (especially if cukes or cabbage gas you up good), try small amounts at first and chew well to get that inulin well on the way in its conversion to sugar.               

Bulbs. To me, the purest delight in fall planting is setting bulbs. Every year I overdo it and order more than I can afford. Not tulips; they can be glorious in large plantings, but are too formal for my woodsman’s taste. I prefer to “naturalize” bulbs-plugging them into the woods all around the house, in the meadow that borders the driveway, and here and there on the brushy hill that rises behind the garden. I plant clumps of crocus around the base of lawn trees, too. They bloom in plenty of time to rejuvenate themselves for next year before the first lawn mowing that might snip off their spiky leaves.

Snowdrops and Siberian squill often poke up their white and blue blossoms through the rotting snow. Jonquils, daffodils, and narcissus add bright yellows, whites, and oranges to the woods weeks before the trees leaf out. A generation ago when I still worked in town, I’d pick bouquets on beautiful spring mornings and take a little reminder of the country in with me. Most were distributed around the office. But if spring had my own sap rising, I’d hand out a few choice blooms on the street while walking from the parking garage. The looks of hostility, then raised-eyebrowed surprise, then truly delighted smiles and the “Why…why, thank you” I’d get in return from the jaded city folks are with me still.

Planting bulbs is a snap. The Dutch growers do all the work for you and each bulb contains everything the plant needs to flower beautifully but good-draining soil and a place in the sun.

I use a long-handled foot-powered bulb-hole digger. It has a shovel handle on one end and a hole-cutting tube with foot pegs on the other. Down on the soil goes the tube; I stomp good on a foot peg, twist and remove the tool along with a cylinder of soil. A bulb is dropped-pointy end up-into the hole. The soil is poked out of the digger with the handle of a trowel, inserted back in the ground, and stomped in. I can plant 200 bulbs in an hour of easy exercise and twice that if I make work of it.

In early summer, you can go around and dig up the bulbs-their positions betrayed by witting leaves and the remains of any flowers you’ve left unpicked. You’ll find one or two large bulbs that will bloom next year and several bulblets that can be planted in nursery rows to grow to flowering size. Frankly, I don’t bother. It’s too much fun leafing through the bulb catalogs each summer and sending off for all new bulb collections. The new bulbs slowly lose vitality too. . .but are always being replaced, so they aren’t missed.

Oh yes, I always order several clumps of paper narcissus or “paperwhites” and one or two hyacinths in the new colors of violet, light yellow, and salmon in addition to traditional shocking pink, white, and Delft blue. Rather than planting them outdoors in the fall, I put the bulbs in sawdust and store them in a mouse-proof tin box under the bulkhead door leading from yard to cellar so they’ll get the cold needed to maintain dormancy.

When winter begins to get depressing after the holidays, I pull them out in succession and “force” them into bloom by bringing them up and setting them in dishes of pebbles kept just filled with water. They put down roots and bloom gloriously-the hyacinths in particular filling the snow-bound house with the heady perfume of a spring that is still months away. When their blooming period is past and foliage begins to die back, I pack them in moist sawdust, keep them cold, and when the weather warms, set them out in the woods where they take a season off, then join the flowering cycle of the other naturalized plantings.

Freeze Testing

To be on the safe side, I deep-freeze-test seed that I’m not sure of. I fill small multi-compartmented planters with starting medium and-recording which varieties go in which mini-pot-plant seed at the same depth it would go in the garden (three times the seed’s diameter as a rule). I soak the medium good, let it drain till dripping stops, and then each tray goes in a plastic bag and into the freezer. I let them stay at least a week, so the contents freeze solid. It makes

Only seed that germinates well-a high proportion popping to vigorous life-goes into the garden. Note that I do not let the seed soak long enough to begin germination before freezing, as this can be sure death and does not replicate the experience they will have in the garden.

Planting Out

The greatest danger to winter-sown seed (worse than frostbite) is becoming waterlogged and succumbing to rots and molds in the wet of early spring. To avoid this, I try to provide the best soil drainage possible-and I take a hint from nature.

In the wild, most seed isn’t properly “planted” under the soil surface unless It is fortunate enough to be hidden at the appropriate depth-and forgotten-by a squirrel, mouse, harvester ants, or a pack rat.

Take as an example Queen Anne’s lace (wild carrot) that graces summer meadows everywhere with its three- to four-inch-round lacy, umbrella-shaped white flowers. When the flower head dries out, its seeds aren’t planted three times their minuscule width deep in finely tilled loam, but are shaken free and blown away by the fall winds. They settle to the meadow floor and, with luck, by spring have been driven by rain, snow melt, and passing critters into the mat of dead plant fiber that covers the soil. This natural mulch is partly decayed and on its way to moldering into loam, but is not yet compressed enough to compost thoroughly. It is still a loose, fibrous mat that permits easy gas exchange with the atmosphere, contains a small supply of available nutrients, and absorbs water quickly but also drains well. In short, the seeds are self-planted in a near-perfect starting medium.

So, I plant my freeze-tested seeds in a trench of man-made meadow litter: the same peat-moss/vermiculite/compost mix that I use to start seeds indoors in the spring.

To encourage drainage further and improve spring warm-up, I make mini-raised beds by hoeing soil into approximately eight-inch-high/six-inch-wide ridges, plowing a furrow down the center of each with the edge of the hoe blade, and filling the furrow with planting mix. Into it go the seeds. I cover the mix with soil and tamp with the flat of the hoe so as to retain moisture and to firm the seeds in place-but not so hard that the mix is compressed or the ridges flattened.

The seed, then, is contained in a core of good-draining starting mix that is elevated slightly above ground level in a ridge of soil to guarantee good drainage and freedom from standing water in even the wettest spring weather. Rows are arranged east-to-west in the garden so they will get the most hours of full sun.

I’ve tried any number of tricks to get fall-planted seeds warmed up as early as possible in the spring. The best idea to date is to wait till the first good snow after hard freeze in the fall. I go out and sweep snow off the mounds and cover the sun side of each with a foot-wide strip cut from a roll of infrared (IR)-permeable black plastic mulch.

Available from nursery supply houses, if not available at the local garden supply outlet, this new development is an improvement on conventional black plastic sheeting, which blocks all sun energy, so keeps weeds from growing, but also blocks heat-the IR radiation at the bottom of the light spectrum. The new sheeting keeps out visible light, so it keeps weeds from growing but admits the IR heat rays to warm the soil.

If strips are laid out on the south side of the planting mounds (not covering the tops and the seeds), they will heat up and begin to thaw the ground even under the snow when sun starts getting strong in early spring, and can give your early crops an added week or more head start. This can keep me gardening into January. And since celery is started indoors in February, it often keeps me gardening all 12 months of the year.

Since the plastic won’t be left on long enough past snow melt to be exposed to wind, I don’t need to dig edges into the soil or weight it with rocks or anything but snow, so it peels right off the ground in the spring — to be turned and sun-dried, shaken free of adhering soil, rolled up, and used again. Hint: Leave the plastic on till opening day of the spring fishing season. Worms delight in surfacing under its protection to make castings and warm up. Invite them to go along on the fishing trip.

For more about fall planting see the following:

Planting an Orchard in Fall
Planting a Lawn in Fall