Planting a Fall Vegetable Garden

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PHOTO: FOTOLIA/ALEXANDER RATHS
Just because fall is coming doesn't mean it's time to put away your gardening gloves.

As the seasons change, so do the requirements for keeping
the home garden growing properly. Here in Middle America,
fall is a season to be revered. There is so much to do and
so much can be accomplished that there is no need to
consider this season of spectacular color as merely a short
interim before winter. I can assure you that gardening in
the fall can be just as productive as gardening in spring
and summer. . .and with substantially reduced mosquito
problems!

I consider myself a lucky individual to have been properly
trained by my father and uncle in how to garden:, and
harvest in the fall. All of us do our planting and
harvesting near the banks of the Big Sandy River here in
the mountains of eastern Kentucky, and that terrain poses
special challenges. I do realize that most folks will be
gardening in areas that are not as sheltered and likely’
riot as sloping, but fall gardening is easily adaptable to
nearly all situations. Though Dad has been gone for 16
years now, I can still see him walking over the riverbank
with his trusty hoe over his shoulder, ready to do battle
with the various assortment of weeds that persistently made
a nuisance of themselves. I can honestly say Dad never
tired of the constant war he engaged in. He believed
fervently in a “clean” garden-using whatever method it
took. Though hoeing is perhaps not the easiest way to keep
weeds at bay, it is one of the best and most commonly
employed. If you have the resources available to mulch
enough to control weeds, by all means, do it! If not, be
sure to keep a sharp hoe at hand.

My Uncle Red is a master gardener and has his garden near
mine over the bank. Though in his mid-80s, Uncle Red’s
passion for gardening has never waned with the years. I
wish all my readers could visit his garden and this amazing
man with his trusty shovel at hand. Yes, I did say
shovel! Though he does use a hoe, it is absolutely
amazing how adeptly he cleans his garden with his shovel.
It’s not your ordinary model either. It has a serrated
edge. You heard me right-serrated, and he put that edge
there himself, hand-filing every small notch until it was a
formidable weapon. Weeds and soil are no match for this
unique tool.

Plan Your Cool-Weather Vegetable Garden in the Summer

Where do you start? Good question. You start in the summer,
making your plans. Gardening without a master plan is an
invitation to disaster, so we’ll begin in August. If you
plan on growing cole crops such as cabbage, broccoli, or
cauliflower, and I suggest you do, those plants need to be
started by mid-to-late summer at the latest. It’s likely
you’ll have to start your own, because few garden centers
offer plants of those items other than in the spring; the
only exception being the South. You can start your seeds in
flats if you like, but I usually start them right in the
ground, keeping them moist before, during, and after they
sprout.

I also like to try a few late tomatoes in the same manner.
It might be a good idea to start the tomato seeds a week or
so before the vegetables mentioned above. Though most will
mature about the same time as the majority of cole crops,
tomatoes do not tolerate frost well and flat out cannot
handle a freeze. On the other hand, most cole crops
actually thrive under cool weather conditions.

Such seed beds should be prepared by adding copious amounts
of soil builders such as compost, manure, and even peat
moss, which help the soil to retain moisture, even during
the August heat. After the plants are large enough to
transplant to their permanent locations, I like to choose
sites that will receive good drainage and receive proper
sunlight. While cole crops can handle some shade, tomatoes
do better in full sunlight. I know some folks have no
choice and have to make do with a shady area, and that’s
okay if that’s all you have. Tomatoes will produce in the
shade but not as abundantly.

All vegetables respond to rich nutrients and ample
moisture, so fall planted cole crops and tomatoes are no
exception. In addition, care should be taken to select
varieties that are resistant to diseases prevalent in your
area. In my area, it’s best to go with yellow resistant
cabbage varieties and VFN resistant tomatoes. That’s not to
say non-resistant stand-ups such as Early Jersey Wakefield
cabbage and Marglobe tomato won’t give you a crop. They
might, but why settle for “might.”

What Should you Plant in a Fall Vegetable Garden?

What should you choose? I thought you would never ask.
Hands down, the best-tasting cabbage is the aforementioned
Early Jersey Wakefield. If yellows are not a problem, by
all means, grow it-early or late. If yellows decimate your
cabbage patch, you might want to turn to Stonehead. Readily
available, Stonehead offers a solid head that keeps well
and has fine quality. Its name does not do it justice. It’s
tender and quite delicious when steamed or sauteed. There
is also a yellow resistant Wakefield type available called
Charleston Wakefield, but it’s not often available and its
quality is a shade below Early Jersey. The heads are
pointed like Jersey and larger, and quality is better than
most. Any of the three would be terrific choices. Looking
at tomatoes, I do not know that I could think of a better
choice than the venerable Better Bay or Uncle Red and Uncle
Luke’s personal favorite, Super Fantastic VFN. These VFN
resistors do mature a little late, so care must be taken in
variety selection if you live in the far North. You might
then want to turn to something that matures a week or so
earlier, such as Stokes Seeds’s Ultra Sweet. It’s very
disease resistant and has the incredible “Taste Bud” gene
bred into it. Maturing in just 62 days, it’s a terrific
choice.

To insure steady growth with fall cabbage and tomatoes, be
sure to keep them well-watered and well-fed. With cabbage,
well-fed means adding lots and lots of manure. If you want
sweet, tender cabbage, just keep the manure coming and
you’ll be amazed. Now the tomato is a horse of a different
color. You don’t want heavy manure here. It’s loaded with
nitrogen, which tends to force tomatoes to leaf production,
rather than fruit production-a definite “no-no”with love
apples.

One of my secrets might surprise you. I get my absolutely
best tomatoes when I use Epsom salts. Don’t laugh! It
works. Added to the hole at the time the plants are set out
and sprayed on as the season goes on, the salts seem to
give the tomatoes a real boost. Half a cup at planting
time, and that much added to a three gallon sprayer, will
be sufficient, though using more or less can give similar
results.

You have to experiment and find out for yourself what works
for you. While adding the salts to your spray, be sure to
include fish emulsion. Together they are a wonderful tonic
for tomatoes, as well as many other veggies.

I should add here that it is also a good idea to use the
same techniques for growing fall crops of other coles, as
well as peppers. I will take just a moment or so to
recommend a few varieties for autumn cropping.

Johnny’s Selected Seeds has a fine line of cole selections.
Their Arcadia is great for fall production. Bred to
tolerate stress of all sorts, Arcadia resists both heat and
cold, making it ideal for fall crops.

Though not as heat or cold tolerant as broccoli,
cauliflower can be grown in the fall. There are varieties
more suited for such conditions. One is Johnny’s Amazing.
Only available since 1994, Amazing is just that. Plan it
just right, and you can harvest the tender white heads just
ahead of freezing weather.

Brussels sprouts have long been a cold weather favorite and
Johnny has a new one that outdoes all the others. Their
Igor is likely the best cold-tolerant high-quality sprout
you’ll ever try. Don’t even worry about getting a harvest
before cold weather. These tasty little tidbits stay right
on the stalk well into winter before quality is lost.

How do you store your bounty? Most cabbage will take frosts
and some light freezes and retain their quality. If
extremely cold weather sets in before your crop is used up,
just select a site easy to get to in winter, pull your
cabbage (roots and all), turn them upside down, and cover
very well with a thick mulch of straw. Just dig down into
the straw after cold weather sets in and you’ll have
perfect cabbage for winter use.

I wish it were that easy with tomatoes. Not so. It does
take some planning. Of course, you can pick all you want
and bring in before freezing to ripen inside. That can
include nearly all the unripened fruits. Always make sure
there are no blemishes, whether they be bruises or disease.
Either will cause the fruits to rot. I like to lay the
tomatoes in boxes, between layers of newspapers, and place
in a warm room. They will ripen and the boxes have to be
checked from time to time for those getting ripe and for
those showing decay.

Planting Leeks

Coles and tomatoes are only a couple of veggies I like to
concentrate on in the fall. One of my fall favorites is the
leek. Mostly ignored now, the leek was one of the first
cultivated veggies, and for centuries in Europe, highly
prized. I like them because they are nearly care-free.
Anyone who likes onions should give the leek a go.

I like to plant in mid- and late summer, keeping the seed
moist until it sprouts. They are best planted half-inch
deep and thinned as they grow, to about six inches apart.
The thinnings can be used as green onions and are quite
tasty. Some like to plant in trenches but not 1.1 just use
a shovel or hoe to hill dirt around as they grow. This
blanches the large edible stems, and in my experience
results in substantially better plants. Be sure to keep
well-watered and use lots of manure or compost. They winter
over quite well here, but a heavy blanket of straw mulch
will insure leeks right into spring in even colder
climates.

In the emerald valleys of Pike County, Kentucky, no home
gardener would even consider a fall garden without greens.
It just so happens that the green of choice in this area is
the mustard green. Believe me, a late fall patch of
Southern Giant Curled is a prerequisite, an absolute
essential. Here it is almost heretical to plant any other
variety. Since I like to experiment, I’ve tried just about
all of them. Admittedly, I like Southern Giant Curled the
best, but I’ve learned to enjoy others as well, Florida
Broadleaf and Tender green in particular. Florida Broadleaf
is good for warm areas as it does resist bolting, and
Tendergreen is favored by those who like spinach, as the
flavor is similar.

For our purpose, however, let’s just concentrate on
Southern Giant Curled. Uncle Red grows about the best
greens I’ve ever seen. They are huge and bursting with that
good old-time mustardy tang. He likes to use his trusty
shovel to turn the soil and flatten it until level. He
works in patches or rows that vary. They are usually about
20 feet long and two or three feet wide. He pours on the
organic matter-whatever at hand-sows thickly, and sets back
and waits for the good eatin’ to come. And it does.

Last year he also planted a row of Purple Top White Globe
turnips in the same manner. He’s not much for turnips but I
am, and I dipped liberally into his patch. You should have
seen the turnips that came on later. Some were larger that
softballs. They were sweet and tender and bursting with
flavor. Sliced thinly, and cooked in a pot with sugar and
butter added, you’ve got yourself a tongue pleaser for
sure.

Of course, other greens do just as well. Some are even more
cold tolerant, and so, better for fall cropping, such as
kale. In our area, greens are generally planted around
August 15th, and it’s not unusual to pick greens here until
Thanksgiving. Kale can be picked even longer, even when
snow is on the ground. Cultural requirements are pretty
much the same as for any of the coles or mustards.

Not to take anything away from the standard varieties
usually grown, such as Dwarf Blue Curled and Siberian
Improved, the Winterbor is probably the sweetest kale I’ve
tried. To that, add the fact it is among the cold-hardiest
of all greens and you’ve got a perfect green for fall
crops.

Planting Beets and Carrots

No fall garden would be complete without beets and carrots,
in my opinion. Both are quite versatile and can be sown at
intervals from spring to late summer. Soil requirements are
similar. Both do well in my sandy loam, but can be grown in
most soil types. Beets do well with an addition of lime
when planting, and carrots need a soil nearly free of
stones and rocks. Those can cause poorly shaped roots.

There are approximately one zillion varieties of carrots
available now, and a nearly equivalent number of beet
selections to choose from. There are carrots for fresh use
and carrots for canning. There are beets suited for
pickling and beets suited for fresh use, so it’s a matter
of choice. As for storing, both are somewhat cold tolerant
(carrots more so) and seem to improve with some fall
frosts. Beets do better stored in damp sand in a cool
basement but carrots will do fine in the garden if heavily
mulched. In some cases, all that is required is a little
soil heaped on top just before hard freeze settles in. Of
course, they are easier to harvest if a nice layer of straw
is added to the top. You’ll be amazed at how sweet a carrot
can be when unearthed in December. Storage seems to
increase sweeteners, rather than take it away.

I do have a few personal favorites I’d like to mention. As
for carrots, I don’t believe you can beat Ed Hume’s Ingot.
Nantes types have long been esteemed for their quality and
this is one of the best. This long nantes type has actually
been declared a winner in national taste tests, and should
be tried by folks looking for a good carrot for fall. The
other carrot I favor is offered by D.V. Burrell. Their
Chantenay Royal is a winner. The huge, fat roots are
bursting with flavor and seem to resist cold weather
deterioration far better than most.

Beets have long been an English favorite, and Thompson and
Morgan Seeds, the esteemed English firm with a branch in
New Jersey now, has some of the finest varieties available.
Their Rubidus (a Detroit type) all but eliminated bolting
in beets. I also like the fact they can get as big as a
softball and still not get woody. Generally, if a beet
grows larger than a baseball, it’s likely to get woody and
fibrous. Not here.

Another dandy they offer is Cylinder. My wife loves this
variety because it is long, much like a carrot. This makes
it terrific for slicing. Since almost all of our beets are
used for pickling, ease of slicing is very important.
That’s why I very rarely ever have to worry about storing
beets. Nearly all are used for pickled beets, an old
Elswick family favorite. I like to grow both in hilled-up
rows about a foot high. Beets rows are well lined and both
get lots of compost and manure, and they seem to thrive
under such conditions. Watering is important, since rain is
usually scarce at this time of the year. I like to make my
last plantings about the same time as greens are planted,
around August 15 in my area.

It is unfortunate that so few folks make a point to plant
vine crops in the fall. It is entirely feasible, especially
now that there are so many really good early maturing
varieties available. That’s especially important with
melons, both cantaloupe and watermelon. The vine crop I
most often grow in the fall is the cucumber, which seems to
really thrive in the cooler nights of late summer and early
fall. Remember Uncle Red? Cukes are one of his specialties.
He will not grow a cuke on the ground. He trains them up a
fence where they crop tremendously. While just about any
cuke will climb, his favorite is Burpee’s Green Knight.
It’s a long burpless type that is especially esteemed for
sweet, tender cukes. Uncle Luke loves to pile aged manure
and compost generously around the plants. You should see
them grow. The same goes for late melons.

Late-Season Melons

Until recently, one had to plant honeydews as early as
possible since maturity was so late. Now Pinetree Seeds
offers Early Dew, a super new early-maturing honeydew.
Quality is superb and unlike most honeydews, the fruits
slip from the vine when ripe. Another dandy early
cantaloupe from Pinetree is Fastbreak. Maturing in little
more than two months, it is entirely possible to get a crop
if planted by early August. Same goes for Sugar Baby, a
super early watermelon from Pinetree. Why not give melons a
shot as a fall crop?

There are some veggies that do require a long season to
mature, so fall planting isn’t feasible. However, some of
those mature so late, storage is necessary in the fall. One
in particular is the sweet potato. While not grown in
nearly as many gardens as other veggies like tomatoes or
sweet corn, sweet potatoes are very popular in my part of
the country. Well-suited to our climate, they produce in
abundance here. Too often, though, finding a place to store
them is a real problem. If you have any space under your
porch or house, you could have the perfect place right
under your nose. Sweet potatoes do fine in a cool, dark
place that doesn’t freeze. Most likely the heat from your
house will be all that’s needed. Of course, a good
old-fashioned smokehouse would work fine, too.

Another late-blooming green that matures late and requires
a suitable storage space is the cushaw. A nook under your
house would be perfect. Hulls on cushaws are so thick, not
much protection from cold is needed. Uncle Red says he’ll
often throw a blanket over his cushaws and his squash. If
covered, the cushaw can be stored in a tool house or any
sort of enclosed shed. The same goes for all sorts of
winter squash such as hubbards and butternuts. Fall is a
grand time. Make it a great season in the home garden as
well.

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