The Fall Garden

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Illustration courtesy Joanna Roy
Planting in the fall with the right crops can yield a more plentiful spring harvest.

Seasons of Earth and Sky

The growing season is at an end for the year, for The
decade of the 1990’s and for the century, if you can believe
it. But a late-fall walking tour of the snoozing garden is
in order to prepare for the first harvest of the new
millennium .

Before a final tilling it’s good to go over the land
carrying a stout shovel. A nursery spade with a narrow,
foot-long transplanting blade is best if you have one. If
you’ve let much of the soil grow up in weeds (and don’t we
all once the growing season becomes too short to mature
even a fall crop of leaf lettuce?), you may have admitted
burdock (the source of those infernal prickleburrs that
dogs like to “harvest” with their coats) or other
tap-rooted biennials or perennials that will outgrow any
new-seeded crop next year. Look for circular (basal)
rosettes of leaves lying flat to the ground. They are one
to six or eight inches across and are different shades of
dusty gray-green in color. They are alive, if dormant, and
sleepy looking, even by plant standards.

Sink your spade straight down, deep and close beside each
rosette and dig it out with as much root as you can get.
Rototill the crowns under; they won’t sprout from chopped
stem and rosette, and the remaining deep root will rot away
to nourish your future crops. If you can identify the plant
absolutely as burdock from its rhubarb-like leaves, try
cooking the peeled root for 30 minutes or so. It eats like
parsnip.

This is also the best time to kill the season’s worth of
weed seed the wind has blown into your garden soil. A fall
tilling will bury many but not all, and buried weed seed
can be disinterred with spring cultivation. Before bringing
out the rototiller for the last time, go over bare ground
and weed trash with a propane flame-weeding torch if you
have one. if you don’t, they go for $20 and up in the
Harbor Freight and other discount tool merchants’ catalogs.

Burning old plant growth will reduce it to ash, which will
help sweeten the soil for next season. But before you light
up, be sure the surrounding vegetation is wet from a fall
rain or early snow so that you don’t cause a wildfire.

To protect any carrots or spinach you are over wintering in
the sod from the desiccating winds the coming months are
sure to bring, put on a weed-seed-free winter mulch of salt
hay, wood chips, pine needles or long lasting oak leaves.
To keep leaves or other loose mulch from blowing away,
cover the pile with green brush cut from the edges of a
nearby wood. Choose leggy branches and next April you can
‘plant” them beside your earliest green peas to support the
vines. To give over wintering crops a gentle warming boost
in spring, you can interlayer between the natural mulch and
the green brush cover with sheets of black plastic mulch,
which you’ll have to retrieve in spring, or else with
landscape paper, which can later be torn (to let plants
emerge), composted, burned or tilled under. Lacking brush,
the sheeting must be held down with rocks along the edges
and saplings or tomato stakes laid across, to keep it from
flapping and tearing away in the winter winds.

A Head Start on Spring

We’ve increased our experimental fall plantings to try to
get a head start on spring crops. It’s no
guarantee — some years work well, others not so well,
largely depending on what kind of weather spring brings.
But it’s generally worth a try.

Nearly all seeds are dry and hard enough to survive winter
temperatures; indeed, some require a period of winter cold
to sprout at all in spring. It is the prolonged chill and
wetness of early spring soil that dooms the seed of many
plants that evolved in climates that are warm year-round.
Soaked and chilled for weeks before the soil warms up
enough for them to germinate, they soften before sprouting
to produce a living plant’s protective chemical and
mechanical processes, and so make easy prey for bugs and
soilborne fungus.

The secret to late fall planting for the next season is
threefold. First, select frost-hardy varieties that
originated in cold climates and do well when planted early
in the year. Second, plant them in fall for the earliest
possible start. And third, put them in raised rows with a
well-draining sand layer on top, so rains will filter
through. This way, they won’t become waterlogged before
they sprout.

As early in the fall as you can, plant open garden soil to
green manures to be tilled under, or to winter wheat, oats
or rye. These early grain crops will be up and growing
before the first snow and will see new root growth during
all but the depth of winter. You can harvest a
life-sustaining crop of grain in early summer.

To grow herbaceous vegetables, I like to hoe up raised rows
six inches high and the same across. I top each row with as
much mature compost as I can spare. Then I pile
well-draining sharp sand as high as it will go, perhaps
three inches on each row. I plant most seeds, a half-inch
deep in the top of the sand and tamp it flat. For the
quickest soil-warming, I lay black landscape paper over the
rows with slits along the top ridge to let the germinating
plants work through. From fall to spring, rains and
snowmelt will drain through the waterpermeable landscape
paper, sand and raised soil, preventing (we hope) the seed
from rotting. And even under snow the black paper will
absorb sunlight, warming the soil beneath it. As soon as
the soil temperatures are agreeable, the preplanted seed
will sprout, often peeking out through a late snowfall.
That’s how snow peas got their name. When the crop is in,
the sand, compost and black-paper toppings are tilled into
the garden to improve tilth and drainage.

The following is a list of the crops and varieties that
we’ve had success with in recent years. You’ll find them
listed in various mail-order catalogs. For
hearty, oldtime, open pollinated seeds, try South
Carolina’s RH Shumway (RHS) and the New Mexico based Seeds
of Change (SOC). For cold country varieties, contact
Johnny’s Selected Seeds (JSS) of Maine and maritime
Canada’s Vesey’s Seeds for Shorter Seasons (VSSS).

Snow Peas come in two main types:
wrinkle-seeded, which are grown mainly for their large,
well-flavored seeds, and smooth-seeded, which are grown for
smaller seeds and are eaten pod and all. The smooth-seeded
are the easiest to overwinter. I’ve had the best luck with
the Dwarf Grey Sugar variety. These are not the Oregon and
Sugar Snap varieties that are large, succulent,
wrinkled-skinned and selectively bred and copyrighted so we
can’t legally replant saved seed. Dwarf Grey Sugar is the
original little flat snow pea. Pods are best picked when
still tiny, before the seeds begin to develop. Even then,
they often must be stringed to be at their best. For a
seed-producing pea, try Extra Early Alaska. This is also a
smooth-seeded, cold-hardy variety. it grows to 30 inches or
more. Like the Dwarf Grey Sugar, it does best when planted
close together, in parallel rows spaced two inches apart
and supported on brush. Both are old-time varieties from
RHS.

Corn Salad , called mache in Europe, is as
close to a guaranteed winter garden success as there is. A
type of valerian that produces minute lettuce-like heads,
it has a flowery, minty flavor and is good in salads-raw,
steamed or stir-fried. Super hardy, you can pick it frozen
solid and it is still good raw or cooked. Sow the tiny
seeds one inch apart in all directions over the top of a
raised row and stir down into the sand. Thin seedlings to
two inches apart. JSS sells a named variety, Vit, that is
recommended for overwintering.

Lettuce is also a fairly consistent
producer. I have not tried any variety recently, but a
dependable old standby is Black Seeded Simpson loose-leaf
lettuce. Pick the outer leaves and the plants will produce
till summer heat causes them to bolt to seed, which you can
harvest and plant next year. Most catalogs sell Black
Seeded Simpson. Or save a dollar and get seed from any
grocery store seed rack.

Radishes usually do well. Pick a winter
radish such as the white daikon. Good ones are Spring Song
from JSS and Rebel, a new and vigorous, but still
openpollinated (non-hybrid) round red variety from VSSS.

Parsley is slow and thus best started in
summer and heavily mulched over winter. Choose your
variety.

Carrots. For really early roots, try
Thumbelina, a one-inch round carrot that is super fast
growing, sweet as any, mini-topped and bite-size. You
needn’t peel them when about one inch across. Mix tiny seed
eith sand, sprinkle on top of a raised row and pat in. Thin
to one-and-a-half-inches apart all around for
golfball-sized roots. Available from JSS, SOC, RHS, VSSS.

Spinach is the quickest-growing source of
vitamins C and A and iron. Long-Standing or Winter
Bloomsdale are among the oldest and most reliable varieties
and are available from SOC and RHS. A good F2 hybrid to try
is the new disease-resistant, wrinkled Tyee, sold by JSS,
RHS and VSSS. Plant the large seeds an inch apart and push
them well down into a sand layer atop a raised row. Thin to
12 inches apart. Harvest outer leaves till they bolt, and
save the seed only if it’s a nonhybrid Bloomsdale.

Scallions will add an oniony savor to any
dish. Punch down seeds of any variant of Evergreen Bunching
(white or red) scallions-the kind that form slender stems
in bunches rather than bulbs They are fast-growing,
cold-proof, guaranteed and available from RHS. JSS praises
the winter-hardiness of their Evergreen Hardy White.

Kale is a rich source of vitamins A, B and
C and contains a great deal of iron. This loose-leaf
cooking green is the most coldhardy member of the cabbage
family. Winterbore from JSS is a favorite variety, but
perhaps the
best for winter growing is the True Siberian from SOC.
Plant to raised garden rows in single seed rows, seeds one
inch apart. Thin to 18 inches.