During last year’s heat and drought, the surprise successes in our garden were the carrots and Brussels sprouts we planted in ;ate July. The carrot bed gave us juicy snacks during the hot days of late summer and fall, and comforting soups and stews much of the winter. The Brussels sprouts, started later than the usual spring sowing, were extra mild and sweet when the sprouts matured in March.
August is the time to plant for fall. Most sources say July, but where I live, July is just too hot, too dry, and too punishing for me or for little seedlings. August is when the nights get a bit longer, a healing balm after the heat of the day. Plants naturally start new growth now, and spring bloomers may bloom again. Thinking about winter can be difficult, but it really pays. The kale you plant now can start giving food in September and be a mainstay on the table all the way through April. For most of that period, you won’t be worrying about watering or weeding, either, just picking the leaves as you want them.
Many of the most productive winter crops take a fairly long time to mature–and they need to be more or less mature when cold weather arrives. They will make very little new growth after October. Broccoli, Kale, Collards, and Cabbage are European brassicas that will need to grow large for good fall and winter production. Plant them as soon as you can. Purple Sprouting Broccoli esoecially needs to make a sizable plant before fall, then it survives the winter and makes a big crop of very tender sweet broccoli florets in early spring.
Peas take a couple of months for pods, but they're worth planting even if you don't get pods. The tender tips of the pea plants are delicious raw or cooked, and cost a fortune in fancy groceries. It's worth planting a plot or tub. Austrian Winter Peas make pea-flavored greens all winter. They are turned under or cut for compost in spring and build fertile soil all winter.
Other crops grow faster, but will not survive as long into winter. Fennel, Escarole, Radicchio, Endive, and Chinese Cabbage are autumn treats. They are all hard to grow in spring, because the increasing day length and warmth make them bolt. The waning day lengths of late summer are just what they need. You can sow them all through August for eating from September to the New Year, depending on the crop.
Most salad and stir-fry crops grow fast and don’t last. Sowings can start now, and go through September. Lettuce, Arugula, Cilantro, Mizuna, Tatsoi, Yukina, and other greens are in this category. Start a few now, and reserve some space for later plantings.
In my climate, root crops do not need full sun to do well, but they need dependable moisture. You can sow beets, turnips, onions, and rutabagas in flats or modules. Carrots and should be direct-sown. Soak carrot seed for 1-3 hours, rinse well, plant, and keep moist until seedlings are visible. Unless your growing season goes into the winter, parsnips and rutabagas may not get very big from August planting--they are often planted in spring for winter harvest. But a warm November can make all the difference, and in any case you can use greens and small roots in soup or stir-fry. Parsnips get the same treatment as carrots. A board or cloth over the soil helps retain moisture. (Check daily for sprouts.)
You’ll want to sow most of the fall and winter vegetables in flats, pots, or modules so you can keep them out of direct sun while they are small. Filtered light or morning sun are best for germination and early growth. Once they have a couple of true leaves, you can start getting them used to life in the open. When they outgrow their pots, you have several options.
A month from now, when your seedlings are ready for transplant, there will probably be areas that are no longer productive, or never panned out. For example, bush green beans give a few pickings and then quit. Don’t leave them in the ground. Pull them out and let your winter crops benefit from the nitrogen those beans have put into the soil. If there isn't enough space for your winter crops at their final spacing, turn the area you do have into a holding bed.
As long as there is adequate water and fertility, you can overlap crops. I have had great luck with planting kale and collards amongst winter squash vines. The young plants appreciated the cooler soil and partial shade in summer. When fall came the vines died down and acted as mulch. Corn plants can make a nice semi-shaded nursery for lettuce, spinach, endive, Asian greens, or peas. If they are still producing, give plenty of water and some compost to keep the double crop growing. If they have finished, they can still make a shade for seedlings or a trellis for peas. I like to plant beets or spinach under tomatoes, and lettuce or chard under pole beans.
Cool-season vegetables don’t like full sun in summer but will need all the sun they can get in fall and winter. When they are planted among summer crops, or near deciduous trees, that happens naturally. Often, the solution to one plant's problem is to be with other plants.
Jamie Chevalier lives and gardens on a river in the Coast Range of Northern California. She has gardened professionally in Alaska and California, as well as living in a remote cabin, commercial fishing, and working with seeds. She is the proprietor of Quail Seeds.