To us, the days are getting shorter, but to plants, the nights are getting longer. The cool and dark allow them to regenerate and to build new cells. Perennials start maturing their roots and sap for winter. Some are programed genetically to bloom or stop blooming in response to the longer dark. Even heat-lovers like tomatoes actually shut down at 90 degrees, so with more time to cool off, many plants have a sort of second spring. Some spring bloomers bloom again.
This is our cue to plant seeds for fall. The possibilities include all of the spring favorites like lettuce, peas, and broccoli. But fall is not just a lesser version of spring. There are good reasons to plan the fall garden as a season all its own, with delicacies and opportunities that spring doesn't have.
First, there are plants that are very hard to grow in spring but easy in the fall. Spinach, bulbing fennel, and Nappa cabbage are day-length-sensitive plants that bolt and get bitter in spring. In the shortening days of fall, they stay in vegetative growth, producing juicy, succulent vegetables for the table. Nappa cabbage is especially easy and quick. Its crunchy, juicy leaves are as mild as lettuce but hardier--good in salads, coleslaw, stir-fries, sandwiches, and preserved as kim-chee. Fennel is like a sweeter, more aromatic celery—and much easier to grow. Homegrown spinach is sweeter, and juicier than what's in the store. And instead of one quick spring harvest, you can cut leaves all winter.
Kale, cabbage, and broccoli sprout and grow best in fall. As young plants, they prefer warm weather, when their seeds would naturally fall to the ground and sprout. (They develop their great cold-hardiness as adult plants.) Transplanting is not a problem for this group—it actually stimulates root growth. Starting them in a shaded nursery bed is nice because it doesn't demand the care that pots do—and they'll wait for their garden space without getting pot-bound. If you need to use pots or flats, plan on giving them afternoon shade, and transplant to the garden or a larger pot within a month. Or sow them in large pots to start with.
Plant peas deeper than in spring, so they stay moist—about 1” deep. Soaking the seed for a couple of hours helps too. If you want to cut the tips for salad greens, it's best to plant a separate patch and harvest the top 4" of new growth. You can cut repeatedly once the plants are at least 16" tall.
Lettuce is probably the crop that will save you the most trips to the store if you grow it at home. So I like to plant it where I can reach it easily in the dark after work, or in the rain. Sow some every 2 weeks til frost. Its hardier, richer-tasting relatives--radicchio, chicory, and endive--are staples of the Italian winter kitchen. I love their slightly bittersweet flavor (like walnuts) in salad, pasta sauce or braised. They are a welcome change from the mustardy flavors that dominate winter greens. Winter lettuces and endives are bred to resist rain, mildew, and mold, as well as to be cold-hardy.
Lettuce is the opposite of kale. It wants to sprout in spring. So fool it. Put your packet of lettuce seeds in the fridge for a week. That artificial winter gets it ready to sprout. Sow in the evening, water well, and give it afternoon shade--an artificial spring that will gently introduce your lettuce to the realities of fall.
Working in the garden in summer heat can be brutal, so it's easy for things get out of hand. I have found that people get the most satisfaction from their gardens―and the most vegetables too―when they figure out how to make the garden work with their own schedule, goals, and limitations. And when they find a weed-control routine that works.
Most well-publicized gardening "methods" are based around maximizing one or another element. Intensive systems seek the highest yield per square foot, and use lots of labor and nutrients to achieve that goal. No-til systems avoid turning the soil by using a thick layer of compost to make a seedbed. The challenge there is making or finding enough compost. Each system can work. But each has a cost in time, exertion, space, water, material, and money. A method is only as good as the real world, and your real life, permit it to be.
For many people, the limiting factor is time, fitting gardening between other commitments. To save time, we have to trade other things—money, materials, garden size. Drip irrigation is an example, saving both hand-watering time and some weeding at the cost of money, materials, and some flexibility in layout. For many, a limiting factor is physical strength and range of motion; a solution could be tall beds that put the soil at waist level. The trick is to find a system, and a schedule, that uses what you do have and minimizes what you don't. (Few inputs can be reduced to zero.)
Here's an example: Last year I converted from beds planted in space-saving hexagons to regular rows for some crops, notably bush beans, which yield poorly if they aren't kept well-weeded. I found that the limiting factor for me was not space, but time and joint pain. The result was that I got a better yield of bush beans from the rows: I was able to hoe standing up, and to lay down mulch easily between straight rows. The cost of straw for mulching, and the extra space the rows took, were more affordable for me than time on my knees hand-weeding.
Three changes made for better,easier yields in my garden last year.
For weed control and much else, mulch makes a big difference this time of year. It conserves moisture, prevents compaction from watering, and prevents weeds. It also adds nutrients. How? Partly the increased moisture at the surface means more biological activity, which means more nitrogen. You get both the nutrients contained in the mulch, and the earthworm castings from the worms that multiply there. Myriad creatures aerate the soil. Mulch also prevents mud (and soil-borne diseases) from getting on the plants. I mulch between plants and on paths with straw. In the past, I've also used paper, cotton cloth, seaweed, and fallen leaves.
A mulch of stones (fist-size and larger) is an effective technique for areas with hot days and cool nights. The rock prevents the surface from drying out, so earthworms and roots can use the top layer of soil. At night, moist air condenses on the stones, and drips down to the soil. I use this strategy in areas with perennial plantings, where I don't have to move the stones each spring. For some drought-tolerant plants like lavender and cistus, the rock mulch enables me to irrigate them only 1-3 times per summer. This in a climate where my vegetables have to be watered every day.
Cover crops can be a living mulch―a big enough topic that it needs it's own post.
If something isn't producing and the area has gotten so weedy that it's hopeless, bring on the cardboard! Just water well, cover completely with cardboard, and weight it down. In a month, it will be composted, worm-tilled, and ready to plant with fall carrots and kale.
The high point of our days this time of year is dusk, when the moonflower datura unfurls its trumpets. The scent appears first, occasional wafts you can't quite place, drifting through the garden. At that time of day, we're trying to get some prosaic chore done in the brief period between baking sun and total dark. Something we've been putting off during the heat, like spading up a bed. The scent says "Stop a minute."
As the long, long buds start spiraling open, they stay sealed at the top, driving bumblebees crazy with longing. Then suddenly the shape changes. The trumpet unfurls.
It is only the large, shiny bumblebeess that appear every evening; perhaps they don't need to go to bed so early as the striped furry ones. Sometimes two or even three converge on the same flower. The trumpet shape amplifies their frenzied buzzing.
They roll and spin in ecstasy down in the throat of the flower. Then it gets too dark. They vanish. In the night, the scent is light, fugitive, unforgettable. Each flower tracks the course of the moon across the sky.
Summer favorites differ from spring and fall crops in more ways than their temperature range. They actually come from different parts of the world, with different kinds of soil and growing patterns. If you understand those differences, it will help you to grow them with more success and less effort.
Think of the vegetables of spring and fall—lettuce, peas, fava beans, cabbage, broccoli, kale, radishes, spinach--even wheat, barley, and rye grains. They all come from Europe, which has a lot of coastline and very temperate weather. Livestock like cattle, sheep and pigs were integral to farming. Permanent fields were plowed with heavy doses of animal manure. In the North, summers are cool. Along the Mediterranean, the main growing seasons were spring, fall, and winter, because those were the only times when rain fell. So cool-season crops were dominant in both northern and southern Europe.
In contrast, most of our hot-weather vegetables--beans, corn, tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, winter squash, okra, sunflowers, and watermelon, as well as grains such as sorghum, amaranth, and quinoa all come from North America, South America, or Africa. The hoe, digging stick, and fire were the primary tools used to prepare the ground. The fields were carved out of jungle or brush, used for a few seasons, and then allowed to return to the wild. The primary source of nutrients was the burned or decomposed forest vegetation from clearing the land.
What does this mean for our backyard gardens? Well, it doesn't mean we should trade in our rototiller for a digging stick. It does mean that:
Winter has vanished like a blindfold coming off. This week, we woke to sun instead of frost. Up at the woodpile there was a good-sized turtle, with clods of mud on her shell from digging out of her winter den. What a relief--I had been hoping turtles weren't hibernating in the riverbank when it got swept away last winter. Apparently, turtles hibernate up in the woods.
I feel like I'm coming out of hibernation myself. A death in the family and other events took me away from home for a couple of months. The grass is long, the weeds are many, the greenhouse is empty, I've missed a whole season.......OK, stop that train of thought. It's great to be here. It is, actually, perfect. So, what can I do starting right now?
It's still a good time to plant peas, lettuce, and greens. There's even time to sow tomatoes and peppers—they'll catch up. My experience matches Sunset Magazine's controlled-trial result: Smaller, younger transplants actually do better than larger, older ones. (no transplant shock) So all right, I'll just stop worrying and sow some tomatoes. And peppers. Lots of them.
Right now, honeybees, bumblebees, and a gazillion kinds of little native bees and wasps have been working the yellow mizuna, turnip, and mustard flowers. Have you noticed that kale and mustard flowers smell like honey? The bees sure have! Mustard/kale flowers, arugula flowers, or cilantro flowers are a one of the best things that can happen right now. They make a delicious vegetable when they're young, like little broccoli. But even more important, they draw those gazillion little flying insects to your garden.
In a little while, caterpillars and their ilk will show up, hungry.
BUT, some of those those little gnat-sized wasps that have been drinking nectar from your kale flowers will lay eggs on or around the caterpillars....And the wasp's hatched-out larvae will eat the caterpillars!!!
Other winged nectar-eaters will be hunting and eating aphids.
And later, the various bees will pollinate your squash. The last couple of years, I've been hearing about zucchini plants that bloom and then the female flowers fall off without making a zucchini. That's what happens when you don't have enough pollinator insects. So, if you don't have any single or semi-double flowers in your garden, try to get some now, and plan for some later. Make your yard a pollinator destination.
Allyssum is a good choice. It likes spring weather, grows fast, and makes millions of little white flowers that bees and butterflies love. Farms and vineyards plant it to draw pest-eating insects. If there are no little flowers at all in your garden, you could buy a six-pack of alyssum to feed beneficials til your seeds sprout. Miner's Lettuce works the same way, but is also a delicious, juicy salad green. Poppies are a beneficial insect magnet. Plant seeds quick, and barely cover them--they like light and cold soil. Calendula can be planted anytime, has a million uses, and attracts beneficials. Plant calendula seeds deep—they need dark to sprout. Blue cornflowers (bachelor's button) are perfect with them.
When frost is over, cosmos, zinnia, sunflowers, and coreopsis are all easy to grow, fun to look at, and feed beneficials. I generally put a few zinnia seeds at the end of each corn block or squash row. Coreopsis and cosmos are lacy enough to fit easily with any vegetable. Just thinking about it is inspiring. I guess I'd better stop agonizing over jobs undone and go plant some seeds.
Going out to harvest food in my garden this winter is more like foraging in the wild. But it has taught me more than my tidier garden did about what to grow in the cold winter greenhouse or garden.
The ideal winter garden has rows of mature cabbages, kale, Brussels sprouts--all biennials that sprout in summer, and go to seed the next spring. They are renowned for winter-hardiness. Well, I was too busy this summer to start any of those.
At the last minute, during the late-October rains, I broadcasted seed into the light straw mulch on my beds. The seeds were a mix of leftovers and outdated seed that I had a lot of, so there were all kinds of things, including kale, carrots, turnips, cilantro and mustard. Oh, and the weeds--lots of those were already there, me being so busy and all. If you want to make it sound a lot more thought-out than it was, you could call it a "meadow garden."
As you can see from the picture, it grew in thickly--way too thickly. I went out knife in hand to harvest a couple of dinners, and try to thin things out. There were surprises, starting with was there and what wasn't.
The kale wasn't. Big kale plants from last summer were thriving, but what late-sown kale seedlings have survived are still just an inch high. The carrots didn't even sprout. Clearly, they need better conditions as babies than as adults. (And in fact the seeds of biennials like carrots and kale mature in June or so and fall onto warm ground.)
The champion fall-sprouters were (cultivated) cilantro and (wild) miner's lettuce. I've never had such great germination or such lush growth. The other things that did really, really well were mustard greens, amara, mizuna, bekana, tatsoi, and turnips. Plus wild dandelions, lettuce and chicory.
I realized that all the things that did well in this meadow garden are usually considered spring greens. And they're usually hard for me to grow--they bolt too fast. They bolt so readily because they are going to make seed that same year, in the fall. The seed will fall on cold ground. I had accidentally hit on the perfect strategy for late-planted winter crops, or for an unheated greenhouse all winter--plant spring greens.
Spring crops aren't usually recommended for winter because they are less hardy when full grown. But planted late by procrastinators like me, they're young and at their most hardy when the weather stops further growth. The plants are small, but they are so thick that there is still plenty.
I'm going to sprout some peas in a container and set it out. If you are willing to eat the growing tips in salad instead of waiting for pods, a pea patch rounds out the meadow garden.
Jamie Chevalier lives and gardens on a river in the Coast Range. She has gardened professionally in Alaska and California, as well as living in a remote cabin and commercial fishing. She wrote the Bountiful Gardens catalog from 2009 to 2017, and now is proprietor of Quail Seeds.