Many gardeners assume that fall crops will be a repeat of spring--peas, lettuce, and so on. But some plants are easier and more productive in the fall. They tend to bolt when spring-planted. They can be grown to perfection in the fall.
You can sow them in pots, which is nice because you can give them some shade if needed while young, and transplant as space opens up. OR you can sow them in place if you don't want to fuss over pots. If you do direct-sow into the garden, be sure to water often while they are getting established, and to thin the plants to optimum spacing. (I speak from experience. Reluctant to destroy my baby plants, I once left a bed of cabbage at too-close spacing. That bed produced not a single edible head. Actually, that has happened more than I'd like to admit.)
Fall Crops need less care in most climates; weeding, watering, and harvest chores are all minimal. There is no single big harvest glut to be processed or stored. Just harvest a leaf, cut a head or pull a root as needed. If your winters are very rainy, I recommend a wider spacing than usual, for air circulation and to give slugs fewer places to hide. Mulch is a good idea to keep soil from splashing up on the plants and to stabilize temperature extremes. Potassium helps keep plants hardy and disease-resistant, so a sprinkle of wood ash or seaweed is a good practice.
Remember that the winter harvest is long. While summer crops reach the table for only 3 months or so before the season is over, winter veggies will be producing from now until next summer. So any time and effort you invest is really worth it. Here are some options you may not have considered:
Spinach reaches its greatest size and juiciness in winter. The danger of bolting in the heat is gone, and the flavor remains mild. You can harvest leaves over and over rather than racing to get one harvest before hot weather. Even easier and much longer-lasting is Chard, a spinach relative. Most Chard has a strong flavor, but Perpetual Spinach (shown left) is a different type of chard that remains mild and tender like its namesake.
Chinese Cabbage or Nappa is challenging in spring but really easy in the fall. It makes a head very quickly for fall eating. It is the most juicy and mild-flavored brassica of all, perfect for salad. It's also easy to grow a big crop to preserve as kim-chee or sauerkraut.
The workhorse brassicas of winter are broccoli, cabbage, and kale. They will grow faster now in summer-warmed soil than in spring. Solstice is a great winter broccoli, bred to hold its heads up out of the foliage. This not only makes harvest easy, it keeps the heads safe from slugs and mold. You will want a few kinds. Lacinato (dinosaur) kale is a favorite for all kinds of winter meals; it is hardy to zone 6. Siber Frill is great for salad as well as cooking, with its fine-cut, curly leaves that hold dressing perfectly. It is hardy to zone 5. White Russian is hardiest of all, to zone 4, with terrific flavor. It's also most resistant to wet. We use it in stews, pasta, and soups all winter.
Speaking of stew, let's think about winter comfort food. Other vegetables have the glamour, but roots deliver solid comfort-food sweetness and substance. The hands- down favorite vegetable with all the kids in our family is roasted root medley. Oiled and roasted in the oven, those carrots, parsnips, rutabagas, onions, and beets get sweet and toasty, with a bit of crunch outside and a smooth starchy interior like a good french fry. The kids would never guess it's good for them! They say the adults can have the tomatoes, if they can have roasted roots.
Another family of plants that prefer fall are the chicory/endive gang. Unlike lettuce (which likes to sprout in cool soil but is not cold-hardy as a mature plant), endives are hardy plants that make great winter salads. They are also substantial enough for cooking. Braised escarole and endive are Italian favorites. Raddichio and Frisee are perhaps the most familiar. If you are new to this family of greens, with its succulent mixture of sweet and bitter flavors, try Sugarloaf Chicory, which is like a big glossy romaine in shape and color.
A unique flavor of fall is fennel. This is the secret to authentic and savory pasta sauces. Fresh, it has the the crunch of celery, with a milder, sweeter, slightly licorice-scented flavor. I love it as a crunchy winter salad in a lemony dressing, or used as a dipper with blue cheese. Cooked, it is sweet and rich, perfect braised with meats or adding body to a stew. The white bulb is used both raw and cooked. The green stems are used chopped in pasta and stew.
Even though lettuce normally likes to grow in spring, gardeners over the past couple of centuries have managed to breed a few that are adapted to growing as fall and winter crops. Hungarian Winter, Quan Yin, and Bronze Arrow are some of these. They are both cold-hardy and mold-resistant, for growing in rainy or hoophouse conditions. If you live in zones 7 or 8--or have a cold frame or greenhouse--sow lettuce and other salad greens every couple of weeks . Not only does this give you a steadier supply, but the young lettuce plants are more hardy than mature ones. (Lettuce is still the least frost-resistant vegetable on this list.)
The easiest options for winter salads are hardy, mild-tasting Asian greens like mizuna or tatsoi. You've eaten these if you've ever gotten "spring mix" at a store or restaurant. (That's tatsoi at left.) Hardiest of all are mache, miner's lettuce and erba stella. They will sprout and grow any time the ground is not frozen. All of these choices make great, cold-hardy salad greens.