Thursday, July 1, 2010

Dreaming of Fall for the Home Vegetable Garden

The first days of summer have arrived and I am thinking about the cool weather of fall. It is not that I dislike summer. I love it. But as a gardener who likes to make the most of every square foot of land that I am cultivating and who loves fall crops, I know that I need to plan for a bountiful fall harvest and the planning starts now.

My tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and zucchini are just starting to produce and will continue to do so (insects, disease and weather willing!) until frost. But when I look at the bed of onions and garlic, I know that within a month, they will have been harvested. The same is true for the bush beans that have started to produce. The beets, carrots, spring broccoli and chard will soon be gone as well. There is going to be a lot of open soil waiting for something to be planted.

Now is the time to be thinking about how this space can be used and what can be planted. A number of vegetables do well in the cool fall weather. The list of these plants include: beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, Chinese cabbage, collards, endive, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, radishes, rutabagas, spinach, Swiss chard and turnips. Some, like kale and collards, taste better after they have been touched by a frost.

The choice of what you grow is up to you. But the trick with fall planting is making sure that the plants have time to mature before frost. To determine when to plant for a fall harvest, you need to know the average date of the first frost in your area. You can find your first frost date through a search online or by giving a call to your local cooperative extension office.
Once you have the date of the first frost in your location, pull out a calendar and start your calculations!

Here is an example. Let us say that the average first frost in your area is 10/15. Since the amount of daylight and the intensity of the sun decrease in the fall, plants can take a little longer to grow. Therefore it is recommended that you add two weeks to the growing time of the plant to make up for this seasonal change. So, with a first frost date of 10/15, we move back two weeks and have the date of 10/1.

Now it is time to use the days to maturity found on seed packets. If you are planting Cherry Belle radishes which take 22 days to mature, you will want to plant no later than the first week of September. Shogoin turnips mature in 45 days so mid-August would be the latest time to plant them. Royal Chatenay carrots take 70 days to mature so these should be planted by the end of July. Bright Lights chard matures in 50-65 days so early August would be the time to sow these seeds.

You can easily calculate the latest that you can plant any fall crop using this technique. One thing to note is that if you are planning to grow broccoli, cabbage or cauliflower, the days to maturity listed on the seed packet are a little deceptive. With these vegetables, maturity is calculated from the time that you transplant a 4-6 week old plant. So if the cabbage you are growing takes 60 days to mature, using the example, you will want to set the transplants at the end of July and you will need to sow the seeds mid to late June. Or, you can just wait to see when cabbage plants are available at your local garden center – they tend to arrive at the right planting time for your location!

The Montana State University Extension has a wonderful self-learning resource entitled “Can I Grow That Here?” by Amy P. K. Grandpre. It will help you calculate planting times for spring and fall.

If you have never done fall planting, I urge you to give it a try. Experiment with fall crops. Talk to neighbors and friends who do fall planting. And most of all, have fun with it. If you plant your carrots or beets a little late, they might not reach full size but you will have some beautiful mini carrots and beets. And if your kale, lettuce or Swiss chard do not reach full size, just tell yourself that you were planning on growing a crop of micro-greens!

Yes, it might be the first days of summer, but I am dreaming of and planning for roasted beets, stews filled with kale and collards and Rachel Ray’s cauliflower soup. Once you get hooked on fall harvests from your garden, your thoughts will turn to the cool weather of fall on the first days of summer just like me!

About the Author
Marc Baase is a contributing writer for Mike the Gardener Enterprises, LLC the exclusive home for the Seeds of the Month Club.

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