Now’s the Time to Start Planning Your Fall Garden
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While most of us do not yet have tomatoes ripening in the field, it is not too early to start thinking about what you can grow this fall in your garden. As you pull out spent spring and summer crops, consider which spaces you can fill with cool-season favorites like cabbage, collard greens, turnips, carrots, lettuces, and more. Some of these crops need to be started beforehand and set out later in the summer, so now is a good time to decide what you will grow, and to shop for seed and planting materials if needed. With good planning and preparation, a fall garden can provide fresh vegetables well into fall, winter, and even early spring.
Depending on what you choose to plant, you will either set out starts or sow seeds directly into the ground in mid-August through early September. The days to maturity listed on the seed packet will sometimes underestimate the time a crop will need to mature in late fall. Plan to plant at least 4-6 weeks before the first frost, likely to occur in early or mid-October. This allows winter-hardy plants time to establish before it gets too cool, and gives one-time harvest crops like broccoli, enough time to reach maturity before cold stunts their development.
Many of the crops can be direct-sown into prepared soil. Mustard and turnip greens, mild mustards, spinach, arugula, cool-season herbs like cilantro and dill, and cool-season roots such as turnips, beets, carrots, rutabaga, parsnip, and radishes should be direct-sown in mid- or late August. You can also start the greens indoors and then transplant them out for a slightly earlier harvest, but the roots prefer direct-seeding.
To prepare for direct-seeding, cultivate the soil and rake it level to create a smooth seed bed. Sow seed in one to two foot-wide patches or in single rows. Vegetables seeded in late summer are typically planted deeper than when seeded in spring – up to twice as deep. This is because soils are warmer and drier. Seeds sown too close to the soil surface are prone to drying out, resulting in poor germination. Keep the newly seeded areas moist as the seeds germinate. Do not neglect to thin the seedlings once they germinate, allowing enough space between plants for them to reach mature size.
Some crops require a longer amount of time, and should be started from seed indoors and transplanted in August in order to ensure good production. Broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower should all be started 4-6 weeks before setting out. Starting them indoors or in a protected setting will keep them safe from heat and insect pests during the hottest part of the season. It is often helpful to start lettuce indoors, because it does not germinate well when temperatures are above 75 degrees F. July 4 is about 6 weeks ahead of a good fall planting window- aim for the weeks around the holiday to start any transplants you will need. You can also purchase transplants from garden centers once planting time arrives.
Look for “storage” root crop and cabbage varieties that keep well once harvested. You may want a mix of quick- and slow- maturing varieties of things like cabbage. This will give you an earlier harvest as well as a later harvest. Seek out cold-hardy leafy green and root varieties. Most of these will overwinter outside and you will be able to harvest during warm periods when plants put out new growth. If you want to be able to harvest during cold snaps, plan to protect them with row covers, horticultural fabrics that allow light transmission and provide a few degrees of protection. Most crops will be frozen during a hard freeze, but you can often leave them in the ground deep into winter or through the winter, protected with mulch or row covers, and harvest as needed.
Check seed company catalog descriptions to determine which are the most cold-hardy. ‘Red Russian’ kale is very cold-hardy, and some lettuces and mustard greens varieties have been bred to be very hardy as well. Arugula and spinach are among the most cold-hardy greens you can grow. There are also some mild Asian mustard greens such as pac choi and mizuna that can be blended into salad mixes or eaten on their own- some of these are also very hardy. Plant two or three times as many cooking and salad greens as you might use in one week, so you can rotate harvesting one third of your crop every three weeks.
In addition to the crops mentioned above, fall is the time to plant garlic and shallots, and can also provide a window to grow cover crops to build soil for future seasons. Fall gardeners will need to think about pest management, and ways to keep their crops protected from cold. Look for articles on these topics later in the season.
Now is also a good time to prepare the soil, and take a soil test if needed. Your soil report will tell you what the pH of your soil is, which is important as it can determine what nutrients will be available for your plants. It will also tell you the levels of important plant nutrients in the soil, such as phosphorus and potassium. Soil test kits are available at the N.C. Cooperative Extension – Wilkes County Center, located in the Wilkes Agricultural Center, 416 Executive Drive, Wilkesboro NC.