You can grow a lot around here in fall and even into winter. Fall gardens include many wonderful vegetables like: onions, peas, cabbage, radishes, beets, rutabagas, spinach, turnips, mustard, kohlrabi, arugula, radicchio, lettuce, mache, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, collards, and Swiss chard. Some vegetables reputedly taste even better when grown in the fall, and collards and kale are said to be sweeter following the first frost. Garlic is planted in Oct./Nov. for harvest the following summer. Some years I have still been eating fall lettuce in March that was protected in a low tunnel covered with floating row cover.
Even though the weather is currently hot and sticky, right now is a good time to plant your fall garden. You want your plants to be mostly mature before the first frost. Check on the seed pack to see how long it takes the plant to reach maturity. Then count back that number of days from the frost date to figure out your planting date for each vegetable. I begin expecting frost in early October. Direct seeding is best for root crops and peas. Most other vegetables can be direct seeded, or you can also start your own transplants. Transplants don’t take up valuable garden space until they are planted; which leaves more time for summer vegetables to produce. If it is too late to plant seeds, buy transplants at your local garden center or farmers tailgate market. Plant seeds a little deeper in fall than in spring since the ground is warm and moisture levels are potentially low. Lettuce and spinach will not germinate above 85 degrees. Shading the seedbed will help keep the soil cooler and moister, but remove shading as soon as plants germinate so they don’t get leggy.
If you are just beginning this garden, start by placing your garden in a full sun spot with good air drainage. Locate it as close to your house as possible, so that it is easy to tend and harvest, but preferably not at the bottom of a hill where frost collects. Get a free soil test through NC Cooperative Extension to determine what amendments you may need to add to your soil.
To prepare an existing garden for fall planting, remove any spring/summer crop residues from your garden. Compost everything except diseased material. I would destroy or export all diseased material. Compost seedy weeds only if completely confident that your compost pile reaches adequate heat levels to kill the weed seeds. Add any needed soil amendments (like lime and rock phosphate). Prior to planting incorporate some finished compost to boost the nutrient content of your soil. Turn your garden soil to help aerate and loosen it. Many fall vegetables require high fertility and good soil moisture for optimum growth. A side dressing of fertilizer 3-6 weeks after planting can be beneficial. If you have never grown vegetables in this spot, I would incorporate generous amounts of fully composted manure into your garden to enhance soil consistency and buoy nutrient levels. Consider cover-cropping areas of your garden you will not be using this fall. If you protect your plants from the first frost, we will often have several more weeks of frost-free weather.
You may experience more problems from insects and diseases this time of year because these populations have had all summer to multiply. The main problem will be cabbage worms, which love to eat any brassicas (broccoli, cauliflower, collards, kale, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, etc.). You can hand-pick the worms off the plants; then squash them or drop them in a jar of soapy water. Bt is a very effective organic insecticide that targets soft-bodied caterpillars (like cabbage worms.) It is best used as a spray. Thoroughly coat all sides of the leaves, and repeat as indicated on the label.
Fall weather is often drier. Supplement rainfall when necessary to ensure that plants receive 1” of water per week. Seedlings and transplants will require more frequent watering, sometimes even daily until well established. Mulch will help retain moisture in the soil and adds winter protection for plant roots.
Plant your garden now and look forward to fresh gourmet salads, and collards and cornbread this fall!
Ask Ruth © 2013 Ruth Gonzalez & Organic Growers School
Ruth Gonzalez is a former market farmer, gardener, and local food advocate who wants to see organic farms proliferate and organic gardens in every yard. She serves on the Organic Growers School Board of Directors, and in her job at Reems Creek Nursery, Ruth offers advice on all sorts of gardening questions, and benefits daily from the wisdom of local gardeners.