Extending the Season

Yes, I KNOW you’re inundated with tomatoes and peppers right now, but it’s time to plant your fall garden if you want to keep enjoying all those fresh veggies for several more months. Experience has proven to me that it’s all about the soil, so if your summer garden didn’t do well this year (after all, we were lucky enough here in NE TN to enjoy lots of sunshine, moderate temps except for a one week heat wave, and ample rainfall) your fall garden won’t fare any better, and likely do worse, unless you improve your soil. Adding compost is the best way I’ve found to do that quickly. After spending ten years improving the soil faithfully at our prior home, we were growing tomatoes almost 8′ tall and pepper plants as big as a landscape bush. The soil was loose and rich-it was becoming a great experiment in gardening in hard times because it seemed as though everything was beginning to become a perennial because seeds would sprout as soon as they hit the ground! But that was then, and at our new home we’re starting over from square one. We’ve learned a lot about growing veggies and fruits over the years, and the soil is THE key to success. Every gardening book I’ve ever read tells me that insects will attack a weak plant first, and it’s true. Nutrient rich soil filled with lots of organic matter doesn’t grow weak plants.

I’ve also discovered that fall gardening has become my favorite time to garden: the weather’s cooler, and insect pressure is much reduced. And the best thing is that with just a little protection, your cool season crops can often keep well right in the row until you’re ready to harvest them for supper. An important factor in fall gardening is to get your plants up and fully grown before the hardest frosts arrive because they’ll quit growing once the cold settles in for good. By planting ‘early’ and ‘cold tolerant’ varieties (no vining crops this time of year)  of your favorite things, that’s possible-if you get them planted now. My new favorite interactive planting map is at plantmaps.com. Just plug in your zip code and it will give you all kinds of valuable planting info specific to it. My zip in Johnson City is now considered 6B and my first average frost date isn’t until Oct 21-31st! That’s 8-10 weeks away so I can grow a lot of food in that period of time, and we’ll eat fresh all winter, long after the Farmer’s Markets have closed down for the season. Root crops can be covered with shredded leaves or straw and above-ground plants will have a low-cost, temporary hoop house erected over them to keep them protected. The hoop house acts kind of like a solar refrigerator and is all that’s needed unless our winter is truly extremely cold for extended periods. And if you cut your plants without damaging the crown or inner part of the plant, in late winter they’ll begin to grow again, rewarding you with the earliest, sweetest greens you’ve ever eaten.

So, what should you plant? Plant what you like to eat, of course. Here’s my  personal favorites:

Lots of different varieties of greens: my favorite is Kale, followed by Spinach, Swiss Chard, Collards and Turnip Greens

Root Crops: Carrots, Beets, Bunching Onions and Turnips (as well as Parsnips if you started them 8 weeks ago)

Lettuces: Many kinds of lettuces will produce clear through the winter, but not all will. Look for winter varieties like Tango, Winterbor, Outredgeous or Cold hardy Romaines. Miner’s lettuce, Arugula and Mezuna are considered ‘bitters’ that will also do well in cooler weather (even though I disagree with the name)

Garlic: Plant in October, harvest in late June

Brassicas: Cabbage, Broccoli, Cauliflower, Brussels Sprouts

PEAS-dwarf, fast maturing varieties only. Can harvest uncovered until first of December most years

I’ll be conducting a free hands-on workshop at Carver Peace Gardens on how to erect a low-cost hoop house in late September or early October. I don’t have a date for it yet, but will let you know in case you’d like to come.


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