What’s good for growing in the fall?
Special to the Whig
Vegetable gardeners across Cecil County are busy this time of year hauling the fruits of land and labor into their kitchens. What doesn’t get eaten fresh will be preserved for the season to come.
As hot as the weather has been lately, soon it will be cooling off. Garden plants will become less productive until a light frost takes out the most tender of them, and gardeners will start cleaning up their plots for winter. But for those who love growing vegetables, the fall offers a great opportunity to grow certain crops.
While tender squash, pepper and tomato plants decline in productivity this time of year, roots, greens and cole crops such as broccoli, cabbage and kale excel in the cooler weather. With season extension techniques, they can produce yields throughout the fall and into winter, but the time to get them established is now. The University of Maryland offers a valuable guide on planting dates for vegetables in this, Home & Garden document 16.
August and September are the months to seed beets, carrots, lettuce, turnips, broccoli and cauliflower for har vests in the cooler weather. These crops can fill the void left by warmer weather crops such as potatoes, corn and squash that have run their course. Besides the benefit of increased yields by growing more crops in the same garden area, fall gardens can offer fewer pest problems and a more enjoyable working environment.
Crops such as lettuce and cauliflower, which are quick to bolt ( in other words, become bitter and form seed heads) as the temperature climbs in the spring, will stay fresh and tender for weeks to come. Additionally, some crops such as carrots achieve maximum sweetness after a frost forces the plant to concentrate sugars in its root.
One challenge to fall gardening is finding seeds and transplants. While local nurseries and big box stores are awash with these items in the spring, they can be hard to find come late summer. If you don’t have leftover seed from the spring, mail order seed houses still have ample supply. Another University of Maryland document, Home & Garden 70, provides recommendations on specific cultivars that perform well in our climate and environment.
For fall crops that should be set out as transplants, it may already be getting late to start them indoors. As with plants started indoors in the spring, sunny windows often provide inadequate light for good plant development. Use of artificial light or setting young seedlings out very early in the morning ( before 8 a. m.) or late in the evening ( after 7 p. m.) is recommended. Even mid- morning sun this time of year is too much for young transplants outside.
Seeding new crops in the hot, dry summer does involve some special considerations. The lack of rain this time of year can limit germination and leave ten- der seedlings vulnerable to dr ying out, so irrigation is crucial. Shade cloth, or growing fall crops behind tall plants such as tomatoes to avoid full sun exposure can be beneficial, as is choosing areas of the garden that avoid late afternoon sun.
Once grown, fall crops typically can stand in the ground through a light frost. With some protection such as floating row covers or cold frames that can easily be constructed from discarded windows, crops like lettuce can continue to feed a family well into winter.
Farmer and author Eliot Coleman has written several excellent books on season extension with knowledge learned from experimentation on his farm in Maine, which state has a much harsher winter climate than ours. With a minor investment of time and money now, you can enjoy gardening and the freshest possible produce for several months to come. Cooler weather does not necessitate shutting down your garden.