As summer's heat ebbs and fall approaches, it is a great time to revitalize the garden. Just about anything that grows well in spring will also grow well in the cooler temperatures of fall. Direct seeding of greens such as lettuce, arugula, chard, kale and spinach now will provide a harvest beginning in late October and will last a couple of months, sometimes even throughout a mild winter.
Beets can be ready in six to seven weeks, and while carrots take a bit longer, a frost increases their sweetness and taste. Onion sets can be planted between crops and harvested as needed, to be used as green onions.
Cruciferous crops such as cabbage, broccoli and Brussels sprouts are best transplanted this time of year. But even starting from seed, they are quite frost-resistant and can be harvested from the garden well into winter. Brussels sprouts taste even better after a freeze. Seedlings for transplant can be found locally at Buckley's Prairie Landscaping.
Gardeners can somewhat mitigate cold temperatures by using micro-climates to their advantage. Creating a microclimate changes atmospheric conditions, such as growing crops next to a concrete driveway that absorbs the heat from the sun throughout the day and releases it at night. This may increase the ambient temperature just a few degrees, but it can make a big difference in lengthening the duration of a winter crop. A windbreak that protects plants can make a crucial difference. Some gardeners build cold frames or hoop tunnels to further increase the chances of a long-lasting harvest throughout winter.
Garlic is planted in fall. Generally, in our area, hardneck varieties are preferred, as they do well with our cold winters and cool springs. Seed garlic can be sourced from reputable growers and will come in the form of a garlic bulb. Cloves can be separated and planted, usually mid-October. Garlic will sprout a few inches before cold weather arrives, and then pick up in growth in spring, with hardneck varieties producing curly tops called scapes, which can be cut off and eaten. Garlic is usually harvested in June, when about two-thirds of the plant has turned brown.
Another crop planted in early fall is fruit trees. The cooler weather helps roots establish before winter. Trees planted in fall are not subject to the hazards of a hot summer, but it is best to purchase fruit trees from a reputable source. Trees sourced from big box stores this time of year have often endured a summer of stress and lack of care, lowering their chance of survival.
Other fruits such as strawberries, or brambles such as raspberries, can be planted in the fall as well. Be sure to plant in the early part of fall so that roots have time to get established.
Though we often think of feeding ourselves through gardening, it is advisable to feed our garden soil as well. Many organic gardeners do this through planting cover crops in fall. Any unused garden bed can be seeded with a cover crop such as rye, hairy vetch or clover, or a mix of seeds, which will begin to grow before winter arrives. Cover crops can reduce erosion and suppress weeds, as well as add nitrogen (if leguminous) and organic matter to the soil, improving tilth. Fall is also a great time to add manure or compost to the garden, allowing the winter to age and mellow these garden additions.
Fall is the best time to plant spring-blossoming bulbs such as tulips, daffodils, crocuses and hyacinths. The cheapest bulbs are not always the best to plant, as an investment in quality will pay off in large, persistent blooms. Bulbs are perennials, which means they will bloom year after year. About every five years or so, it is recommended to dig up bulbs, separate and replant for continued vibrancy. For a striking visual display in spring, plant bulbs around a fruit tree. Bulbs compete well with grass, which will allow more water to be accessed by the fruit tree. Planting bulbs in clusters also provides for more visual pleasure.
Being outdoors in fresh air does wonders for our mental health, especially in this year of COVID restrictions. Gardening when the temperature is cool and the sun and humidity are not so intense makes it a much more enjoyable experience. Continuing to harvest fresh produce through the winter supports our health and immune system. In early spring, our eyes will delight in the sights of colorful blossoms and the wonderful smell of fruit trees in bloom. Fall gardening is an investment in our future selves.
Carey Smith has dreams of becoming the tulip lady of her neighborhood and enjoys fresh garlic from her garden every year.