Drumming up the energy to plant after a long, hot summer can be hard but if you don’t, you are missing months of fresh vegetables on your table.
Here in the piedmont there are three optimal growing seasons, and by protecting plants in icy weather we can harvest through the winter. So pull out those stringy tomatoes, cukes and beans, and make way for delicious peas, lettuces, kales and broccoli.
The trickiest part is getting the timing right for the cool season vegetables. If you plant them too early, they will bolt (go into reproductive mode when we want vegetative) and be done before you ever harvest. If you plant them too late in the fall, they won’t put on good growth and will just sit there tiny all winter. Unfortunately there is no specific ideal date–this is the “art” of fall planting. Here are a few ideas to help manage this challenge.
First, be willing to plant again if the weather is really hot and the plants look like they are spindly and lengthening. This means they are planning to bolt. Seeds put in the ground in September are going to have much cooler nights than in August. Many cool season vegetables need temperatures below 70 degrees to germinate. So save half your seed packet or pick up some more transplants from the garden center if you need to replant.
Many fall vegetables will perform well if planted by seed directly in the garden. Peas, carrots, radishes, beets and turnips do best this way. Others can be seeded directly or transplanted–these include spinach, lettuce, Swiss chard, collards, kale and mustard greens. Broccoli, cauliflower, bok choy, pak choi and Chinese cabbage take a little more time to get growing so they do better started in a greenhouse and transplanted when the temperatures are cool enough. September is the big month for getting plants in the ground.
Second, consider buying some row cover material for your fall and winter garden. This is a lightweight spun polyester fabric, sold in different lengths and thicknesses that can be used to shield your plants from too much sun or freezing temperatures. You can throw the row covers directly on the plants, but if you can prop the fabric off the ground with some type of frame (split bamboo, metal rods, firm plastic tubing), it acts like a tiny greenhouse. I use the row covers in the fall to shade the seedlings on hot sunny days, leaving the sides open for ventilation. The heavier weight fabrics can safely frost proof your plants from temperatures down to 24 degrees. I prefer the medium weight, which lets more light through and protects the plants down to 28 degrees. Many times I’ve had snow piled on the row covers, and once it melted I uncovered my beautiful spinach.
Finally, give your plants the best start you can before the cold weather.
This means adding compost, if possible, and soil testing. Add lime and fertilizers only as needed per the soil test. Once established, the plants will likely benefit from an application of fish emulsion or liquid kelp as temperatures cool. Of course, water as needed, particularly on hotter days. You may need to apply Dipel for the cabbage loopers, which love to feast on collards, kale and broccoli. Dipel is a bacillus thuringiensis bacteria powder, which kills the loopers, but is harmless to other insects and humans.
Now get ready to eat gourmet baby lettuce greens, snow peas, raw kale salads, stir fried broccoli and sweet carrots. It is worth fiddling with the fall temperatures to get a whole season of delicious vegetables.
Photos courtesy of Jeana Myers, PhD.
Jeana Myers, PhD, is the Horticulture Agent for Wake County. For gardening questions, contact the Extension Master Gardeners of Wake County at 919-250-1084 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.