Gardening for Resilience: The Bounty of Fall Vegetables
Without doubt, you’ve heard that the Covid19 pandemic has motivated many newbies to get digging as they create vegetable gardens to nourish the body, mind, and spirit. Some call these “victory gardens” because they conjure up the gardening momentum that occurred during World War ll. However, since the coronavirus won’t be conquered anytime soon, it might be appropriate to refer to these efforts as “gardening for resilience.” I’ve enjoyed growing a vegetable garden every year of my adult life, but sheltering in place this spring gave me more time to appreciate the benefits of nurturing productive green babies. In addition, social distancing increased my motivation to extend the joy of working in my garden beyond the summer months. I’m committed to keeping a great thing going and will continue my daily adventures with vegetable friends through this fall and winter. To boost your own morale and expand the harvest bounty this year, perhaps you will also want to try fall gardening. This article offers basic information, practical tips, and online resources to help you get started.
Why Garden this Fall?
- Needless to say, fresh air and physical exercise support good health, and no need for social distancing with plants.
- Cooler weather and fewer insects make outdoor time quite pleasant.
- Growing your own food, free of chemical additives, contributes to a healthy lifestyle.
- As you weed and care for growing plants, you’ll gain beneficial daily routines.
- Generally ample autumn rainfall means less attention to watering duties.
- Fresh vegetables for consumption provide delicious, tangible rewards.
- You’ll get some relief from concerns about available food supplies during the pandemic.
- Cool-season crops that mature in cooler temperatures are slightly sweeter (depending on your own taste).
- Learning something new can be refreshing!
Where to Plant
- If you started a vegetable garden this spring, you’ve got a great place to keep it growing. Consider re-using areas where you had lettuce, spinach, and peas earlier in the season; add fresh plantings, but rotate crops, so you have a different vegetable in each of those spots. As some of your summer crops lose their luster or stop producing, pull them up to make way for new sets of seeds or seedlings for your fall harvest.
- If you’re embarking on a gardening journey from scratch, this article from Virginia Tech provides valuable guidance about locating an appropriate site for your vegetable garden. Select the area with care, to ensure good gardening for years to come.
What to Grow
- Wow, an opportunity to choose what you like! Think about the space available in your garden, your personal preferences for eating and cooking, and which vegetables can manage cooler conditions.
- And don’t forget the option for late-season planting of warm-season vegetables such as beans, squash, tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers to continue your scrumptious harvest. In our zone (7a), planting in late July and early-August will yield produce that’s ready before it gets too cold. Look for short-season cultivars to be sure they have sufficient time to mature before the first frost arrives in mid-to-late October.
- Cool-season vegetables are classified as “semi-hardy,” those that tolerate a light frost of 30 – 32°F; or “hardy,” those that can survive a hard frost but will die if temperatures dip below 20°F.
Semi-hardy crops include beets, carrots, Chinese cabbage, lettuce, parsley, parsnips, potatoes, and Swiss chard.
Hardy crops include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, kale, kohlrabi, leeks, peas, radishes, rutabagas, spinach, and turnips.
- Some vegetables, including greens, radishes, turnips, and cole crops from the Brassica family (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, kohlrabi) will thrive and become tastier in chilly weather.
For me, there’s nothing better than a fresh crunchy salad or flavorful cooked greens packed with nutrition. I can hardly wait for the second act of delicious edibles this coming fall. Find all the details you need to try this yourself in David Garth’s informative article in the August 2015 issue of The Garden Shed called “Growing Fresh Fall Greens.”
When to Plant
Here’s the key to your success: timely planting, and that involves some arithmetic.
- One of the best explanations of the formula for choosing a planting date is found in Cleve Campbell’s article from the July 2016 issue of The Garden Shed called “Planning the Fall Vegetable Garden.” As he explains there, you start with the “days to maturity” on the seed packet. “The general definition for “days to maturity” is the average number of days from the time the seed is sown (or a seedling is transplanted) to the first harvest. We could just count backwards to determine what date to plant, but for fall gardening, we need to add 14 days as the “fall factor” because the “days to maturity” number on a seed packet is based on optimum conditions, and the fall factor takes into consideration that conditions are less than optimum in fall, resulting in slower growth rates due to cooler weather and shorter days.”
So we add number of days to maturity + fall factor (14 days) = number of days to count back from first frost date (~October 15 – 25 for Zone 7a). If you’re planting a “frost tender” crop like cucumbers, you must also add a “frost tender factor” (about two weeks). For some examples that apply the formula to a couple of particular vegetables, refer to Cleve Campbell’s article, cited above.
- The Virginia Cooperative Extension has a helpful chart showing recommended fall planting dates for most vegetables. Virginia’s Home Garden Vegetable Planting Guide: Recommended Planting Dates and Amounts to Plant. You may also wish to consult the USDA plant hardiness zone map.
If possible, consult with an experienced gardener (e.g., neighbor or friend) who can offer suggestions regarding optimal timing for fall planting. For specific questions about cool-season crops, reach out to the Piedmont Master Gardener Help Desk at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
How to Prepare
- If you’re starting a new plot, review the helpful recommendations in “Planning a Vegetable Garden” from Virginia Cooperative Extension.
- For an established garden, do some housekeeping in advance by removing and disposing of spent crops, weeds, and any diseased plant material from your existing plot. This is the perfect time for a fresh start.
- You’ll also need to replenish the soil because your spring and summer crops have consumed essential nutrients. Add a layer of compost or aged manure, using a spade to work this into the top four inches of garden soil. You may want to add a complete fertilizer (e.g., 10-10-10), applying one to two pounds per 100 square feet, but avoid deep tilling, which destroys soil structure and can lead to moisture loss.
- If soil is dry, water the garden the day before you plant new crops.
- Plant new seeds in shallow trenches, cover them with soil and then add a light layer of organic mulch, such as straw. Keep seeds well-watered until seedlings appear. During hot, dry August weather, it’s particularly important to shade the soil, as some seeds will not germinate when soil temperature is above 85° F. If it’s too hot, you can pre-sprout seeds indoors and transplant them into the garden after they germinate.
- After planting, monitor rainfall and keep your garden plot sufficiently watered (about one inch per week is recommended).
- As always, be vigilant and observant of developments in the fall garden and take action as needed.
- Insect pests such as squash bugs and cucumber beetles are likely to appear, and cabbage worms and loopers can be a serious problem. Floating row covers can protect young seedlings, but these need to be removed from crops that are pollinated by insects. For detailed advice on row covers, check out Row Covers: A Gardening Season-Extender With Benefits, The Garden Shed/Nov.2019.
- Powdery and downy mildew may infect fall vegetable plants, especially when nights get cooler and dew retains moisture on garden crops. Keep an eye out for this, and remove any affected plant parts immediately. Application of a fungicide may reduce the spread of these diseases.
- During October, follow daily weather reports and note the arrival of cooler nights. Be sure to harvest fresh produce from any remaining “tender crops” that cannot survive a frost, such as squash, cucumbers, and beans.
- Some fall crops will continue producing, even when nights are chilly. You can extend the fall garden yield by protecting “semi-hardy” vegetables with cardboard boxes, blankets, canvas bags, or floating row covers overnight. Be sure to uncover them the next day when the air warms up to 32° F.
Cold Weather Care
- In November, as the air temperature begins to drop, cool-season crops may become more flavorful. “Hardy crops” (listed above) can withstand a frost, and some might survive all winter if covered with a thick layer of straw mulch. For example, you can enjoy delicious root crops throughout the winter months by digging them up from underneath the straw.
- For those who want to maintain a garden right on through the winter, consider using a cold frame, sun box, or hot bed to protect your vegetables. You can make your own or purchase ready-to-go equipment. There’s nothing better than garden fresh veggies picked for a New Year’s celebration!
- As you begin to wind down your gardening efforts during colder weather, remember the importance of careful clean-up. Remove stray weeds, dead stalks, and other plant material that may harbor diseases. Pull up unnecessary stakes and trellises, hose them down, and tie them in bundles for storage until next spring. Add a layer of rich compost in empty garden areas, so that microorganisms can go to work improving your soil and don’t forget to shred fallen leaves to put in the garden, too. For more helpful suggestions, check out “Tasks and Tips” in fall and winter issues of The Garden Shed.
For those who may be on “staycations” in the coming months, growing vegetables can be a delightful pursuit in your own backyard. Hopefully, this article will whet your appetite for fall gardening.