Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Plan a Fall Garden this Summer

late blooming nasturtiums are edible and colorful
Fall vegetable gardens are surprisingly simple and satisfying. When sprawling summer vegetables produce more foliage than fruit, it's fun to rip them out and replace them with well-behaved cool-season crops. Getting a head start on fall planting ensures a long season of fresh salad greens, root vegetables, and fall color.

Beginning in mid-August, look for seeds you may have saved from spring planting, including: radish, lettuce, kale, turnips, mustard, pak choi, and broccoli. Early fall and late spring climate conditions are quite similar, so many of the same crops are grown in both seasons. Just as in spring, fall planting depends on knowledge of the killing frost date. In spring, we wait for the last killing frost; in fall, we look ahead to the average date of the first killing frost. Plants need time to germinate and mature before the fall frost date.

In Virginia's Piedmont area, the first killing frost occurs in mid- to late-October. The Virginia Cooperative Extension publishes information on how to determine killing frost dates, as well as when to plant particular crops. Seed packets also provide information on days to maturity and hardiness. Compare the information on the seed packet with the information from the Cooperative Extension to determine what will do best in your micro-climate.

2nd crop of beans, ready for fall
Before planting new fall crops, refresh soil with a layer of compost to restore nutrients. For best results, plant seeds on an cool, cloudy day, when the soil is moist. The hot summer sun can fry new plants. Plant seeds twice as deep as you would in the spring. Adding an extra layer of light-weight pine or straw mulch will help seedlings survive into fall. Some gardeners cover newly planted seeds with a board to protect them from heat and drought. As soon as seedlings emerge, remove the board.

Beans and corn may be planted successively until September, as older plants die back. Beets and carrots are also good choices for late summer succession planting. Plant every few weeks, or as soon as one set matures, harvest it and plant another. Beet greens are delicious and may be tossed with other salad greens. Root crops are hard to kill. I don't recommend benign neglect, but I've pulled carrots in spring that were forgotten all winter. Kale and winter-hardy spinach also survive in harsh conditions. A little frost may even sweeten greens.
chard and beets growing under PVC supports

A row cover made of  flexible wire or PVC hoops and light-weight garden fabric will further protect tender seedlings from variable weather. A cold frame with a glass or clear plastic barrier can extend crop survival through winter. Treading out in snowy weather to gather salad greens from under a cold-frame brightens the grayest days. A word of warning though: once you start growing salad year round, it's hard to justify purchasing wilted bags of lettuce from the grocery store. You may be tempted to forego purchased salad when you see and taste the difference.

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