Falling forward: Time to plan and plant the fall veggie garden

While most of the country is in the middle of a heat wave and the mercury is creeping past 100F on many thermometers, lets do a little exercise to help you feel cool as a cucumber (though not straight out of the garden, those cucumbers would likely be hot).  I want you to think about a crisp September morning.  You’re out walking through your vegetable garden and you stop to appreciate a big, emerald green head of broccoli.  Just a few feet away, stalks of Brussels sprouts, those miniscule cabbages that have somehow overcome years of revulsion to become sexy and desirable (they must have a good agent) shoot up like skyscrapers around the rest of the plants.  Lush lettuce fills in a bed nearby, and some cucumbers and beans that you planted late are looking as fresh as a newborn chick. 

Sounds beautiful, doesn’t it?  Well I’m here to tell you that you can actually make this a reality.  You can have a super productive garden this fall, and for most areas of the country the time to start planning and planting is now.  Right now, when a cool refreshing fall morning seems as far away as a trip to the moon.  Of course, the exact timelines and planting schedules differ by region due to the length of growing season, but most places in the US (and the northern hemisphere) can start thinking now about planting crops for the fall.  For exact timing in your area, you may want to connect with your local extension system for gardening guides. 

While many experienced gardeners may know this and practice fall garden planting, there’s a lot of people out there who have yet to have the pleasure.  And given the huge number of first time (or first time in a long time) gardeners, these garden basics might be helpful to get the most out of those pandemic plantings. 

In fact, fall is one of the best times of the year to garden.  Aside from cooler temperatures making it more pleasant to garden, there’s often less pressure from diseases and insects to ruin crops.  In addition, many of those cool season crops, like the ones I mentioned above, actually are more productive in the fall than if planted in the spring.  Even though they get a hot start in mid- to late- summer, the cooling temperatures of fall around the time many of the crops come into maturity extends the harvest period and improves overall quality of the produce.  You also have the benefit of removing some of those spent and diseased warm season plants and swapping them out for something fresh and new– a garden revival of sorts. 

Swiss chard and leafy greens are great additions to the fall garden

Unfortunately, since fall vegetable gardening isn’t as widespread as planting summer gardens, plants and seeds can often be hard to find when it is actually time to plant (so planning ahead is helpful).  Mid-summer is usually the time for most regions to start seeds for those slower growing cool season crops like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and their kin. They can be started indoors, but the need to do so isn’t as great as it is for those warm season crops we start indoors in late winter.  You can start them in pots/flats outdoors as long as you have somewhere that isn’t so hot and sunny that they’ll be continually drying out (some shade would help).  They should be ready to transplant by late summer.  You can skip the seed starting/transplanting if you want to try direct seeding into the garden, but as they say “your mileage may vary”. 

Some of the fast maturing warm season (frost tender) crops are also good candidates for a mid-summer planting as a way to refresh the garden if you have space for it.  Beans are a good candidate for late-summer planting, but you’ll need to make sure they are a fast-maturing variety (there’s a wide range of maturity times in beans). Bush beans are usually the quicker growers. Pole beans and lima beans usually take a longer period, so those don’t do as well later in the season for places that have frost and freezes. 

It is also a possibility to squeeze in a late crop of cucumbers or summer squash as well. This can be good if your cukes and squash succumb to disease, squash vine borers or cucumber beetles. Planting late can often mean that you are missing the primetime for specific pests. For example, squash vine borer adults actively lay eggs in the early season but largely disappear later on.  A late planting means you could miss them entirely. 

Fall is the best time to grow leafy green vegetables.  Lettuce, which does not fare well in the summer, thrives in the cooling temperatures of the fall.  Other leafy greens, such as chard, spinach, and kale are also winners in the fall garden.  Many of the root vegetables, such as turnips, carrots, beets, and radishes are also part of the fall garden revival.  You’ll want to wait until temperatures have chilled a little to get these started, but not so late that the season ends before you get good growth. 

You gotta know when to sow ‘em

The key to fall planting is to know how many days it takes for the crop to mature. Check out the seed package or the plant tag — there should be a time to maturity on there. Just count backward from the first frost date. Be sure to add a few weeks to account for slower growing in cool weather and to allow for a reasonable harvest time.

For example, if I wanted to plant a late crop of beans, I might select the cultivar ‘Contender’ which matures in about 55 days.  I want to add at least a few weeks onto that for maturity and harvest time, so lets say I need 75 days (I can go shorter if I want to accept the risk of an early frost).  Let’s also say that my first frost date in the fall is October 20.  Counting back 75 days from October 20, I get August 6 – I should plant my beans no later than that date to get a harvest.

Most of the cool season crops can tolerate a frost (and some even a freeze) so their growth dates can extend beyond the first frost date.  You’ll just want to have them mostly grown and close to maturity before it gets cold enough to stop their growth.  I covered frost and freezes and which crops can survive those cold temps in this previous GP article

You can give yourself a little more time if you plan on incorporating a season extension practice in the garden. Using a row cover or constructing a low tunnel can give you several more weeks of growing time. It can be possible to enjoy a fresh tomato or green beans straight from the garden on the Thanksgiving table, or some fresh broccoli or kale at Christmas even in some of our colder regions. But it all starts with a little planning in the heat of summer.

And if you choose not to plant a fall crop, I would suggest using a cover crop in garden beds as you remove this year’s plants.  A cover crop will help keep weeds to a minimum and preserve soil structure and nutrients through the winter.  Winter wheat, rye, and crimson clover are good winter cover crops.  Next spring you just cut them down and till them in if you’re not practicing no-till (and you should be if at all possible). For annual cover crops, you can usually cut them down or break them over and leave them in place as a mulch. You can also pull them up and compost them to add directly back to the garden, especially if (since it is hard to till or mow in a raised bed).  This GP article is an oldie but goodie for using cover crops in the vegetable garden. 

Grow Garlic – Keep the Neighborhood Vampires at Bay

While most of those gardening tasks are coming to an end, in most parts of the US it’s time to think about planting a few things in the veggie garden to bring a flavorful bounty next year – garlic (and a few related alliums).

I often reference Halloween and vampires when I talk about garlic, not just because traditional lore says that garlic repels vampires, but because it is a good reminder of when to plant garlic in the garden. October is the prime time for adding the alluring allium to the garden. You can also remember that you plant garlic during the same period that you plant spring flowering bulbs.

Why do vampires hate garlic?

Yes.  Vampires are fictional (unless someone finds some empirical evidence of their existence, since you can’t prove a negative 😉 ).  These bloodsucking creatures of folklore may actually have a basis in fact that could explain their aversion to garlic. Way back when people didn’t have science to understand things, they often invented explanation for things that were supernatural.  Sometimes these explanations may have actually had some truth to them.

In this case, the symptoms of vampiricism could have evolved from the symptoms of porphyria – a set of rare disorders of hemoglobin (there’s the connection between vampires and blood).  Symptoms of porphyria include shrunken gums (that could make teeth look like long fangs), painful sensitivity to sunlight, and….and averse reaction to garlic. The reaction comes from the effect of garlic on the blood – it can stimulate red blood cell turn over and increase blood flow, both of which can exacerbate symptoms of porphyria and cause acute, painful attacks.  There’s also an allegorical connection – vampirism was considered a disease (or represented the spread of disease in some literary cases) that was spread by a causal agent and garlic was seen as a curative for disease (it does have some antibacterial properties).  Note: other possible symptoms of porphyria can be excessive hair growth in random areas of the body, which gives it a connection to lore around lycanthropy.

On to the gardening

Now that we’ve covered some trivial, albeit interesting, info lets get on with the gardening!

While many people are accustomed to the single variety available in grocery stores, there are several different types of garlic that all have different flavor characteristics. These types can be classed in two categories; hardneck garlic has a hardened central stem when it dries, and softneck garlics remain soft and pliable. Softneck varieties are the ones that lend themselves to being braided into those hanging garlic braids. Softneck varieties are also longer-storing than hardneck varieties.

It can be tough to find garlic in local garden centers to plant. Those that do carry garlic, often carry it at the wrong time of year for planting when it is shipped in on the spring garden displays. If you don’t have friends to share their garlic with you, or a local farmer to buy some from, you are going to have to go the mail order (or online order) route.

Once you have your garlic bulbs, split them up into cloves, being sure that you have a piece of the basal plate (the part that holds them all together) on the clove. This one clove will turn into a whole bulb over the growing season.

Plant the cloves tip up about 4 to 6 inches apart and about 2 inches deep in loose, organic soil. Mulch after planting with about one inch of straw or shredded newspaper.

Garlic is a relatively heavy feeder, so it would benefit from a good balanced fertilizer treatment with nitrogen after it is established. You can also plant them in the garden where you grew beans over the summer – the bacteria that colonized bean roots adds nitrogen to the soil.

After that, just be patient. It may pop up before winter if the weather is mild, but don’t worry – it can survive even if a freeze kills the growth back to the ground.  Garlic requires little maintenance, and only requires water if the weather turns very dry. Harvest it once the leaves start to die in mid-summer (around July, unless it is an early-maturing variety). Be sure to save some to plant next year and store the rest for use in the kitchen.

Aside from garlic, there are some other odoriferous onion relatives you can plant this time of year like shallots and perennial onions in the vegetable garden or edible landscape.

Shallots have a mild onion flavor and are great because they form cloves like garlic (meaning you don’t have to cut up a whole bulb if you just need a little bit) and store well. The beauty of shallots is that they can also be planted in really early spring — they are a multi-seasonal crop. You can also start them from seeds in the spring.

Shallots are technically perennials, as they will grow over many years if left undisturbed. However, to harvest them, you have to dig them up so they are usually grown as annuals. Once you dig them up, use the larger bulbs for cooking and save the smaller ones for replanting.

Multiplier onions, sometimes called “potato onions” are another fall-planted perennial. These plants produce clusters of bulbs (hence the name “multiplier”) that are harvested in the early summer for bulb onions.

One of the benefits of these and other perennial onions is that you can harvest the green blades of the plant for use as green onions or scallions throughout most of the winter and spring.

Egyptian walking onions are another perennial that can be harvested either for its bulb or as a green onion. The name comes from the bulbils that form at the top of the flower stalk. When they mature, they get heavy enough for the stalk to collapse and fall over, creating a new bunch of onions away from the mother plant. You can allow them to do this to fill in an area, though most people limit it by harvesting the bulbils before they fall.

There are also perennial leeks that have a flavor similar to leeks and can be harvested as green leeks through the winter or dug up as small, tender leeks in the spring.

If you love growing perennial vegetables that add flavor to just about any dish, give these tasty plants a try. They’re really simple to grow and can keep your garden and your kitchen full of fun and flavors for years to come.

A quick primer on types of garlic

Hardneck Varieties

  • Purple Stripe — bulbs have purple on the outside. Some of the tastier garlics that become deliciously sweet when roasted.
  • Porcelain — popular gourmet variety. Usually has a more robust and spicy flavor. Bulbs are typically large and have large cloves.
  • Rocambole — Rich, complex flavors popular with chefs. Their scapes (edible blooms) form a double loop. They do not do well where winters are warm.
  • Asiatic/Turban — Do not store for long periods. Mature earlier in the season (late spring as opposed to summer) than other types. Flavors are usually strong and hot.
  • Creole — Attractive red color. Performs well where winters are warmer. The flavor is similar to (though milder than) Asiatic/Turban Varieties.

Softneck Varieties

  • Artichoke — the grocery store garlic (California White) is an artichoke garlic, though other varieties have more complex flavors. Bulbs tend to have multiple layers of cloves.
  • Silverskin — often the last in the season to mature, these are the longest-storing garlics.

Elephant Garlic

This is a common “garlic” planted by many gardeners because it has large, easy to use bulbs with a garlicky flavor.  Though it is technically not a garlic species – it is a type of perennial leek.