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There was a time when my vegetable garden only sang of spring and summer. I’d go outside at the end of February and plant seeds for radishes, lettuce, spinach and chard. By St. Patrick’s Day, I’d have potatoes in the ground, and I’d also started tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and other warm weather vegetables indoors. After our last frost date of April 20th, I would harden them off and transplant outdoors. Throw in some summer squash and okra from seed, and that would be that. Sound familiar?
Recent mild winters and dramatic, summer weather convinced me to grow vegetables in the fall. I now think, in the south, it’s easier to grow cool-weather vegetables in fall and even over winter with protection.
It’s possible to have garden-fresh produce most of the year, and once you sample how good your vegetables taste, you’ll be hooked. In our hot climate, fall vegetable gardening can be easier than traditional spring and summer gardening. There are fewer weeds and pests. The soil is already warm, and seeds fairly jump up and are ready to grow. Depending upon where you live, you can start planting a fall vegetable patch in August or September. What will you grow?
As with all vegetable gardening, don’t plant food you don’t enjoy. Instead, grow your favorites, but also, try something new. I’m seeing more Asian and Hispanic vegetable cultivars at nurseries, and I like to experiment. I’m extremely fond of tatsoi and bok choy. I’m going to try joi choi and maybe even gai lan, similar to broccoli raab, this fall. Try stir-fried baby bok choy with tamari over long-grain brown rice, and you’ll be in heaven.
To get started, prep your garden bed or cold frame. If you’ve already grown in the space, your soil is tired from producing summer crops. Add a layer of organic matter. I do this with homemade compost I make from two Eco Bin™ Composters at the side of my back garden.
I also shred leaves, placing them in piles for mulch, and to work into the soil once they break down into organic matter. Compost improves both sandy soil and heavy clay so it’s perfect for any garden.
If you want to grow lettuce, use seed trays or six packs, and place them someplace cool to germinate. Transplant small plants into the ground. For transplanted vegetables, you can also apply a balanced organic fertilizer at the time of planting. I work it into the soil as I plant. I like worm castings and composted manure, for example. For cruciferous vegetables, start them in small six-pack containers or seed trays one month before transplanting them into your garden. Harden them off by placing them outdoors in the shade, for a period of time each day, for three to five days prior to planting. Don’t forget to keep them watered.
To have increased success extending the season, invest in cold frames and row covers. Growing lettuce in a cold frame or under a row cover is simple. Also, consider planting a cover crop on garden areas you’re leaving bare during winter.Turn over the cover crop in spring.
For exact planting dates of fall crops in your area, check with your local extension service for handouts. Usually these can be found online, or at a county extension office. Summer was brutal almost everywhere in the U.S., but I hope it hasn’t spoiled your taste for fall. Let’s get growing, and see if we can have home-grown produce all winter long.