Prepping Your Garden for Cool Season Crops

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
Prepping Your Garden for Cool Season Crops

Most home vegetable gardeners I know spend all winter looking forward to the time in spring when they can finally plant their summer vegetable garden.

But sadly, most of those gardeners call it quits after the season, thinking they have to wait until next year for more homegrown goodness.

Well, I’m here to tell you, fall is by far, the most under-appreciated time of year for growing edibles. True, you won’t be planting the traditional crops of summer, but there are many delicious veggies that won’t grow during the heat of the summer, that thrive once temperatures cool down. Some of my favorites include: spinach, Brussels sprouts, kale, collards, chard, cabbage, lettuce, cauliflower, peas, and carrots. In fact, many of these taste even sweeter after being exposed to a few light frosts.

Beyond the great tastes, there’s another unique pleasure of cool-season gardening—no bugs! One of the most common problems of any summer garden is the heat and humidity that takes its toll on our bodies and dampens our enthusiasm. To make matters worse, pests tend to thrive in this environment. It’s not a pretty picture. But in fall, most of the bugs have gone away as has the weather conditions that drive us indoors.

When I think about how easy it is to extend our gardening season into fall and winter, I’m surprised that more people are not doing it. But it’s really not much extra work, and in fact, with more favorable climate conditions, it makes those fall crops taste all the better.

As I prepare my fall garden for planting, a few simple steps are all it takes. First, I remove all summer crops that have no chance of making it once frost arrives. In addition, it’s a great time to tidy up the garden and make sure I’ve removed any remaining weeds, leaf debris or old plant material. Creating a blank slate and a clean garden means fewer opportunities for pests and diseases to overwinter.

Once my garden is clear, I always use this time to improve the soil with compost. I do this at least twice a year, but always after summer cleanup and before planting fall crops and seeds. It’s particularly important at this time of year, especially if you plan on growing a new crop of plants after summer. The heavy producers of the warm season crops are heavy feeders too and many of the nutrients within the soil are depleted by the end of the growing season. Accordingly, fall is the perfect time to provide another generous dose of nutrient rich compost while improving overall soil quality.

Planting a fall garden is similar to your spring garden. Your biggest concern it to make sure that emerging seedlings are protected in the event of a cold snap, before they’ve had a chance to toughen up to the elements. So be prepared to offer some temporary protection to these tender plants. The goal is simply to provide a little protection from frost and harness the warmth of the sun and soil around your plants.

Some of my favorite ways to do this include using milk jugs or soda bottles with the bottom cut out. Place the cover over the plant and you’ll provide a mini greenhouse that works beautifully. Just be sure to remove the tops or the entire cover in the morning. Otherwise, you’ll likely cook your plants.

Even in winter, plants within a container can be cooked by the suns rays.

Another favorite way to protect your plants from frost and freezing temperatures is with a lightweight fabric cover. Commonly referred to as floating row covers, the fabric shields the plants from frost and insulates temperatures just a bit. It’s usually held in place tautly over plastic PVC piping formed as hoops and secured around the edges with bricks, stakes or heavy soil.

And if year-round gardening is your goal, try using cold frames. These are usually wood framed boxes with a hinged top made of clear plastic. The frame captures the warmth while the clear top allows sunlight to reach the plants. But again, even in winter, it’s critical that the lid be lifted each day to prevent too much heat from building up around your plants.