The Fall Garden

Bringing the canning kettles up from the basement is a sure sign that the harvest season has begun. At first, it’s a little like remembering how to drive a car in winter, but then it gets easier with each batch of pickles, dilly beans and ginger peach chutney. I adore the onset of the cool weather, when time spent in the kitchen is an investment in the future. Bring on the apples for homemade applesauce, the large winter squashes to purée for pie, and big bunches of basil for pesto.

I’ve noticed that just when the leaves start to change from green to red, the salad days of spring and summer give way to hardier vegetables with yellow and orange hues. Looking at the wildness of the garden now turning brown, the rangy un-pruned tomato plants, the spiky potato leaves flat on the soil and the unrelenting cucumber vines attached to everything in sight, it’s hard to remember the cool day last spring when I planted my first seeds into freshly tilled soil. My heart thumped a beat to see the small green shoots emerge.

I am hooked on homegrown, and will find any way I can to extend the season— both indoors and out. I put food by in canning jars and in the freezer. I store crops in my unheated basement, and braid onions, garlic and shallots.  I dry hot peppers and lace a thread through the tops to make ristras to decorate around the stove. And I plant a fall crop of lettuce, collards, claytonia and other varieties to grow through the fall and part way through the winter to satisfy my craving for leafy greens.

In a garden there really is no beginning and no end. There is a constant feeding of the soil with compost and cover crops, the endless weeding, and the mindful planning when seeds are ordered, and as a gardener, all occupy a large portion of my mind. I am also a New Englander, and familiar with the seasonal routine of tilling in the soil after the last of the pumpkins has been plucked, and walking away until the following spring. But when I do this, I am losing out on the full capacity of the garden soil. Vegetables can be grown year round, especially when you get to know the cold-hardy ones or varieties.

“Keep planting seeds every month of the year,” says Daniel Botkin, grower of year-round vegetables at Laughing Dog Farm in Gill,Massachusetts, who feeds five families on three acres from eight hoop houses and a plastic greenhouse. Botkin is into permaculture, but not by the traditional methods. “I am more of a carpet installer, or sculptor of plants,” he declares, because he is perpetually sowing seeds in any open ground and grows more food on vertical locust posts than horizontally in the garden. He also mixes annuals and perennials in the garden beds, always pushing the limits on the seasonal notion of temperate gardening in the chilly northeast.

To save time and space, every week from July through mid-December, Dan plants a little bit of 17 different cold-hardy vegetable seeds that he shakes together in a jar.  The mixture changes each month, depending on the time of year and the length of harvest left in the growing season. Adding just a small pinch every week to rich loamy soil, he covers them with a sheet of plastic stretched over an inexpensive homemade hoop house, and marks the patch with a stick. Once the seedlings expand into a healthy clump, he will divide and transplant into rows, to allow enough space to grow into mature plants. “Germination is slow in the fall and winter, and you might not see summer bounty in February,” he advises, “but they will eventually take off and reward you with lush growth. “

Growing greens in winter with low light conditions and no water may seem counterintuitive, but Dan assures me that winter naturally produces hydrostatic conditions which makes it easier to grow food. “The plants do not require watering,” he explains. “In fact, watering from above may cause rotting since the ground level is frozen and plants cannot take up moisture through their roots, only their leaves.”

Year-round gardening requires a different mindset for success.  Like all gardening, it starts with the soil, which should be free of weeds and spent plants, then fed by a fresh layer of compost, tilled in lightly until the soil is the consistency of chocolate cake. Sow a variety of seeds, but remember that a little goes a long way in the winter, so take Dan’s advice and plant small amounts frequently, with a little water at first just to get the seeds to germinate.

Create a habitat to protect the plants from the wind, because it is not the drop in temperature that kills cold- hardy plants, but the drying wind. Protecting growing plants by tucking a thick mulch of straw around the base perimeters, and build protection with a low plastic tunnel or cold frame made from old windows. Growing in raised beds or containers is possible, but plant on the leeward side of a building for optimal heat and a wind-free zone. Sometimes the heat of a south facing corner can be too hot, though, so keep an eye on the temperature on especially sunny days.

Get to know your cold-hardy greens, and experiment. One of the best things about growing a garden is trying something new that you can’t find in the supermarket. Sow seeds for the familiar arugula, lettuce, meslcun and collards, but also try claytonia, shungiku, pac choi, mustards and other Asian greens that can be found in the Johnny’s Selected Seed catalog. Plant them every week until December 15th, individually in rows, or broadcast in clumps.

As much as I love the fall, it has a way of reminding me that summer is over and the long, cold winter is about to begin. It’s time to gorge on the beauty of the foliage and the ripeness of the fruits and vegetables coming from the garden, made more precious by the fact that it is fleeting. It’s almost a love-hate relationship because the fall is so achingly beautiful and the harvest so sweet. Yet there is a tremendous pressure to get everything done during these few weeks of glory. It’s nice to know that once the fall garden is planted, it won’t be long until I am tromping through the snow with scissors and a harvest basket, ready to add greens to my winter menu.

the best cold-hardy greens to plant now

Arugula: This piquant, peppery salad green is a star in most mesclun mixes and will grow from seed to salad bowl in less than 30 days. Direct sow in the garden in single rows or broadcast seed in a container. Arugula is a cut and come again crop, but the stems become woody as the season progresses, so plan to allow it to grow only once again before reseeding.

Endive and Chicory: Italians love their bitter greens and for good reason. They are an excellent tonic to balance rich foods, as well as a natural source of iron. Chicory, dandelion and frisée derive from wild plants, but can also be cultivated in the garden during spring and fall. Sow seeds directly and they will provide an ample supply of greens year round. Plan to sauté them with a bit of bacon or dress them with a creamy vinaigrette to tame their bite.

Kale and Collards: Kale and collards are staples in the fall garden; they are among the easiest and most satisfying greens to grow and are beautiful plants that provide an abundance of healthy, showy greens.  Kale and collards maintain their green leafy nature even when temperatures dip below frost, and actually thrive late into fall. Sow direct in rows and transplant to allow individual plants to expand.

Lettuce: With over 150 different types of lettuce to choose from, the loose-leaf and romaine types will do best in the cool weather garden, yet require sunlight to grow into full size. For best results, start seeds in a plug tray and transplant into the garden when 3 inches tall and a good root system is in place. Protect with hay during the coldest months, and uncover when the warm weather returns in the spring.

Mâche: This once wild salad green has unique cup shaped leaves that are often found in winter farmers markets throughoutEurope. Cold-tolerant and compact, direct sow seeds in the garden in single rows. May take up to 10 days to germinate, and will grow very slowly. When the small rosettes are about 3 inches tall, harvest with scissors and serve with a simple dressing of walnut oil and sherry vinegar or a twist of lemon to balance their mild, nutty, flavor.

Mesclun: Mesclun essentially means miscellaneous greens, and makes it easy for salad lovers to harvest a range of greens from a single packet of seeds. Most pre-mixed packets are made up of summer greens, but you can easily mix your own meslcun by combining seeds for arugula, kale, collards, mustard, mâche and other cold-hardy greens. Shake seeds together in a jar and direct sow in several single rows or broadcast in a block.

Mustard and Asian Greens: Choose from a wide range of Asian greens that grow fast in deep green to deep purple hues. Offering up a wide range of flavors for the cook, from sizzling hot mustard greens, to crunchy and sprouting broccoli. These make an ideal cool weather fall or greenhouse crop, direct sow where they are to grow, and thin to rows or individual plants. Harvest leaf by leaf to keep the plants growing for an extended season. 

Perennial Herbs: Selecting herbs for your kitchen garden will fall into two general categories: annuals and perennials. Perennial herbs offer year-round growth, although in the winter they will go dormant. For year-round culinary pleasure, transplant the perennials into a cold frame or pot up for indoor culinary bounty. Favorites include parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, chives, tarragon, sorrel, oregano and mint.

Ellen Ecker Ogden is the author of The Complete Kitchen Garden and writes about food and gardens from Vermont. She can be found at www.ellenogden.com.