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Dig into fall gardening

Start planning and planting now so you can eat this in the fall. photo: dreamstime.com

While the days are long and the soil is warm, it’s time to plant a fall vegetable garden. The term “fall garden” is a bit misleading, because plants need to be sown in mid to late summer to produce a bountiful fall harvest. Plants can establish themselves while the days are long and the soil is warm.

The trick to starting a fall garden now is to protect seedlings and young plants from hot summer sun and soils. Use shading devices (see below) to dapple sunlight and cool down the soil, transplant into moist soil, and keep plants well watered. Always transplant in the morning or evening, not in the full sun of the day.

Start seeds where seedlings can bask in the light and heat without direct exposure to full summer sun. Thin or transplant to make room for plants to grow strong and healthy. Do this in the evening, then water the young plants to settle the roots.

Wait until plants are three or four inches tall before planting in full sun. Amend soil ahead of time with compost, and add organic mulch once the plants are in. These amendments keep the soil cool, moist, and absorbent. If weather is hot, cool the soil with shade a few days before planting and continue to protect the plants for a few days so they can adjust to their new environment.

Provide dappled shade for plants by draping shade cloth or row covers, or use bricks or blocks to prop lightweight fencing or wooden lattice above them. Be sure to water and fertilize the young plants so they can put on maximum growth before shorter fall days begin.

As the days grow shorter and cooler, salad greens thrive. Start them in the summer and you’ll enjoy a long, abundant fall harvest. These are great to start this month:

Salad Greens: Lettuce, endive, arugula, red mustard, radicchio, and mesclun salad mix.

Vegetables: Anything in the brassica family, including broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, kohlrabi; also beets, carrots, leeks, chard, green onions, spinach, turnips, and radishes.

HERBS

Herbs can be used in a variety of ways: in the kitchen, medicinally, and ornamentally. For example, basil adds flavor to salads and sauces, chamomile tea soothes the whole body, and lavender will freshen any room with its beauty and scent. Parsley, chervil, dill, and cilantro are all great to plant this month.

As for cultivation, herbs can be grown either in pots or directly in the ground. Keep in mind that mint is very aggressive and will quickly take over your garden, so it’s best to plant it in containers. Some species of rosemary and lavender form large bushes and will need room to do so. If you are planting directly in the ground, choose a site that gets at least six hours of direct sunlight. (Mint can take some shade.) Mix in both compost and sphagnum moss to lighten up the existing soil and provide proper drainage.

Once planted, herbs require little attention. Like most plants, they do not like soil that’s too wet, but like just the right amount of water. It is generally ideal for the soil to be slightly cool and moist to the touch. Little fertilization if any is required. Fertilization actually detracts from an herb’s flavor.

Herbs rarely suffer from severe disease or insect damage, but in case pests do invade, fight them with an organic method such as ladybugs, neem oil, or one of the Safer products.

Most of the common herbs will stay with you throughout the years. The exceptions are basil and cilantro, which are annuals and die off each year, and parsley, which is a biennial and lasts two years.

Watering depends on the herbs. Parsley, cilantro, peppermint, chives, and garlic chives require frequent watering and feeding. Basil, dill, oregano, marjoram, and tarragon need less frequent watering and regular feeding. Thyme, sage, rosemary, winter savory, and lavender should get infrequent watering and regular light feeding.

With most herbs, harvesting the tips (“pinching back”) results in new growth and bushier plants. Keep your herb garden as close to your kitchen as possible and have a set of snips or pruning shears on hand, so you can harvest spontaneously while cooking. Most culinary herbs reach peak flavor when the flower buds are just about to open (though herbs in the mint family are generally best in full flower). For peak flavor, harvest in the morning, when the sun is still low. Keep in mind that harvesting more than one-third of any plant may weaken it.

SIMPLE PRESERVATION

Use herbs fresh or preserve them for future use. If you pick one or two too many stems for the dish you are cooking and prefer to take a more casual approach to preserving the extra, use one of these methods: Lay the extra herb sprigs anywhere in your kitchen where they will get sufficient air circulation and be out of the way. You can use them anytime as they dry. Or cut them into small enough pieces to place in a small glass jar, cover with olive oil, and cover tightly. Use both the olive oil and the herb sprigs to flavor your favorite meal.

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Julia Strzesieski is the marketing coordinator for Cole Hardware and can be reached at julia@colehardware.com.