Now that I’ve got you at least thinking about putting in a fall garden this year, it’s time to talk about the pros and cons. Don’t get me wrong: I am a huge fan of fall gardening. In fact, it’s probably my favorite gardening season of the year, and my favorite selection of vegetables. (Grass-fed lamb stew with home-grown carrots, turnips, and rutabagas served over a pile of steamed rice…be still my beating heart.)
But let’s get real for a second here. Although there are some huge advantages to fall gardening–which we’ll discuss momentarily–there are still the usual gardening challenges like pests and weather extremes. Fortunately, these challenges can be a little easier to deal with in the fall than at other times of the year. But the success of your fall garden hinges on being prepared for those challenges.
Before we launch into the trials, however, let’s hit some of the triumphs.
Triumph #1: Eating fresh produce from the garden well past the first frost feels good and makes you more resilient.
Just when your summer veggies are biting the dust, your fall crops will be gearing up for production. You can enjoy fresh vegetables and herbs from your garden well into the fall and even early winter (depending on where you live and how well you practice season-extending techniques). Thanksgiving dinner doesn’t have to come out of cans: it can come straight out of the garden. Just wash off the dirt and get cooking. If you’ve not yet had that experience, let me tell you that it is a distinctly empowering feeling.
Learning how to grow a great fall garden also makes you more resilient. If, heaven forbid, it became necessary for you to supplement (or even replace) your diet with home-grown food, fall gardening would be a vital piece of that puzzle. Lots of fall veggies are perfect for lacto-fermenting, and here in the South many root vegetables can be stored right in the ground through much of the winter.
Triumph #2: Better-tasting vegetables will inspire you to eat more of them.
As I mentioned in my last post on fall gardening, it’s a biological fact that fall-grown greens and root crops taste better than their spring-grown counterparts. Think you can’t stand the bitter taste of kale? Try it in the fall and you might change your tune! It’s not so much of a chore to eat your dark leafy greens on the regular when they taste downright delicious.
One of my most eye-opening gustatory experiences came in late December 2009, when I visited a friend who was taking care of a farm outside of Portland, Maine. One night, she prepared a ridiculously simple snack: carrot sticks and home-made hummus. But when I took a bite, my eyes nearly bugged out of my head. I was eating the best carrot of my life. It was sweeter than any carrot I’d ever tasted, with a crisp and juicy crunch. I expressed my delight and my friend told me that the carrots came from the farm’s fall garden. I knew right then that fall carrots were the only way to go for me.
Triumph #3: Growing cool-weather crops in the fall saves space in the spring and summer garden.
Here in the South, a lot of cool-weather vegetables are just not an option for late spring and summer gardening. And even if spinach in July was an option, let’s face it: summer is all about the hot-weather crops like tomatoes, corn, and peppers. Why take up space in the summer garden with root crops and greens when you’d be better off devoting that prime real estate to the fruit crops?
We’ve gotten to the point where our spring garden is getting smaller and smaller as we shift the majority of our cool-weather veggies to the fall garden, leaving more space in late spring for cool-weather herbs and in early summer for planting hot-weather fruits and veggies. (We even had enough space for melons this year!)
Triumph #4: You won’t have to spend nearly as much time weeding your fall garden.
In addition to saving space, fall gardening has the potential for saving you a lot of time in the weeding department, particularly if you’re up to speed on good mulching practices. Even if you’re not, the shortening days that work against your maturing vegetables will also work in your favor by hampering the growth of weeds. And tender summer weeds will disappear entirely not too long after the first frost. There are still some cool-season weeds you’ll need to deal with, but they don’t grow nearly as quickly and some of them, like chickweed and dandelion, are actually wild edibles. Jackpot!
It all sounds great, right? You’re totally sold on fall gardening and are ready to get your hands dirty. But forewarned is forearmed, so before we get too far ahead of ourselves let’s talk about the cons of fall gardening…the dirty little secrets you need to know about in order to have your best chance at success.
Trial #1: Late summer heat can cook tiny little transplants.
By August, when you’ll want to start setting out a lot of your fall crops–like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, and chard–as transplants, uncovered soil temperatures can soar into the 100-110° F range. That’s more than a little challenging for those wee cool-weather transplants! So for the best transplant success rate, you’ll want to do something to modify the soil temperature before planting. You’ll also need to give your newly-planted seedlings some protection from the intense sunlight of late summer days until they get acclimated to the garden.
Trial #2: Insect pests are at their worst in late summer.
Insect predation can be a huge challenge in the late summer when you’re trying to get your fall garden up and running. Those tender baby plants are irresistible to the grasshoppers, aphids, and cabbage worms that run rampant this time of year. Grasshoppers are a special menace to those of us who do a lot of seed starting in the late summer; I can’t tell you how many mornings I’ve headed down to the hoop house to check on the newly-potted kale, chard, and cabbage only to find little gnawed-off stubs of stems where the day before there were pretty little leaves.
Trial #3: If you don’t start early enough, your plants won’t mature.
I talked about this in my last post on planning your fall garden. Now that we’re past the summer solstice, which occurs in late June, the days are getting shorter by a few minutes each day. By the autumnal equinox in late September, there will be equal hours of daylight and nighttime, and then past that point there are more nighttime hours than daylight. Plants rely on photosynthesis–converting sunlight to food, essentially–for their growth, so when there’s less sunlight there’s less food for them to use and they slow their growth. This is why it’s important to get your plants in the ground early enough that they’ll have plenty of sunlight and energy to reach maturity before the decreasing daylight and increasing cold really slows them down.
Trial #3: Even the hardiest plants will eventually succumb to cold weather.
While many fall crops are very hardy, some of them–like cabbage, lettuce, and cauliflower–are only somewhat hardy. Your gardening microclimate also affects how quickly even your hardiest plants may succumb to cold. If your garden is in a low-lying area–a frost pocket where the coldest air settles–you may not have as much fall gardening time on your clock as someone whose garden is on the top of a small hill or has a south-facing exposure. But we aren’t completely helpless in the face of hard freezes: there are lots of season-extending techniques you can practice in your fall garden to prolong your harvest.
Cloches, floating row cover, and cold frames are some of the most popular season extension techniques. Stay tuned for a thorough discussion of each in a future blog post, along with posts about how to deal with high soil and air temperatures and insect pests!