Winter is Coming: Planting for Fall & Beyond

by Lori Fontanes

I know it’s hard to imagine when the mercury is still hitting 90 and the tomatoes are going strong but the end of summer is actually the perfect time to think about winter and even next season.  With the hardest work in your vegetable garden mostly over, just a little more effort can pay off in fall salads and a head start on next year’s bounty, too.

GOING FOR SECONDS: PLANTING FALL CROPS

Compared to spring, timing the planting of seeds and seedlings for a late autumn harvest can be tricky.  If you start too soon and the heat persists, your cool-loving radishes and lettuces won’t thrive and may bolt if it gets too hot.  Start too late and you may get pea vines but no pods before snow and frost kick in.

But now that winter in Westchester County often holds off until December, if you start cool weather seeds in August or September and make sure they’re well-watered and located in shadier spots, you should be able to get a second round of cool season crops.  Follow the seed packet guidelines to decide which plants are suitable and which month to start; choose heat-tolerant varieties for best results.  If, despite your efforts, the plants seem to find the heat or light too intense, you can also try suspending pieces of agricultural shade cloth over them.  (See Supplies, below.)

At the other end of the thermometer, once the heat dies back and before a hard frost, you could consider cold frames or crop covers to eke out a few more weeks or even months.  Crop covers won’t be effective in extreme conditions but you can keep the cold frames on the ground all winter.  If using frames, it’s best to position them where you want them and plant directly into the frame.  (You can cover already growing plants with cold frames, too, but you need to take into consideration the footprint of usable space.) Once in place, start by leaving the cold frame’s lid open all the way then lowering as daytime temperatures also drop.  Just make sure to monitor the weather as the plants can over-heat or fungal issues can emerge if the lid is too low on unexpectedly hot days.  I also use a weather app with notifications to make sure I get frost warnings in time to cover my delicate seedlings or pick those last tomatoes.

THE CURIOUS LIFE OF A GARLIC BULB

Of the dozens of crops I’ve grown in my backyard, there’s only one with a peculiarly long, fall-to-summer lifecycle: cultivated garlic (Allium sativum L.).  Seed garlic cloves are planted just prior to winter, then rest without rotting in frozen soil and slowly awaken during the longer, warmer days of spring.  As you may notice with your ornamental alliums or even onion grass, garlic gets going early and sends up those first green leaves as soon as the snows melt.  A few months later, you’ll be able to harvest the scapes and around July, the bulbs.  It’s a really long journey but since you don’t have to baby them like many other veggies, it’s not a lot of work and worth the wait.  Their biggest requirements are healthy, fertile soil (they’re heavy feeders) and time.  So, order yours soon as some varieties sell out quickly.  If you miss out this year, you can place your order next summer for fall 2018 shipping and planting for a summer 2019 harvest.

OVER-WINTER IS COMING

There’s one more way to maximize cool crop yields that doesn’t involve two plantings or waiting eight months to eat– that’s right, just ignore winter and keep growing straight through. Growers in our part of the country and even further north use greenhouses and high tunnels but you don’t have to get quite that farm-geeky (unless you want to!).  A few cold frames or maybe a small polytunnel can also protect your cold crops during the worst of winter.  Not all cool weather plants will make it but if you keep both seedlings and soil covered, you stand a chance with mâche or cruciferous crops such as kale and broccoli.  Plant mâche seeds in the fall and this super-slow grower will putter along until ready for harvest in March or April.  Plant crucifer seedlings (your local nursery will have suitable varieties in September or October) and if properly coddled (and with a little luck), they won’t go to seed in March but will continue their interrupted growth into spring and summer. 

In recent years, our winter temperatures and snowfall have been extraordinarily variable so it’s difficult to know exactly what to expect with your edible experiments.  The number one key to success is to cover the soil and protect it from the drying effects of cold and wind.  In addition to crop covers and cold frames, I also use straw bales as windbreaks and insulation. You can pack the outside of the cold frames with the bales and use broken-down straw from the previous season as part of the growing medium within the frame.  Some people even surround their raised beds with bricks or stones to capture a bit more of that winter sun.  And, then, before you and your plants know it, spring greens will be right around the corner.

FALL PLANTING CHECKLIST:

  • Cold-hardy seedlings and seeds for autumn
  • Cold frames or crop covers including shade cloth
  • Weather app on your smartphone
  • Loose straw and straw bales for soil and plant nourishment and protection

COOL SEASON & OVER-WINTER PLANT IDEAS:

  • Garlic bulbs for next summer harvest
  • Mâche seeds and broccoli seedlings (can overwinter if pampered)
  • Peas, radishes, lettuces, spinach, kale, short variety carrots

FURTHER READING:

Coleman, Eliot. Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Around. Chelsea Green Pub., 1999.

Engeland, Ron L. Growing Great Garlic: the Definitive Guide for Organic Gardeners and Small Farmers. Filaree Productions, 1994.

SUPPLIES:

Straw bales–ask the seller to make sure they’re okay for edible gardens. Try Benny’s Feed Barn in Bedford Hills.  Remember you want straw, not hay.

Crop covers and other suppliesTerritorial Seed Company, Growers Supply

Shade cloth– Gardeners Supply Company

Writer/backyard farmer Lori Fontanes reports for Acres USA and other agricultural publications and speaks about food, environmental and wellness issues in Westchester County.  She also serves on the City of Rye Conservation Commission/Advisory Committee and Rye Sustainability Committee.  Follow her on Twitter @LoriFontanes.