Time to Plan for Your Fall Garden

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Image of cabage

Fall cabbage

Here we are, mid-July and truly in the Dog Days of summer. Temperatures now are pretty warm, and it can be hard to work up the enthusiasm to get out in the vegetable garden and handle those ever-present tasks. The squash is starting to wind down (finally! Do your neighbors run in the opposite direction when they see you coming with squash to share?). The pests are really starting to hit their stride, and don’t even begin to talk about irrigating the garden – how about that water bill last month??

So, what are you planning for your fall vegetable garden?

Before you roll your eyes, hear me out. Fall can be the best time of year to raise vegetables. Yes, there is the potential for those pesky little things called hurricanes which can occur that time of year. However, barring an unpleasant event like that, fall can provide the perfect conditions to raise a wide variety of vegetables. First, while we can have warm temps in the fall, the wild temperature swings we sometimes see in spring are less common (such as this past May, when we had temperatures in the 90s). Fall is a great time to grow snow peas and green beans, broccoli (less chance of bolting in the fall!), cabbage and other leafy greens. Fall tomatoes can be particularly good, although there is always the risk that early cold temperatures can prematurely terminate fall warm-season crops such as peppers or tomatoes. Our official first frost date is October 24. Cool-season crops, such as broccoli, turnips, and cabbage, can handle cold temperatures. Some crops, such as collards, actually taste sweeter after touched by frost. Plants employ antifreeze technology to protect cells when temperatures dip below freezing, converting starches to sugar in cells, which you can actually taste. Some root crops, such as beets and carrots, can potentially stay in the ground throughout the winter, if protected by straw, row cover, or a grow tunnel, and “hold” there until harvested. This is a better technique in areas where winter temperatures are more reliably cold, as occasional warm days can increase disease in the root crops and can cause them to become over mature. Planting dates for a fall garden vary depending on the crop, but in general ranges from July 15 through September 15. So, the time is nigh to begin!

The key to fall garden success is timing plant growth so that crops are mature or close to maturity once serious winter begins, and not in a growth stage. They can hold steady for several weeks for continuous harvest if protected from winter weather (ice, snow, etc). The challenge is not so much cold temperatures, but starting cool-season plants when it is still 95 degrees in the shade. Transplants are easiest, and gets things off to a strong start. Cool-season crops can be challenging to plant from seed when temperatures are high. For example, spinach and lettuce need to have their seed temperature barrier disrupted in order to grow transplants or to direct seed into the garden. The best way to do this is to “pre-germinate” the seeds, so that the seeds are already sprouting when planted in the ground or seed trays for transplants. Pre-germinating can be accomplished by placing seed in a “rag doll”: a damp paper towel with seed placed in a row across the length of the towel, then rolling the seed up in it. Make sure the paper towel doesn’t dry out – some people will keep the end of the paper towel roll in a jar with a little water in the bottom so it can wick water. Or the paper towel can be stored in a plastic bag to keep it from drying out. After a couple of days in the refrigerator, check the seeds to see if the small embryo has broken the seed coat. As soon as that occurs, the seed should be immediately planted.

With a little planning, you can have a fall garden that can keep you in fresh produce into the year 2020. Not sure where to start? Stop by the N.C. Cooperative Extension, Richmond County Center at 123 Caroline Street, Rockingham. There you’ll find information on gardening, soil sampling and more. Happy gardening!