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My vegetable garden is still in summer mode, but before you know it, Jack Frost will be here and it’ll be time to start thinking about vegetable gardening for fall. Planning and protecting fall crops isn’t difficult, but it can take some time and materials. As I write in my book, The Year Round Vegetable Gardener, you can save time and money, and get a jumpstart on the autumn garden by following these simple tips in September:
Vegetable gardening for fall:
1 – Gather your materials:
As summer shifts to fall, my thoughts turn to straw bales. Why? Because I use these simple materials to insulate my root crops for winter harvesting. Once the hard frosts threaten in late autumn, I add a 1 to 1 1/2 foot deep layer of shredded leaves or straw to my carrot, parsnip, and celeriac beds. This is topped with an old piece of row cover to hold the materials in place and we harvest all winter long. In September and October, straw bales are everywhere. Take advantage and pick up a few at your local garden centre, or place an order for delivery (bulk pricing!).
Budget savvy gardeners may want to think about fall leaves. If you don’t have a property that gives you plenty of leaves, ask your family and friends if you can have their bagged autumn leaves. Asking now will make sure you have access to all those lovely leaves before they’re dumped on the curb for pick up.
2 – Assess your structures:
The majority of my late fall vegetable garden is protected with cold frames and mini hoop tunnels. Cold frames can be temporary, in the case of straw bale cold frames, or permanent structures. (Mine are 3 by 6 foot hemlock boxes topped with Lexan polycarbonate).
Don’t wait until the cold weather arrives and you’re in a rush to get organized! Early autumn is the best time to build new frames and assess existing ones (tighten any loose screws, clean dust and dirt from the tops). As well, you’ll want to make sure that you have all the materials you need to build mini hoop tunnels (I use 1/2 inch diameter PVC conduit for my hoops). To save time, I erect the skeleton of my tunnels over the garden beds in early Septemeber, so that they’re ready to go when the mercury dips.
3 – Inspect your covers:
Ideally, I try to clean the fabric row covers and plastic sheets that top my fleece tunnels in spring, right after they’re removed. But (ahem) sometimes, I get lazy or busy and it just doesn’t get done. Dirty fabrics and plastics don’t transmit optimum light, look dirty in the garden and deteriorate quicker, so if you didn’t clean them before you stored them, pull them out on a nice sunny day to assess their condition. I’ve been known to put my row cover fabrics in the washing machine on the delicate cycle, but you can also handwash them in a big rubbermaid tub or container. Then, hang them to dry.
Plastic sheets, on the other hand, should be laid out on a lawn (not a driveway as they may tear) and washed with a mop. I use a gentle dish detergent and water to clean the covers. Once the dirt is removed, leave them to dry in the sun. Once clean and dry, the fabrics and plastics should be folded and stored until you’re ready for them.
4- Clean up:
At this point in the season, most of my summer crops are still going strong, but some are definitely ready to be pulled out (I’m looking at you, broccoli!) It was good while it lasted, but when production slows to a crawl, it’s time to pop out those plants, clean up the bed, and amend with more aged manure or compost to get ready for the next round of planting.
5 – Keep planting:
Now that you have some free garden space (see tip #4), get sowing! There is still time to plant quick growing greens like arugula, spinach, lettuce, baby kale, mizuna, mustard, and tatsoi for fall harvesting. Even fast maturing roots crops like baby beets, Japanese turnips, and radishes can be sown now. Plant in both garden beds and cold frames.
BONUS TIP – A sneaky way to create an ‘instant’ fall garden is to dig up any volunteer kales (or lettuce, endive, tatsoi, mache, etc) that self-sowed in your garden and move them to beds and cold frames.
How are you vegetable gardening for fall?