In the Garden:
Homemade tunnels are a simple, inexpensive way to extend the season for growing fresh vegetables.
More Food Longer
Even on hot, sunny days, there is an imperceptible change in the air, while at night there is no mistaking what the crisp coolness portends: autumn is just around the corner. Sure, the garden is still filled with bushels of tomatoes, green beans, corn, and squash, and canning kettles continue to bubble. But there's no doubt that it's time to think about the cool-season crops for the fall garden. Depending on your inclinations, this can be as simple as sowing some lettuce, radishes, and spinach for harvesting before the first frost. Or it can be as involved as creating some type of system that allows you to harvest fresh vegetables well into the winter.
Whatever you choose to do, the key to a successful fall garden is adapting to the current prevailing weather conditions. Last year my area had record high temperatures and no rain, and I needed to supply extra moisture and cover the plantings with shade cloth, while this year temperatures are moderate, rainfall abundant, and little extra care is required.
Following are some of my favorite cool-season crops, as well as suggestions of ways to extend the growing season.
Lettuce is at the top of everyone's list as it grows quickly and easily -- the garden's answer to our need for almost immediate gratification. The hardest part is choosing a variety. Because the butterhead types are so expensive in the grocery and taste luxurious as well, these are high on my list. Otherwise, I like to grow an assortment of leaf lettuces, focusing on the ones that are the most hardy, such as 'Reine des Glaces' and 'North Pole'. This is also a good time of year to plant other cool-season salad greens like arugula, corn salad, and mizuna.
Spinach is a versatile vegetable that provides nutritious greens, either fresh in salads or cooked. Although there are varieties somewhat resistant to bolting in summer's heat, in general spinach thrives best in cooler weather. 'Viroflay' is the hardiest of the spinach varieties, but many others will also provide greens in the fall. Then, if mulched or otherwise protected in the winter, they will resume growth during the first warm days of spring. Another green that has a similar growth pattern is Swiss chard. Never underestimate chard, as I've had plants that struggle during the summer, appear near-death during the winter, then flourish the following summer.
Kale, collards, and mustard are the backbones of the fall and winter garden -- easy to grow and very hardy. Plus, plantings that I've let go to seed have provided "free" greens. For color in salads or extra anthocyanins when cooked, try 'Red Russian' or 'Red Ursa'. If you want to be trendy, choose 'Black Tuscan', also called 'Tosacano', 'Dinosaur', or 'Black Palm'.
Broccoli and cabbage transplants can be set into the garden now, too. Either choose varieties that mature quickly, such as 'Early Jersey Wakefield', 'Parel', 'Point One', or 'Express', or ones that are particularly cold hardy like 'January King 3'. If you've taken good care of your broccoli plants (keeping them watered, fertilized, and free of cabbage worms), plus chosen a variety that has good side shoot production, then the plants will keep producing until heavy winter freezes. Well-tended Brussels sprouts, planted in the spring, will come into their own, with freezing weather enhancing their flavor.
Quick-growing regular radishes like the ubiquitous 'Cherry Belle', are a no-brainer for the fall garden, maturing in three to four weeks. Long-rooted and later-maturing Chinese or European radishes offer better cold hardiness along with a more intense flavor.
Almost as fast growing as radishes are the Asian turnips, which offer a wonderful, mild flavor that's great either fresh or cooked. There are more varieties of these than you might imagine, and they're great in salads. The more familiar two-toned turnip is hardier but requires a longer growing period than we have left.
Coverings That Extend the Season
When I was growing up, we relied on two relatively simple methods for extending the garden season: old blankets thrown over plantings on frosty nights in October, and a traditional wooden-sided cold frame topped with an old window. Over the years I've experimented with a great many other options, both homemade and purchased. The old-fashioned wooden cold frame, perhaps aided by some sheet insulation, remains a good choice for producing lettuce up to Christmas, and then again with an early spring planting.
My purchased options, which are basically variations on the cold frame theme, have met with varying degrees of success. First, there's the problem of expense. Then, some of the best frames did not have replacement covers available. If your garden is on a windy site, keeping them earthbound can pose problems. Of the various ones available, probably my favorite is a pop-up model with zippered doors.
What have ultimately worked best for me have been homemade tunnels. My fall-winter garden consists of raised beds, but the system works equally well otherwise. I use standard flexible 1/2-inch or 3/4-inch plastic plumbing tubing to form arcs at 3-foot intervals over the beds. The tubing structure is reinforced by inserting the ends of the tubing over 18-inch rebar stakes (available pre-cut at some home supply stores) that are hammered halfway into the soil. For longer beds, I attach a purlin with cable ties. This framework is covered with clear plastic kept in place with special clips designed for the purpose that are available from Territorial Seed Company (http://www.territorialseed.com). To close up the ends, I cut pieces slightly larger and use clips.
The framework stays in place year-round, in case I want to use shade cloth over the beds, but it is also easily dismantled. I put on the plastic covering around the time of the first fall frost and remove it in the spring. Once the weather turns colder, I add a frost blanket row cover directly over the vegetables. I recently read a useful piece of advice: Cut slits in the top of the plastic to allow for ventilation, and lift the frost blanket just above the crops with hoop support wires, since the frozen fabric can cause the vegetables to freeze.
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