Transitioning to the slow, easy pace of fall food gardening.
After the hottest summer in recorded weather history, I for one welcome the first hints of autumn with arms wide open. While I am grateful for the hard-won bounty of a summer punctuated by heatwaves and the new-phenomena 'slam harvests' (dozens of cucumbers/squash ripening quickly, all at the same time) that follow, I will be relieved to start preparing — mentally at least — for the shoulder seasons.
I have no illusions that a few marathon days (and nights) of gathering, photographing and preserving vegetables and fruit won't test my endurance and the muscles in my back, but I look forward to the ritual slow bits that happen in tandem — the mental list making, BBC podcast binging, pantry organizing, freezer editing, and seed sowing.
Seed sowing is a time-sensitive gardenhouse-keeping item that must be done more-or-less as prescribed, in time to allow plant DNA to respond to the temperature, moisture, chemical and mechanical queues necessary for germination. In plain English, follow the instructions on seed packets, and consider the advice of people like me who have made the usual (and unusual) mistakes at least once.
In most parts of the country it is absolutely not too late to sow seeds for fall and winter harvests. I have approximately 63 days before the estimated first frost date for my area — October 19th according to the Farmer’s Almanac. First frost occurred on October 23rd last year, which leaves me all sorts of latitude at my longitude.
If I make some simple and inexpensive accommodations to protect tender(ish) greens from frost and snow, and ensure that root type vegetables are mulched, I can be confident of harvesting straight through winter here in zone 7B on the west coast of the 49th parallel.
In a perfect world, I would have had my act together enough to stagger sowing, but life has been crazy busy, so with the exception of the Brussels Sprouts that went into the berry patch in May (more later on why I did that), I sowed in just two batches; a quick direct (in garden bed soil) mini sowing two weeks ago for carrots and all but two varieties of beets, followed by a marathon sowing of more-or-less everything else, three days ago in the greenhouse.
Many winter greens are ‘cut and come again’ sorts of vegetables, so I have plenty of wriggle room with respect to staggering and extending harvest dates. Many root vegetables store well in nature’s own refrigerator (very cold but not sodden soil), which adds yet another layer of convenience.
One of the reasons I like to sow seeds in small pots and cells in the greenhouse, is to a) control damage from pests like the dreaded cabbage caterpillars (moths fly in and lay eggs on brassica family plants), and b) I will know exactly how many seedlings I have to work with, come transplant time, and can therefore avoid blank space in the garden.
To mitigate potential single varietal wipe-out due to pest or environmental factors, and because winter vegetables tend to take up less room than summer vegetables, I planted a sampling of several varieties of most vegetable type. You absolutely don’t have to do this just be sure to choose a variety with a good track record for hardiness in your growing area. ‘Bolero’ carrots for example, are workhorses here where I live. Boleros store well in the cold ground, and are resistant to blight and mildew.
Inquire with a regional seed company, or check online, to learn about time-tested favourites for your area and zone.
My Fall & Winter Sowing List
Note plant names like Siberian, Winterkeeper, Icicle, and Avalanche, which indicate cold-weather preference or tolerance.
* Sown two weeks ago (all others planted this week) DTH = days to harvest
Root Type Veg
Carrots: Ya Ya Orange - DTH 65*
Carrots: Bolero Pelleted Orange - DTH 75*
Carrots: Chantenay Dwarf Orange - DTH 95*
Beets: Touchstone Gold - DTH 53
Beets: Winterkeeper Red - DTH 60
Beets: Avalanche White - DTH 50*
Radish: White Icicle - DTH 30*
Radish: Red Rido - DTH 60*
Radish: Italian Globe Red - DTH 50*
Radish: Wasabi Green/White - DTH 60*
Radish: Mini Red Daikon - DTH 40*
Radish: Mini Purple Daikon - DTH 40*
Radish: Miyashige White - DTH 60*
Turnip: Tokyo Cross White - DTH 40*
Turnip: Purple Prince - DTH 55*
Broccoli Rapini: Zamboni Raab - DTH 45
Broccoli Sprouting: Red Spear - DTH 196
Brussels Sprouts: Gustus - DTH 180
Pac Choi: Jade Spring Green - DTH 35-45
Arugula: Astro - DTH 30-40
Butterhead Lettuce: Tom Thumb Green - DTH 50-60
Endive: Italian Dandelion - DTH 65
Escarole: Natacha Green/White - DTH 50
Chicory: Puntarelle Green/White - DTH 50+
Chicory: Sugarloaf Green/White - DTH 65
Chicory: Catalogna Green/White - DTH 60
Kale: Winter Blend Green/Red - DTH 50-70
Kale: Dwarf Curly Siberian Green - 50-60
Kale: Stone Pelleted: Green/Purple - DTH 60+
Miners Lettuce: Claytonia Green - DTH 55
Mustard: Komatsuna Green - DTH 20-40
Mustard: Mizuna Green - DTH 45
Mustard: Kyona Mizuna Red - DTH 20-40
Radicchio: Chioggia Red/White - DTH 50
Radicchio: Palla Rossa - Red/Green/White - DTH 65
Rapini: Frank’s (broccoli rabe) - Green - DTH 40-45
Romaine Lettuce: Parris Island Cos Green - DTH 70+
Spinach: Seaside Green - DTH 25
Spinach: New Zealand Green - DTH 60
Swiss Chard: Celebration Rainbow - DTH 60
In the greenhouse, I’ve sown seeds in re-used six cell packs with drainage holes, set into solid bottom trays. The cells are quite deep, which means I don't have to water as frequently as I might have to with shallow or compostable pots. The soil is primarily finely sifted organic compost, with sand, fine wood fibre, and worm castings added to it A small amount of horticultural perlite aerates and helps retain moisture. I keep the mixture in a galvanized lidded bin in the shade, close at hand to the greenhouse.
After two months of virtually no rain and three truly devastating heat waves, the weather has cooled somewhat due to light cloud cover punctuated by the odd light shower. The temperature inside the greenhouse ranges from 75F to 85F, and I’ve kept a fan going to keep air circulating through bug screened windows at either end. An inexpensive piece of 40% shade cloth has been draped over the roof.
The first seeds to germinate were the mustard greens and romaine lettuce. I sowed multiple seeds per pack, which means that once the wee seedlings are an inch or so high, I will identify the strongest plant per cell, and either cut the others down to soil level, or ‘prick them out’ and transplant them to their own small cells.
I seed-saved arugula and rapini myself this year, taking advantage of a dry and breezy section of arbor that passes beneath a huge spruce tree in the front garden. I early spring, I potted and transferred a half dozen each arugula and rapini plants to a sheltered area behind the greenhouse, waiting for seed pods to form before hanging large bouquets to dry for several weeks. The cracking open of the seeds pods in the relative cool of the evening, was welcome therapy after too many long hot days.
I find it helpful to include the planting date plus days-to-harvest (DTH) on the plant tag, along with the varietal name. If growth is interrupted or retarded in some way, I can check actual progress against expected progress and make adjustments if needed. If seeds perform poorly, I make note for next year.
This year, unlike any previous, I am using a locally made soluble organic seedling starter nutrient made from bat guano (poop), digested vegetable meal, and sea kelp. The all natural ratio of nitrogen, phosphate and potash is very gentle at just 1-1-2 (percent by volume, per element). I am not sure what to expect weather-wise these next few weeks, and am hopeful that the nutrients will give the seedlings added protection from sudden stress if needed.
The carrots were sown in two garden locations — in one of the raised early potato beds, where half-size Chantenay, Ya-Ya, and Bolero carrots grow in three long rows, as well as in the latent space on either side of the berry patch. For comparison purposes, I planted Chantenays in both locations so that I could observe differences in growth habit.
Already, it appears that the seedlings planted in the less compact soil of the raised beds have an advantage. It is almost certain that none of the carrots will reach full size before first frost, but that is intentional, as we love the size and sweetness of small carrots — perfect for roasting and for eating straight out of the ground. Depending on yield, I may pickle some carrots as I did last season with the Boleros.
A second raised bed was sown with short rows of seven varieties of radishes and two varieties of turnips. They vary in days to harvest, ranging from 30 to 60. We will be eating some fresh, but pickling most as my family loves adding the crunchy kimchi-spiced slices to sandwiches and salads.
Always, when I thin carrots and root vegetables, I save the pulled or cut greens for salads. Very often, summer dinner consists of a grilled piece of fish set upon sliced cooked potatoes, set upon a bed of crunchy fresh salad made from garden thinnings. I advocate cutting plants to soil level when thinning, but leaving the roots intact really boosts the nutritional value of the tiny plants.
Soon I will be covering the two raised beds with light row cover to protect the vegetables from hungry rodents. I’ve seen nibbles on French Breakfast radishes sown here and there in empty spots throughout the garden — a clear sign that pre-emptive, preventative measures are necessary. Last season, we lost all of our rutabagas to ravenous nibblers. Both climate change and irresponsible use of rodenticides (rodent poison) are responsible for a noticeable imbalance in the raptor-rodent populations.
People don’t like talking about mice, rats, moles, and other rodents, but for sure we must. I have been talking to experts on the subject and will be writing all about it in weeks to come.
I planted white Avalanche beets in a large terra cotta pot on the back patio, heavily mulched to help reduce heat and retain moisture. They have grown quickly over a relatively short period of time, though I did notice a deliberate pause during the last heat wave while the plants did very little but hold their ground.
Last year I grew entire beds full of beets in consecutive sowings through the summer, but this year I relegated most of that space to experimenting with vertically trellised squash and pumpkins. I will miss roasting and preserving volumes of homegrown beets, but I know that I can purchase a bulk bag of lovely organic beets from the farmers’ market. I hope so anyway; the hundreds of wildfires raging throughout the interior have seriously impacted farmers.
Most of the winter greens will be transplanted into the three large raised beds that have been retrofitted with cold frames. Last fall I was late in sowing winter greens, but still I was cutting greens almost daily straight through the winter and early spring. At this latitude, daylight hours shorten quickly, and the temperature follows suit, so getting an earlier start this year will make a considerable difference.
We receive a total of 2000 or so ‘sunhours’ annually here, with July and August delivering almost 30% of the total between them. November, December and January are definitely darkish, offering just 3% or so of the annual total of sunhours per month. September sunhours max out at 12% though, making it an important period of transition.
Also this month I will be storing our potatoes in damp sawdust, in aerated bins, in the cool and dark garage. Last year I stored potatoes, beets and sweet potatoes in wicker baskets between layers of newspaper, but it wasn’t the ideal solution. I have been considering hemp fibre as an alternative to sawdust, but I haven’t quite decided. More later on the subject.
I’ve been cutting out dead and dying leaves from trellised squash, leaving the fruit to full ripen and cure on the vines. It’s hard to tell where heatwave damage ends, and end of season die-back begins. I know for certain though that this summer was manyfold harder than last, and that I will be making many changes next year to get a jump on what is sure to be another hot, hot, and dry summer.
Already, I’ve developed a new drip irrigation plan for all raised planters and the new hugelkulture bed. I will triple-mulch from the outset with clean straw, and I will add moisture retaining materials like wool and hemp fibre to any new beds and top-ups of compost.
Two of four new rain barrels will be installed this month, and I will use the water to irrigate as needed in the greenhouse over the winter and all throughout the spring. I calculate that over 200,000 gallons of rainwater fall off of our roof over the course of a year — a huge natural resource that we should be harnessing to much greater affect. More later on this subject also.
I did not get to the installation of the keyhole garden, specialty mushrooms gardens, or sod covered in-ground root cellar that I had on the calendar for this season. I didn’t anticipate the extra time burden that extreme weather would impose both on my garden, and on the off-site demonstration project I undertook this year. I hope to break ground on one or more of my own projects this fall, but if I don’t, I will be standing in the cold rain of March, digging in the mud, grinning broadly.
I have been oven-drying tomatoes throughout the summer, and freezing them in reusable containers. Typically I hot water process many large cases of San Marzanos and/or Roma tomatoes in glass jars, but the crazy weather and endless wildfires have wreaked havoc on crops. I have my fingers crossed that I will soon get the call to action from favoured growers. When that happens, I will be head down rain or shine in the outdoor kitchen, blanching, peeling and canning tomatoes for the year.
Also this month I will be cutting masses of herbs form the herb spirals, and basil from the tomato beds to make several dozen containers full of mixed herb and walnut pesto for freezing and for sharing. Inevitably, during the early weeks of fall when I clear freezer space for dried tomatoes and pesto, I use remnant vegetables from the freezer to make vegetable stock, and vegetable soups for sharing and re-freezing in quart containers. This garden-inspired circle of life and sustenance is fundamental to the health and happiness of our family.
I am reflecting on the title that I gave this piece, wondering why I implied fall would be slow and easy. It isn’t, truth be told, but it is different and cooler, less urgent, and much less stressful than summer. Winter is easy. I revel in all of it, grateful for the opportunity to grow highly nutritious food for my family, and for the opportunity to help others grow food for theirs.
There is nothing I do that cannot be repeated, perfected, improved upon, re-interpreted and re-imagined in small spaces, in climates far less extreme than ours. The preservation piece in particular is something that everyone should consider when visiting green grocers, farmers’ markets, even chain food stores. Look for value priced bulk bags and baskets of carrots, beets, potatoes, even tomatoes, and invest some time in preserving them. Not only will you save time and money directly, but you will be reducing food waste and CO2 emissions.
So there you have it, my imperfect, haphazard, on-the-fly, not sow simple plans for fall. I invite you to join me next week for a glimpse into how it is all coming together, or not.
Until then, happy gardening!