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Fall Planting for Winter Wealth

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I think all gardeners here in the Valley can agree that one of the best things about living here is that we have two very long gardening seasons. As I watch my Instagram friends from Montana to Maine wait patiently for their first and last tomato to ripen in between frosts, I feel blessed. Watching them struggle with an abundance of veggies in one short growing season makes me thankful for our temperate climate, which allows us to spread out our crops so we aren’t inundated with truckloads of zucchini and cabbage all at once.

Even still, if you’re like me, you don’t look forward to the end of summer, as you watch your cucumber plants dry up and crackle in the autumn breeze and the last of your tomatoes turn brown and wither after that first killing frost. The passing of the summer garden to desiccated vines and frost-bitten mush nearly sends me into a deep depression. The only thing that keeps me from jumping off a bridge is anticipation of my winter and spring harvest from my fall planting. Somewhere around the end of August, I begin thinking about what I want to plant and start surveying my garden space. Labor Day weekend is my cue to get out my seeds and take inventory. I have kept half-packages from the previous year in Ziplocks® in the fridge and replenish or add to my stock by picking up packs here and there and by browsing and shopping online at some of my favorite seed sites.

By the second week in September, I have laid all my fall seed packets out on the table, shuffled them around, making seed packet collages against the blue-checkered tablecloth, as I fondle each one tenderly. Multiple times. There is nothing quite like holding each packet in my hand, envisioning the little black and brown gems inside sprouting into prodigious green plants that will produce a winter’s worth of culinary goodness. And naturally, enough extra to tide my hens over until summer abundance. 

The big day finally arrives around the third weekend of September, which I have set aside for this particular purpose. Some gardeners have gotten a head start and are already heralding their little green sprouts. However, with many years of experimenting, I have found that planting fall crops such as broccoli and cauliflower too early will often result in bolting. This happens when weather conditions, generally warmer, induce the plant to prematurely produce a flowering stem before it is deemed ready for harvest. This is particularly true for most plants in the brassica family, since they grow and produce best in cooler climates. Sowing the seeds when the temps have dropped from the blistering 90s to the milder 80s normally ensures adequate warmth to speed and nurture germination, while at the same time promising the cooler weather the plants require to flourish.  

What do I plant in my fall garden? Of course, I have my favorites, which include cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, beets and kale, but there are also the fringe veggies, Romanesco broccoli, Brussels sprouts, turnips and bok choy. These I will add, depending upon factors such as space, time, motivation and whatever seeds I found on clearance at the end of last season. Swiss chard is also in the brassica family, but does well year-round in my gardens, so I have been known to sow it any time. The lettuces and arugula reseed continuously so I only help out when it becomes spare. Of course, I love spinach and always include it, but it tends to be temperamental, with spotty germination as well as a tendency to bolt. Carrots will languish in the ground for an eternity and will also reseed if allowed to flower. Endive also does well and can last a year or two, but eventually needs to be resown. Radicchio is fun to grow, but it needs very cold weather to sweeten up the bitterness. Collard greens can be delicious but only if allowed to mature in heavy frost.

And then there are the other cool-weather friends, the alliums and the legumes. The onions, leeks, garlic and garlic scapes generally get planted sometime around the first of November. In order for them to form those large, sweet globes, onions will need a safe and comfortable place until the end of May, so I plant them away from heavy traffic areas. I usually follow up with the fava beans and peas sometime close after. Some other plants one might consider are parsley and celery, which can hang on for a year or two, depending upon the care and conditions. 

Then there is the majestic artichoke, which can easily be started from seed, and about which I have been known to wax poetic. With the right amount of TLC, artichoke plants can produce an astonishing spring crop without having to be replaced for up to three years. I have some plants that have rewarded me for three seasons now and are well on their way to a fourth. I did lose a few to gophers this past summer and I have already replaced them with a purple Italian variety, which I picked up on end-of-the-season clearance at my local nursery. Although many gardeners are under the assumption that artichokes don’t do well here in the Valley, preferring the cooler coastal clime, they can adapt to our scorching summers if planted in a shadier area, kept mulched, well fed and watered. 

So don’t put your garden tools away just yet. Now is the time to take advantage of the plethora of seeds and plants out there, just waiting for a loving home. Let’s stop lamenting the end of summer’s bounty and sharpen up our hoes and trowels in anticipation of winter’s wealth and spring splendor. Happy fall planting from my gardens to yours!

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