By Marty Ross
Fall is a great time to be a vegetable gardener in the Midwest. The temperature is pleasant, the bugs mostly are gone, and after the hard work of summer vegetable gardening, cool-season crops are a snap.
The folks at my community garden in Kansas City have taught me a thing or two about fall vegetables. Garden-ready transplants give you a chance to raise an impressive fall garden of greens, cauliflower, and broccoli. Set them out in the garden as soon as they are available, and you can harvest until November or beyond, especially if you use a lightweight fabric row cover for protection from heavy frosts.
Last year I planted kale, collards, and Swiss chard transplants in early September, just as the weather turned. A thick straw mulch held the moisture in the soil, protected the plants from cold winds, and virtually eliminated weeds. Kale, collards, and radicchio are cold-tolerant plants you can count on even after a frost. In fact low temperatures take the bitter edge off escarole and radicchio, and add sweetness to kale. I never had any problems with bugs or blights, and I picked delicious greens all the way through December, by which time I had to bundle up warmly to get out in the garden.
When I visited my sister in Madison, Wisconsin, last fall, a trip to her local community garden proved that fall crops are not just for the lower Midwest. Gardeners in Madison had flourishing plots even in sweater weather; they were picking beautiful beets and Brussels sprouts, lots of ripe red peppers, and even pattypan squash in early October.
Growing vegetables from transplants is a great way to get a quick start on a fall garden. But if transplants are not available in your area, it’s not too late to start from seed. Radishes, arugula, spinach, lettuce, and beets come up fast and produce a good fall crop.
I never worry about whether the beets have time to mature. Beet tops are one of my favorite fall salad greens, and they are good even when they’re small. You can harvest some radishes after just three weeks. Lettuce plants cannot tolerate truly cold temperatures, but they last surprisingly well into fall—and you enjoy the freshest baby lettuce salads in the neighborhood before cold weather puts an end to the salad season.
Of course gardeners everywhere tend to leave in their tomato plants as long as possible: The last ripe tomatoes are precious. Stripping leaves off the plants may encourage a few more fruits to ripen before the first hard frost, but don’t wait until low temperatures freeze what’s left of the crop.
Fall is green tomato season. Last year my friend Kristopher and I picked our tomato plants clean at the end of October. He made pickles with our bright-green cherry tomatoes, and I took a handful home and fried them to savor the last warm taste of summer. My fall garden was up and growing, and I still had a lot to look forward to.
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