By Marty Ross
It’s hard to believe that winter is coming around—but Midwestern vegetable gardeners have a lot to look forward to before the snow flies. Get started now and you can plant and harvest an impressive crop of fall vegetables.
If you’ve never planted a vegetable garden, fall might be a good option. The season is short but rewarding—and the bugs and blights that can plague summer crops seldom are problems. If you are a dedicated summer vegetable gardener, you know you shouldn’t neglect the fall season. Planting now, in late summer, extends your harvest into the holidays.
You can start with seeds. Spinach, lettuce, arugula, radishes and Swiss chard are easy to grow from seed in fall. Prepare the soil in a vegetable plot, removing any weeds that might compete, and sow the seeds in rows, spacing them according to the directions on the packet. Cover lightly with potting soil—the lighter color of potting soil helps you see where you sowed—then water well.
Keep the seeds moist by watering lightly every day or two until they germinate. Mark the rows of different seeds with labels.
Vegetable transplants are an even faster way to get started. Broccoli, cabbage, radicchio (one of my favorites), and many greens are available as transplants right now. Transplants are instantly gratifying, and they settle in fast and grow vigorously in cool fall weather. Every cell-pack of transplants is enough for a row in a typical raised bed.
You also can grow fall vegetables in pots. Leafy greens, such as Swiss chard, mustard and kale, are contented growing in containers. Plant them with a few marigolds or zinnias (see the pots on the patio, top) and you have a great-looking pot you can pick greens from for a couple of months. The dramatic red color of Swiss chard and beet tops accentuate the hues of autumn.
It’s a good idea to mulch fall crops to protect them from drying autumn winds and cooler temperatures. Start with a shallow layer of crushed autumn leaves or straw around your plants, and increase the mulch depth as the season advances and temperatures drop. In Kansas City, a well-mulched bed of greens can survive early frosts and produce a nice harvest beyond Thanksgiving. In fact kale tastes best after a light freeze: It brings out the sweetness in the leaves.
To protect your harvest from early cold snaps, experiment with lightweight fabric row covers (sometimes called frost blankets). Spun fabric covers, available at Lowe’s, offer about an 8°F buffer of frost protection. So if the garden temperature drops to 24°F, your crops under the frost blanket react as if it’s 32°F.
You can lay the row cover directly over your vegetables, or support it with hoops made from PVC pipe. Anchor the fabric with bricks or boards. When frost comes, your crops are tucked in just as cozy as you are in your own bed—protecting the harvest even as winter knocks at the door.
Fall offers a second lease on life for many edible gardens. Sometimes it’s even better for growing vegetables than summer. See what you can grow this autumn.Learn More