As you harvest the sweet corn, tomatoes, peppers, and melons during the heat of summer, it's hard to imagine the growing season wrapping up in a few months. However, you can extend your growing season far into the fall by planting some crops now to mature during those cool days to come. Some of the best fall crops are the brassicas, or cole crops, such as cabbage, broccoli, and kale. In fact, they taste even sweeter after being touched with a little cold weather.
The key is selecting varieties that mature quickly as the days shorten. Here are the best varieties along with some tips for getting them to produce right up until winter.
Broccoli Raab - This broccoli-family green, also known as rapini, is best harvested just as the flowers begin to form. You can harvest broccoli raab within two months after seeding. Try it sauteed with olive oil and garlic.
Small Miracle - This variety matures about 55 days after transplanting. The plants grow just 1 foot tall and wide, so it's easy to squeeze them into an existing summer garden.
Packman - A standard hybrid variety that produces heads 50 days after transplanting. If it stays warm enough into the fall, you may even get some side shoots.
Chinese Cabbage - Varieties such as 'Blues' and 'Michihili' mature quickly and are easy to grow. Heads form 60 to 75 days after transplanting. Its mild flavor make Chinese cabbage a good addition to salads and stir fries.
Early Jersey Wakefield - These solid, cone-shaped, greenish-white heads form 60 days after transplanting. Heads average two pounds when mature.
Golden Acre - This popular variety is easy to grow and matures 65 days from transplanting, producing three- to four-pound heads.
Like broccoli raab, kale can be eaten whenever the leaves are large enough to harvest, or you can wait until the plant fully matures.
Red Russian - This attractive variety has flat, gray-green leaves with purple veins. It grows quickly and matures 50 days from seeding.
Dwarf Blue Curled Scotch - Tightly curled blue-green leaves are produced on foot-tall plants. The full head matures 55 days after seeding.
Since hot weather and pests are plentiful in most areas in August, it's best to start your fall brassicas indoors or protected within a cold frame. Transplant the seedlings into the garden four to six weeks later. Stout, robust transplants are tougher and more resistant to insects and disease attacks, and to severe weather such as thunderstorms and high winds.
Select an area where you haven't grown broccoli-family plants this year. Amend the soil with compost, transplant seedlings, and water well. In hot regions, consider spreading shade cloth over the plants or erecting a barrier to protect them from the harsh afternoon sun.
Fertilize your transplants with a fast-acting liquid product to insure quick growth. For foliage crops such as kale and broccoli raab, focus on using a high-nitrogen fertilizer such as fish emulsion.
For cabbage and other broccoli varieties, apply a balanced fertilizer such as 5-10-5. Dry conditions in late summer can slow the growth of fall crops. Water regularly using a soaker hose or drip irrigation. Spread a cooling organic mulch such as straw, hay, or pine straw around plants to conserve moisture and slow weed growth.
By the end of summer pest populations are exploding. One of the reasons fall crops fail is that these hordes of pests attack them early and often. Keep aphids and white flies at bay by spraying insecticidal soap. Spray Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) to control cabbage worms and cabbage loopers. Check your plants daily and hand pick and destroy other insects such as Japanese beetles and grasshoppers.
In cooler areas, covering the brassicas with a lightweight floating row cover helps keep pests out. Be sure to check under the row cover periodically for any insects that sneak in under the edges.
Frogs in the Garden
Q. I see both small toads and frogs in my vegetable garden. Is this okay?
A. Consider yourself lucky! One toad will eat 10,000 to 20,000 insects per year, including flies, grubs, cutworms and grasshoppers. They eat slugs, too! Frogs are equally important, they just have smaller appetites. Protect and encourage your little pest patrols by placing small saucers of water throughout the garden for them to drink from, or by sinking a birdbath into the soil so they can drink and bathe. You can also leave broken clay flower pots upside down in the garden for them to hide under.