As the weather cools after a long, hot summer, it's time to think about planting all those delicious greens that thrive when temperatures moderate. Lettuce, spinach, arugula, corn salad, mustard, and a variety of Asian greens are all great choices for a fall crops in many parts of the country. As the harvest of corn, tomatoes, zucchini, and other heat lovers wanes, these fantastic fall greens step in to keep your garden's bounty coming.
As an added bonus, greens are nutritional powerhouses, full of vitamins, minerals, and health-promoting antioxidants. In fact, nutritionists tell us that, calorie for calorie, dark leafy greens are just about the most concentrated source of nutrition of any crop you can grow.
Choosing What to Grow
The length of your fall growing season will depend on where in the country you garden. Gardeners in mild winter areas may even be able to grow successive plantings of greens throughout the fall and winter. Many greens tolerate some frost and will keep growing -- sometimes even improving in quality -- until quite late into the fall. Arugula, lettuce, spinach, corn salad (mache), mustard, Swiss chard, and hardy Asian greens like mizuna and taht soi take light frost (temperatures between 28 and 32 degrees F). Hardy kale and collards will survive even frostier temperatures, down to the low 20s.
Of course, if you provide your plants with some frost protection in the form of a cloche, row cover, cold frame, low tunnel, or even just some old sheets tossed over plants on a cold night, you'll be able to extend your harvest even longer.
To figure when to plant for a late harvest, check out the days to harvest listed on the seed packet of vegetables you'd like to grow. Count back from your desired harvest date, add another week to take into account the slower growth rate as days shorten, and you'll arrive at your planting date. In short-season northern areas, choose varieties with the fewest number of days to harvest.
Here is a selection of some of the hardy greens varieties we offer:
'Bloomsdale Long Standing' Spinach (45 days) -- This bolt-resistant variety has dark green, thick, medium sized leaves.
'Nobel Giant' Spinach (43-46 days) -- Vigorous plants are slow to bolt and produce huge, smooth, triangular green leaves.
Taht Soi (45 days) -- This mild-tasting Oriental green bears small, dark green, spoon-shaped leaves that are great in salads and stir-fries.
'Black Seeded Simpson' Lettuce (40-45 days) -- A leaf lettuce with large, upright heads of broad, frilled, light green leaves.
'Tendergreen' Mustard (40 days) -- Fast growing plants have smooth, oblong, dark green leaves with a mustard-spinach flavor.
'Dwarf Blue Curled Scotch' Kale (55-60 days) -- Compact plants are 12-15 inches tall and have tightly curled, blue-green leaves.
'Bibb' Lettuce (60 days) -- This small, early butterhead variety does best in cool weather and forms deep green heads with a yellowish-green heart.
Growing Greens in the Fall
Spinach: Popeye's pick makes a great fall crop in most areas. Spinach relishes the cooler weather, and decreasing daylengths don't trigger bolting. In cold winter areas, sow seeds about 8 weeks before hard frosts (below 28 degrees F) are due to hit. Southern gardeners can usually harvest spinach through December or even later in the warmest areas. Make successive sowings every 2-3 weeks throughout the fall.
Arugula: This peppery green is equally delicious in a salad or a stir-fry. Unlike spring-planted arugula, a fall crop won't bolt as readily and become bitter and unpalatable. Sow seeds every couple of weeks from late summer until about a month before hard frost. Give plants a steady supply of water for the best flavor.
Lettuce: Choose quick-maturing leaf and butterhead varieties. Begin planting in late summer and make successive sowings every couple of weeks, up until about 6 weeks before your hard frost date. If seeds are sown in a cold frame or under row covers, even northern gardeners may be able to add homegrown lettuce to holiday salads.
Corn Salad: Also called mache, this mild-tasting green is one of the hardiest you can grow. For fall harvests, begin planting successive crops in late summer, continuing until early to mid fall. Seeds may be slow to germinate (10-14 days). If given some protection, corn salad may be harvested into the winter. Plants may even overwinter for an extra-early spring crop.
Swiss chard: In mild-winters areas such as the Deep South, Southwest, and southern California, nutritious chard can be sown in late summer and fall for late fall and winter harvest. Gardeners throughout the Southeast may able to harvest well into the winter if plants are protected by low tunnels or cold frames.
Mustard: Spice up salads with the peppery bite of easy-to-grow baby mustard greens. In late summer to mid fall, plant either in a cold frame or directly in the garden.
Asian greens: Mizuna is a mild Asian green with a slightly peppery taste that can be added to salads or stir-fries. Sow seeds of this hardy crop in late summer to early fall. Taht soi is another cold hardy Asian green with a mild mustardy flavor and slightly crunchy texture. For fall crops, plant from midsummer up to about 5 weeks before your hard frost date.
Kale and collards: These hardy crops shrug off frosty weather. To harvest at full maturity, sow seeds about 10-12 weeks before fall frost. To pick kale as baby greens for salads, sow seeds in succession from late summer to mid fall, depending on your climate. Baby collard greens have a somewhat tougher texture that tastes best cooked, in stir-fries or soups.
Q: I live where the winters are cold and snowy. I've heard that spinach planted in the fall will overwinter under the snow, then grow in the spring for an early harvest. How do I do this?
A: Plant your spinach seeds in the late fall, just before the ground freezes. The seeds will lie dormant in the soil over the winter and sprout as soon as conditions are right in the spring. Often they'll germinate and grow when the ground is still too wet to be worked, which can delay spring planting. You may get a lower germination rate, depending on weather conditions over the winter, but if you're willing to take a bit of a gamble, you can often enjoy an extra-early spinach harvest from fall-sown seeds.
Another technique for early harvests is to sow spinach seeds about 6 weeks before your expected frost in the fall. The plants will germinate and make a little bit of growth. Before hard frost hits, cover baby plants with heavy-weight row cover fabric and keep the protection on over the winter. Remove the covering in early spring as plants come back into active growth. This will often give you about a six week jump on a spring-planted crop.