The cooler, shorter days of fall are upon us, and in most gardens the season is finishing up for heat lovers like peppers, tomatoes, and corn. But there's still plenty to look forward to in the fall food garden. Kale, leeks, Brussels sprouts, spinach and other hardy crops offer lots of good eating and many of these late season crops taste sweeter after a light frost. Fall is also a great time to do some simple tasks that can prolong your harvest, improve your soil and protect it over the winter, and reduce the likelihood of insect and disease problems next year.
Extend the Harvest
The length of your harvest season will depend on your climate and the type of protection, if any, you give your crops. Gardeners in mild winter parts of the country can continue to plant cool-season crops such as cabbage, carrots, lettuce, chard, and spinach through mid to late fall. Check with your local Extension Service to find the best planting times in your area. Gardeners in colder climates can use cold frames and low tunnels of heavyweight row cover fabric to give hardy crops some protection and prolong the harvest by weeks or even months.
Fall Vegetable Garden Tips
Finish Up the Tomato Harvest Once nights are consistently below 50 degrees F, it's a good idea to harvest any mature green tomatoes on the vine (those that are at least 3/4 of their mature size and have turned light green or white), even if the vines haven't yet been hit by frost. These tomatoes will ripen better indoors. But tomatoes that have begun to turn red will ripen at cooler temperatures and can be left on the vine until frost threatens.
Prune Brussels Sprouts If you'd like to encourage the sprouts on your plants to ripen together, pinch off the top couple inches of the plants. Plants left unpruned will continue to produce new sprouts until the weather turns quite cold, but they will be smaller. Clip off any yellowing lower leaves and keep plants watered if fall weather is dry.
Let Fall Frosts Sweeten the Harvest Kale, collards, and Brussels sprouts are super hardy crops that taste sweetest after they've been touched by light frost. But if a sudden, early cold snap is predicted, cover your plants as an abrupt drop in temperature can injure them before they have become acclimated to the cold.
Harvest Pumpkins and Winter Squash Before Frost Be sure to harvest pumpkins and squash before they are touched by frost or they won't store well. Select only the best specimens for storage, without bruises, broken stems, or rotten spots. Cut the fruits from the vines, leaving 2 inches of stem attached. Cure in a warm (70-85 degrees F is ideal), dry, well-ventilated spot for several weeks before storing cool (50-60 degrees F) and dry.
Plant Some Spinach Seeds Are you eager for a super early crop of spinach next spring? Sow spinach seeds in late fall before the ground freezes. The seeds will lie dormant in the soil until next spring, when they'll sprout as soon as the soil is warm enough with no effort on your part. You may get better germination some years than others, but it's worth the gamble for an early harvest.
Clean Your Cages Some organisms that cause disease on tomatoes, including those that cause bacterial spot, canker, and speck, as well as the fungus disease early blight, can be carried over from year to year on tomato cages and stakes. Prevent problems by cleaning off any soil or plant debris; then soak in a 10 percent household bleach solution for 5 minutes. Rinse and let air dry before storing.
Mulch Root Crops for an Extended Harvest If you live in an area where the soil freezes hard in winter, put down a 10-12 inch deep layer of mulch, such as clean straw, over the row of plants before the ground freezes, extending in out 18 inches on either side. This will let you continue to dig your carrots, beets, and parsnips late into the fall and possibly even into the winter months. Just pull back the mulch to harvest, putting it back in place when you're done.
Clean Up the Garden At the end of the season, remove plant debris and weeds that might harbor pests and diseases that could cause problems next year. A good fall garden clean up sets the stage for a more successful garden next spring.
Make Note of Crop Locations Keep track of what was planted where in your garden this year. This will make crop rotation planning easier for next year's garden. Rotating crops (and their relatives) to a new spot in the garden over a 3-year cycle helps to separate susceptible plants from soil-dwelling insects and disease-causing organisms that could linger from previous seasons.
Do a Soil Test Fall is a great time to test your soil and add any amendments needed to correct nutrient deficiencies or change soil pH. Contact your local Extension Service office for information on soil testing.
Cover Bare Soil After clearing the garden of plant debris, cover the soil with a protective blanket for the winter. Soil that is left bare over the winter is vulnerable to erosion from wind and water and to compaction from heavy rain. Cover soil with a thick layer of mulch. Fall leaves are usually plentiful and free and make a good mulch. To make them less likely to blow away, first run them over with the lawn mower, collecting the leaves in the mower's bag. Then spread the chopped leaves on top of the soil.
Prepare New Garden Beds Save your back by preparing new garden beds without stripping off the sod. Cut existing grass as short as possible, then spread a layer of compost several inches thick on top. Cover with a layer of newspapers 4-5 sheets thick, wetting the papers with a hose as you lay them down. Then top with a layer of mulch, chopped leaves, or more compost. By next spring the sod will have decomposed beneath its blanket, adding organic matter to the soil, and the bed will be ready for planting.
Q: I grew a bumper crop of cabbage this year. Can I store the heads over the winter?
A: For most gardeners, freezing is the best way to preserve a big cabbage harvest. Frozen cabbage won't be suitable for salads, but will taste great in soups and other cooked dishes. Start with firm, freshly picked heads. Trim off the outer leaves, then separate into individual leaves or cut into thin wedges or medium to coarse shreds. Blanch the cabbage for one and a half minutes in boiling water, cool quickly, and drain well. Put into appropriate containers and freeze. Cabbage can also be preserved by using it to make sauerkraut or kimchi.
Whole heads of cabbage will keep in the refrigerator for at least several weeks; possibly as long as a couple of months. Keep the outer leaves on the head and don't wash the cabbage until you're ready to use it. Store it in your refrigerator's crisper section in a vented plastic bag (poke a few holes in the bag). Heads of cabbage will keep for up to 6 months in cool (35- 40 degrees F), moist, dark conditions, such as those provided by an old-fashioned root cellar. Unfortunately, most modern homes don't offer such conditions, which generally makes freezing the best long-term storage option.