The Joys of Fall Vegetable Gardening

How to make the most of your garden when the weather gets cold

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So now it's getting cold and dreams of spring and fresh vegetables are distant, right? Maybe not! I've observed in my 65 years of gardening in various climates around our country that most gardeners lose their passion after the first frost. However, I have found that the fall vegetable garden is almost sweeter than spring! Just as we become resigned to a bleak cold season of canned/frozen/shipped from wherever tasteless vegetables, there is a missed opportunity for quite a variety of cool weather tolerant vegetables. Around the end of August or early September when many people abandon their gardens, it is time to start fall crops. I always plant about four string bean crops spaced about 3 to 4 weeks apart, yielding a constant supply of fresh beans - the last of which should be ready just as we are ready for our first fall frosts.* As my bean crops mature I am planting my cold season veggies – lettuce, mustard, broccoli, kale, collards, Chinese cabbage, Swiss chard, peas, onions and others. Each year is a bit of a gamble – never knowing how many crops will survive the onslaught of cold weather, and each year I've been rewarded with at least some of these crops – often almost until Christmas. In good years many even overwinter and I can pick greens until spring crops are ready!

The pictures above show my fall garden at the end of October and again at the end of November. The pole beans lasted until mid November, and the other crops are still maturing and being harvested as of this writing – peas, kale, chard, lettuce, mustard, collards and root vegetables! Note that I leave my root crops in the ground and dig them up as needed, and/or mulch them to dig up later (Mother Nature provides me a free refrigerator).

I cannot emphasize enough the pleasure of fall gardening. Fresh produce almost year round is possible in some of our local micro-climates. And I have not even mentioned all of the magnificent fall squashes that can be harvested around frost time (and, believe me, pumpkin is the least of these – most fall squashes beat pumpkin for flavor and long keeping properties).

* I have to admit that there is no magic predictor of this highly variable date. For Deenie and me, living in a “thermal zone” it tends to be in early to mid November; for many of you it will be earlier.

** However, early frosts can be dealt with by covering crops with old sheets, etc. The beauty of this part of the country is that there are almost guaranteed to be some warm plant growing days for many weeks, often extending into December (just look at the weather this week!).

*** As a further footnote – our local geography is such that we have numerous micro-climates - largely determined by elevation. The general rule of thumb is that for each 1,000 feet of elevation increase the temperature decreases about 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit. However, since cold air is heavier, it can concentrate in our valleys, creating frost pockets, while slightly higher areas remain warmer (especially at night). Deenie and I experience this local phenomenon, as we often see temperatures at Painters Greenhouse 10-20 degrees lower than ours at night - thus the designation “Thermal Zone” for some of the local areas like where our home is located at about 1,900 ft elevation.

I just harvested this gorgeous Chinese cabbage and cooked it up for a going away/retirement party for our beloved staff member Dustin. Apparently (despite my concerns over my cooking finesse), it was much appreciated!