Fall Harvest, Winter Gardennig
Fall and Winter Gardening

Turning Summer Beds to Fall and Winter Gardens

We’ve looked forward to fall gardening, a second chance to get things right and improve on what did well in the early season.  Sweet potato and potato towers have been harvested. The sweet potatoes fared better than the potatoes, but not by much, and our potatoes in large pots or half barrels did better than the experimental potato towers.

Most of the tomatoes are history, except for the few extra pounds gained from all the delicious M & M (mater and mayo) sandwiches we enjoyed all throughout the summer.

We have now converted the straw bale block of tomatoes, grown in a cattle panel “cage”, into a fall garden of brassicas and chard. By the by, the tomatoes did quite well in this mega cage system. We just need a few less plants next year to reduce overcrowding, which can hinder airflow which can contribute to the spread of tomato blight.1)https://www.gardensall.com/tomato-plant-diseases-how-to-avoid-them/

So we pulled and burned the remains of any blighted plants. Broccoli, cabbage, kale and chard were planted in the composted remains of the straw bales. So far, so good!

homemade tomato cage, cattle panels for tomato cage
Mid-stage of the GardensAll Straw Bale Tomato Cage System
fall and winter gardens
The tomatoes done, cattle panels removed, we planted in what remained of the straw bales, rigged for row covers.

Eat Some Leaves too!

One bonus feature of the brassicas, is that you can pick the leaves as the plant grows to maturity. With moderation, of course. That goes for broccoli, brussels, and cauliflower, as well as kohlrabi. The greens can be eaten cooked like your favorite greens. We like them steamed, in stir fry, juiced or shredded into slaw. Most cruciferous greens rival the heads and florets in nutrition.

Which Vegetables for Fall and Winter Gardening?

Cool-season crops, such as kale, turnip, mustard, broccoli, and cabbage, tend to flourish during the cool fall days and they can withstand light frosts. In some cases, a frost can actually enhance the flavor of these crops. Here’s a timely guide to determine when to start planting your fall garden.

Kale and Mizuna (Japanese mustard) now occupy our mini-tunnel.
Red Russian Kale and Mizuna (Japanese mustard) now occupy our mini-tunnel.

Calculate Your Fall and Winter Growing Season

We’re including winter crops in this section, because depending on the growing zone, some of these can grow beyond fall into the winter gardening as well. We found a very helpful article for determining this.

Excerpted from article titled Fall Vegetable Gardening by Diane Relf, Extension Specialist, Horticulture, Virginia Tech

To calculate the time to plant a particular vegetable for the latest harvest in your area, you just need to know:

  • the average date of the first killing frost
  • number of days to maturity for the variety grown

Choose the earliest maturing varieties for late plantings.

The formula below for determining the number of days to count back from the first frost will help determine when to start your fall and winter garden.

Number of days from seeding or transplanting outdoors to harvest
+ Number of days from seed to transplant if you grow your own
+ Average harvest period
+ Fall Factor (about two weeks)
+ Frost Tender Factor (if applicable); 2 weeks*
= Days to count back from first frost date

*The Frost Tender Factor is added only for those crops that are sensitive to frost.

Frost Sensitive Crops

  • Corn
  • Bean
  • Cucumber
  • Tomatoes
  • Squash
  • Okra

Frost sensitive crops must mature two weeks before frost in order to produce a reasonable harvest. The Fall Factor takes into account the slower growth that results from cooler weather and shorter days in the fall and amounts to about two weeks.

The “Fall Factor” time can be reduced two to five days by pre-sprouting seeds.

Almost any crop that isn’t grown for transplants (transplants are full plants) can benefit from pre-sprouting. Sprout seeds indoors, allowing them to reach a length of up to an inch. Sprouted seeds may be planted deeper than normal to help prevent drying out, and they should be watered well until they break the soil surface. Care should be taken not to break off the sprouts when planting them.

For more on this, you can access a PDF titled Fall Vegetable Gardening byDiane Relf, Extension Specialist, Horticulture, Virginia Tech in this footnoted link.2)https://pubs.ext.vt.edu/426/426-334/426-334_pdf.pdf

Getting into Fall Gardening Mode

We started with our Garden Planner, sorting out what summer veggies were due for harvest and replacement. For example, the tomato “Compound” was an easy pick.

screen-shot-2016-10-09-at-1-45-37-pm
Our straw bale tomato block was planted in May and removed after major harvests in early September.
We then plugged in our Fall crops.
We then plugged in our Fall crops. This helped determine variety, timing, and spacing.

Note: For a comprehensive list of plants for Fall see the referenced footnote below from the University of Tennessee Agricultural Extension Service. 3)https://extension.tennessee.edu/publications/Documents/SP291-G.pdf

Preparing the Fall Garden

Preparations included cleaning up and in many cases, destroying by burning the dead, diseased, and dying plant remnants. We raked the beds and refreshed them with compost. Unnecessary structures were removed and supports were retrofitted for row covers (more on this later). The soaker hose system was reset and we left the timer on to keep the beds moist. It’s important not to let the soil dry out while transitioning to new plantings, as you need to continue to nourish the worms and organisms living there.

Keep soil moist in between plantings.

Row Covers

We planted our Fall crops in relatively mild weather, but then the daily temperatures headed back into the 90’s here in zone 7. The white gauzy row cover cloth was tented over the new beds affording some shade and helping retain the moisture. Since then, temperatures have moderated and the plants are off and growing strong. For temperature checks in the garden, we’re really liking our laser thermometer.

We put the row covers on now mainly to guard against insect invaders, but also remove the covers to air out the beds and inspect for slugs.

We’re using Easy Tunnel, Harvest Guard, and AgriBon, and all seem about equal. The Easy Tunnel is simplest for saving time constructing all the hoops yourself. Of course you pay a little more for that convenience, but when comparing costs, you should factor in all supplies plus your time to make it, epecially if you have less spare time, before deciding. 4)https://www.gardensall.com/simple-inexpensive-cold-frame-covers/

Later the cloth will be used to extend the growing season, and we hope to have time to graduate to creating a mini greenhouse with poly. The point is, it’s good to have structure in place that will allow for a quick cover as needed even though that pretty garden patch may come to resemble a tent city.

For more on greenhouses, we’ll footnote this article.5)https://www.gardensall.com/underground-greenhouse/

This is right after our first Fall planting. We've expanded with several more rows since then.
This is right after our first Fall planting. We’ve expanded with several more rows since then.

Tune into the Weather

As the season cools and if you still have tender crops like tomatoes, okra, peppers, and the like, keep tuned in to your local forecasts and be ready to fast-harvest those veggies which are frost intolerant. In light frost situations, you may try covering your tender plants with burlap, a box, blankets, baskets. or whatever you might have handy. For perennials, clip out the dead parts, top dress with aged manure or compost, and lay mulch down to minimize heaving of the soil during freeze/thaw cycles.6)https://www.gardensall.com/mulching-your-garden-how-calculate-how-much/

Fall Garden Clean up

Cut back the old bramble canes (like raspberry and blackberry), and you can tend to your strawberry beds as well, even digging and transplanting the nice looking runners. Place a generous cover of lightweight mulch over the bed (but take out any leftover weeds first).

Once your crops are tended, pull up all unneeded trellises, stakes, cages, and other support structures. Clean off any stuck debris and store in a protected place where they’ll be handily accessed in the spring. Bundle stakes and roll up wire trellises (if you can). Zip ties come in handy for this.

Compost the good, bag or burn the bad

The last phase of garden clean-up involves collecting all the remains of your plantings and disposing of them by bagging to have it hauled off, or burning (especially any diseased plants) if that’s legal in your area. You don’t want to leave disease or bug ridden remnants in your garden only to have them come back with a vengeance in the spring.  Also, you don’t want to have the same pests and diseases occupying your compost pile.

fall and winter garden, WINTER_PREP
Fall and winter gardening… clearing the beds and prepping the soil.

Now that you have a clean garden patch, it’s a great time to work in some organics like compost and well aged manure. Fork or till them in and let them go to work all winter building up the microbial activity in the soil. Add on shredded leaves, sawdust, wood chips or other organic matter. The cycles of freezes, thaws, and snow cover will also assist in integrating the organic material. It’s a fitting way of putting your garden to bed for the winter.

Winter garden wonderland, snow covered garden
A snow covered winter garden, in its season of rest.

Plant a Winter Cover Crop to Blanket Your Soil

Traditional farmers and some gardeners like to plant a cover crop as they head into Fall and Winter. These covers are best planted in early fall until several weeks before the first big frost so they can grow on a bit.

TIP: Sow cover crop seeds between your rows of fall crops as you plant them.

For the best type of cover crop in your area, check with the local farm ‘n feed store or your county’s Ag Extension service.7)https://pubs.ext.vt.edu/426/426-334/426-334_pdf.pdf

Popular Winter Cover Crops

  • Alfalfa
  • Barley
  • Buckwheat (frost sensitive)
  • Crimson clover (aka red clover; use cuttings for salads too)8)http://garden.org/ediblelandscaping/?page=september_cover
  • Fava beans
  • Field Peas (edible tendrils)9)http://www.highmowingseeds.com/blog/keep-it-covered-how-to-choose-fall-cover-crops/
  • Hairy vetch
  • Oats
  • Sorghum
  • Winter rye
  • Winter wheat

My wife and fellow GardensAll team member, LeAura, always tries to find multiple purposes for everything we do, so she favors the clovers and peas because these can also be harvested for salads along the way. We’ll be on the lookout for more of these dual purpose covers as we evolve in our growing journey. You can find more great info on cover crops at HighMowingSeeds.com.10)http://www.highmowingseeds.com/the-history-and-philosophy-of-high-mowing-organic-seeds.html

For expanded information on cover crops, we also enjoyed this article on Rodale.com.11)http://www.rodalesorganiclife.com/garden/cover-crop-basics

Equipment Care for Better Wear

Lest we forget to mention a very important part of your gardening success is your equipment. Hand tools, hoses, water systems, timers, tarps, wheelbarrows, and powered equipment… these are often the largest garden expenditures. They’ll last for years with proper care.

Coil and drain those hoses and hang them in a protected area out of the sun. Keep the sprinklers, hose nozzles collected in their own spot. Gather hand tools and clean the metal parts with a stiff brush, oil the wood handles, hang them or store them off the floor. Check the tires on you wheelbarrow, tighten any loose parts, put it where it doesn’t sit out in the elements collecting water. Clear and clean your garden sprayers of any residue or leftover material. Let them air dry with the tops off.

You know what to do, but if you need any more tips, there’s more at this article.12)https://www.gardensall.com/how-to-make-your-garden-tools-last-for-years/

fall garden, winter garden preparations, tool care
Garden tools put away clean is a delightful sight and makes your tools last longer.

Two Big Lessons:

  • don’t leave the battery in the lawn tractor connected if you’re not going to use it for several weeks or more
  • make sure the gas tank AND fuel line AND carburetor are empty. Ethanol laden gas will cause you much trouble down the road.

It’s also important to repair your equipment as you go along and be sure all gas and diesel-powered equipment has been winterized (follow the instruction manual).

There’s likely a lot more to do with the caring of your garden equipment. We’ve published an article on the topic. Our best advice is to create a checklist from what we’ve mentioned and then add on from there.

You’ll be so glad, come spring, that your garden and your equipment will be as ready as you are to get out there and start planting!


References   [ + ]

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Coleman Alderson is author of the Mountain Whispers series and frequent blogger on LittleRedPill.com. "I see myself as an outlier, a free-market entrepreneur, an eclectic reader and devout learner, a devoted family guy, a plantsman, a home designer-builder-remodeler, a conscious environmentalist, and a friend to humanity." He holds an MS from Penn State where his thesis centered on horticulture, park planning, design, and maintenance. "But nothing surpasses my 40 years of lessons from the field and garden. And the beauty of gardening is that those lessons never end!"